From: Flash Corliss, Saturday, February 09, 2013
Hello, my name is Flash Corliss, and I just recently became a Pro-Log fanboy. Over the years, I have been collecting Pro-Log programmers and STD computer cards off of eBay. Wonderfully built stuff.
Which got me thinking; “Where did Pro-Log come from?” I know the story of Microsoft, Intel, Apple, IBM, and HP, but not of Pro-Log. I know it was bought out by Motorola, and then they killed it a few years later, but the beginning is a bit of a mystery.
I have some brochures and owner’s manuals that paint a very capable engineering company – but nary a word of backstory.
Using Google, I was to find you and Matt Biewer (I don’t have his email yet). From what I can gather, you and he founded Pro-Log in 1972 (friends?). What was your first product? How did you meet Matt? Did you always want to run a company (CEO)? Did you and Matt get along and remain friends before/during/after the sale to Motorola? Why did Motorola discontinue the Pro-Log brand?
Anyway, tons of questions. You may not have the time to tell me your story – so is there a history book somewhere? I know Matt wrote a PLS-400 Designer’s Guide (would love to get a copy). Did you write anything at Pro-Log? Did he write anything else besides the Designer’s Guide? I have his name on some of the schematics I have in my collection, did you design anything? Is there a repository of all things Pro-Log (i.e. do you have any Pro-Log paraphernalia lost in your garage – I could give them a new home)?
I think at the very least a Wikipedia page should be written, and I don’t mind doing it if you don’t have the time. Also, who would have the latest firmware (like for the PM9080 plugin module for the M-980 programmer)? These programmers are still used for the Vintage Computer crowd… I was toying with the idea of fabricating a USB interface for them so that they could be used with today’s newer computers. I hate seeing these programmers tossed in the trash heap because people think they can’t be used anymore.
Thanks for your time reading my ramblings. I hope we can start up a conversation and take a trip down memory lane. Invite Matt, it will be fun.
From: Edwin Lee Sunday, February 10, 2013 2:22 PM
Thanks for your email. You ask a host of great questions, most of which I will answer in due time. Am winding up a vacation in Hawaii today, flying back to Oregon tomorrow, so just this short email to let you know I got yours and will reply later. I wrote many things while at Pro-Log, and continue to write now. For several years, in the early 80’s we published a monthly newsletter to our customers in which I wrote a management column. Some of the essays are on my web page at www.elew.com. That also contains some info on my background and on Pro-Log. I don’t know why Motorola dropped the Pro-Log brand, but it might interest you to know that back in the 70’s when Motorola developed the VME bus, their engineers used documentation and standardization ideas we had pioneered. More on that later.
I have no idea what Matt is doing these days. I haven’t seen him or been in contact with him since 1997. Your questions about our relationship cannot be answered well in just a few words…. It is a long and complex history that goes back to Burroughs ElectroData in Pasadena.
What got you interested in our products and in Pro-Log? I’ve saved some of the early documents. Have extra copies you might be interested in.
From: Flash Corliss Wednesday, February 13, 2013
I hope the vacation was festive and that you don’t have much jet lag.
I was 5 when Intel announced the 4004, and didn’t have a clue about the early 4 and 8 bit computers. Our South Texas town didn’t get much in computer news. At 13, I bought (with my own lawn boy money) a TRS-80 Color Computer. My dad thought it was a toy, but it was a tool for this young future computer guy. Over the years I acquired several other TRS-80′s, and in college, I got my first IBM PC clone. I had had the assumption that the IBM PC was the first PC. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I got my education straightened out.
The Internet is awesome for doing research, and the more I looked, the more I found. I decided I’d start my journey at the first microprocessor, instead of going back in computer time to the Mini’s, the Main’s, or the EDVAC’s. Those are great eras in the computer timeline, but the Intel 4004 seemed like the best place to start to become an expert in all things 4 bits and up. I already grew up with DOS, BASIC, and assembly, so how much more would I need to learn from the 4004 to the 8086?
Apparently a lot. There is the whole S-100, CP/M era that I knew nothing about!
So for Christmas a few years back, my wife bought me an Altair clone from a guy in Alaska. It was a wonderful kit, but its EPROMS were 1702A’s, and there is no modern programmer that can program them. More research revealed the Pro-Log programmer, and I ordered one on eBay.
Super nice device. However, it had corroded batteries, and its memory boards were shot, but I did get it functioning. In fact, the Pro-Log programmers were more fun to play with than the Altair (which I haven’t finished yet). Then I found out that the M980 that I had used an Intel 4040 4 bit processor, and the M900 used the Intel 4004. Sweet!
