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Back to the Future: The HP 3000, Then

3000 Back to the Future

Yesterday was "Back to the Future Day" in much of the world's culture, the day on the time-traveling Delorean's clock when Marty McFly landed in 2015. Steve Cooper of Allegro posted the tribute screen capture above on a Facebook news feed. Yes, it's been more than 30 years since the legendary film's story was unveiled. The weekend of July 4th marked the premeire. Here's a few things that we knew that summer about the HP 3000.

Adager CubeThere was a bit of fuss over SQL coming out of the 3000 community. Alfredo Rego used his keynote spot at that spring's SCRUG user conference to call out the creators of the Structured Query Language. After all, IMAGE used structured queries, too. What were keys, anyway — chopped liver? Oracle couldn't see the profit in porting its database to the HP 3000, because as one VP asked me, "You want us to port to a computer that ships with its own database?"

The HP Spectrum Project — the HP Vision Project revamp of the 3000, restarted — was more than two years away from delivering an underpowered Series 930 to launch the 3000's PA-RISC computing. That fundamental tech for MPE/XL, and then MPE/iX, wouldn't start its life on any HP server until 1986, when it would debut on HP-UX. The HP 3000 could boast of two books in 1985: The IMAGE Handbook, and Thoughts and Discourses on HP 3000 Software. Everyone carried the MPE Pocket Guide.

Terminator-IIA 404-MB disk drive, the 7933, was a big honking storage device. It was shipping with a flaw in its head manufacture that was going to push thousands of them into a service recall by the end of the year. (In 1992, a dozen of them were put into total recall in Terminator 2, when they were destroyed in the battle with Cyberdyne Systems security forces.)

HP 3000s connected to terminals and to PCs, although neither of HP's PCs used MS-DOS. The HP 110 was "The Portable Plus" and the HP 150 was "The Touchscreen Computer," and both relied on CP/M. The Portable Plus displayed data on a screen 80 characters wide and a full 24 lines deep. Walker, Richer and Quinn connected 3000s to PCs using its PC2622 software. Later on, the product would be called Reflection.

HP DeskManager connected Hewlett-Packard offices around the world, using what was not yet called electronic mail. The Desk network was believed to be in excess of 30,000 addresses. Long-distance networking was offered only through X.25 protocol. Even in 1985, this was called "the cloud." TCP/IP was just approved for use on the ARPANET. DS/3000 ruled 3000-to-3000 networking. Symbolics had just registered the world's first commercial Internet domain name.

Plotters gave HP 3000s the ability to produce color business graphics. Like all other HP peripherals, they ran best and fastest using HP-IB connections, the bus created for HP's instruments. More than 1,000 copies of HP's TDP/3000 word processor were in use.

HP Support modems blazed along at 2400 baud. That was 2,400 symbols per second, or even fewer bits, with wires required at every step. The Portable PC included a built-in 300 baud modem and was considered a superior office tool. The average modem was 100,000 times slower than today's 802.11ac wireless routers.

The HP 3000 top of the line in 1985, the day that Back to the Future rolled out, was the Series 68. It was a $186,000 computer that could be upgraded to 8 MB of memory, supported up to 400 users, and topped out at just under 10GB of disk storage. Or disc storage, as the literature of the day preferred to call mass storage.

One year into the future, HP took note of the 20,000th HP 3000 shipped. PA-RISC and MPE/XL would soon be entering a run of more than 30 years of service. In 1985, those Series 68 users wanted that run to start even sooner, because their data processing needs were growing. It was called DP, not IT, way back before the future.