So now it's 50 years
November 1, 2022
It was something of a gamble 50 years ago, but Hewlett-Packard rolled out its first HP 3000 servers this month in 1972. "November is a Happening" banners — probably printed out on mainframe greenbar paper — hung on the walls and cubicle dividers of the factory in Cupertino. This was an HP that still put out doughnuts for its engineers (exclusively male) and hosted beer busts on Friday afternoons.
One of the best sources for stories of this era of the 3000 is Bill Foster's TeamFoster website. He's got more than 15,000 words of reporting and commentary about the HP of 1969-1976. The 3000 became known as Omega inside the labs, a more advanced design than the Alpha model preferred by Bill Hewlett.
They had two new computers under development, code-named Alpha and Omega. When completed, Alpha was going to replace HP’s existing minicomputer line, the HP 2116. But Alpha was just Omega’s little sister, and Omega was going to knock the socks off the industry. Everything about Omega was new and state-of-the-art — the iPad of the day. So naturally all of the engineers wanted to work on it -- nobody wanted to touch Alpha.
Omega was just too ambitious for the hardware of the era. The operating system of 50 years ago was the unique flavor that HP added to the minicomputer mix of the seventies. HP canceled the Omega operating system and fell back on Alpha. The computer system was troubled from the start, bad enough that HP recalled those servers it first shipped. As many of them as they could get back, anyway. HP offered the customers a 2116 in exchange, and at no cost.
Foster says the savior of the System 3000, as HP called it in the early days, was Mike Green.
MPE was the most complex part of the computer and it was a disaster. Because of MPE, customers began shipping their 3000’s BACK to HP -- that was definitely the wrong direction.
Mike agreed to save MPE, and after a week or two we were ready to present his plan to Paul Ely. Mike stood up in a room full of important people and gave the pitch. It was a great plan, and Mike said we would be out of the woods in about five months. When he finished his presentation, Ely said, “Are you telling me five months because that’s what I want to hear, or is this really what you think will happen?” Mike looked at Paul in a dismissive manner. “I’m saying this because it’s going to happen. Why would I say anything just to please you?” For once Ely was speechless. There was dead silence as we left the room. And five months later MPE was working.
Foster's reporting is long enough to be a third of a nonfiction book. It's only available on his website, though. With free beer, and nothing but men behind terminals building an OS, the tale might as well be from another planet. Successors of that hardware and software are running today. Gavin Scott, who noted the 50th birthday, tends to an emulator of the original design. It's a turn-key setup "which will let you have your own 1980-vintage HP 3000 system up and running in a couple minutes."
Fifty years is close to a lifetime for human beings. It’s a span in the computer industry that feels like aeons. All along, it’s been MPE to carry that seventies technology into the third decade of the twenty-first.
Considering how an emulator can elevate an elder technology into orbit, MPE might live forever.