Long story short, there isn’t much about Pro-Log available online. Herb Johnson has a collection of Pro-Log documents, but he wants 20 cents a page, which gets pricey after a while. So, I have been on a quest to find Pro-Log paper copies elsewhere. That search led me to you.
I have ten or so M980′s, nine M900′s, three 1702A plugins, 20+ STD cards, 4 cages and power supplies, and one PLS-411 card (pre-STD) – and most of this collection has been refurbished and is 100% functional (with the latest firmware). I don’t have an M810 – that would be awesome. I also have an 8085 diagnostic kit, but was beat out on eBay for the 4004 version of the diagnostic kit.
I am not sure if you remember, but which came first: the PLS-400 series, or the 810 Programmer? The 810 looks like it has PLS cards in it, so did you build the 810 and decide the sells its cards on the side. Or did you create the PLS-400 line, and then build a programmer around it. As best as I can tell, in the 70′s for programming the 1702A EPROM, your choices were either the DATA I/O or the Pro-Log.
For me, the Pro-Log was preferred. Thank you for building such a wonderful device.
It is my intent to rewrite the EPROMS in these programmers to give them a new purpose (maybe a clock or something). I have noticed that there are many 8 bit trainers (SYM, KIM, AIM, MARK-8), but there aren’t any 4 bit ones. Wouldn’t it be cool to use a Pro-Log M900 or M980 as a 4040 or 4004 trainer?
From: Edwin Lee, Thursday, February 14, 2013
As I ponder how to answer your questions, I realize it will take many days, most of them fun and a few of them painful. I’ll answer some of your questions in any case, but I’d like to propose a condition for going through the whole enchilada and for sending you some old documents at no cost to you. That is, that you will permit me to post your emails and my replies on my blog for others to read. You can go offline with specific questions or comments at any time. Furthermore, I’d like you to review, a month or so down the road, some essays I’m writing about autonomous systems.
The back story of Pro-Log is probably unique in hi-tech. Matt and I started the company so that we could raise our families (he had 6 kids, I had 5) in a healthy place. We lived in Southern California in the Pomona area, choking in smog. Six months after starting the company we began a process of deciding where to move, and 3 months later moved to Monterey! That move nearly broke up the company. For one thing, Matt wanted to go to Santa Cruz instead of Monterey.
The initial funding for the company was roughly $100k provided almost entirely by Matt, me, and our families. Two other people, who we brought into the executive team shortly after incorporation, provided a few thousand dollars. We excluded outside capital so that we could balance our personal lives and professional activities. For the first 16 years, we grew the company entirely out of retained earnings, an additional $50 k loan I made to Pro-Log during its 2nd year, and a line of bank credit on our accounts receivable! My own commitment to self-funding the company came from previous experience in MSI Data, where outside capital dictated much of what we did, subordinated our personal lives to corporate objectives, and nearly cost me my family.
To answer one of your specific questions: we developed and built the first “gang” programmer, controlled by the first single-board microcomputer using the 4004 during the period from November 1972 to February of 1973. The unit programmed eight 1702A PROMs at a time using an adaptive algorithm I developed and got Intel to bless. (The algorithm cut the average programming time by over 80% from the method advocated by Intel.) We delivered it in February of 1973 to RCA in Van Nuys. We were able to move quickly because Matt had, in early 1972, gutted a hardwired production unit of an MSI Data order entry system, and replaced its control logic with a 4004 based network and 1702 PROMs. He had programmed the software and debugged it entirely by hand, using a method he developed. Three months later, that 4004 based system was in full production at MSI DATA. In the summer of 72 we built a heart monitoring system controlled by a 4004 as consultants for some doctors.
Let me know if it’s OK with you to post our correspondence.
I’d love to ride with you down memory lane, and yes, my correspondence with you may be used freely on your blog and other writings.
If the painful pieces are too much, then we can skip those. I made the assumption that you and Matt were together through Pro-Log’s life – that may not be true…
As you tell the story, pictures are worth 1,000 words, so those early Polaroids of ground breakings and Christmas parties should be fun. I see a kind of an Apple similarity; you being Jobs, and Matt being Wozniak? Or were you and Matt both designers and writers (equals)?
A product timeline would be cool too – first products and market dates. I have some of your early marketing material, but nothing dating back to the early days.
As your time allows…
It’s going to take me a few days to pull things together, review documents and notebooks, and organize a systematic and (hopefully) interesting response to your questions. However, for starters, let me partially answer the question about the relationship between myself and Matt during the Pro-Log years.
He did have more of the role of Wozniak… a dedicated engineer who thoroughly enjoyed solving technical problems. His wife Barbara once complained that he often brought his schematics and flow charts to bed with him. One of his finest qualities was that he worked on things until he came to simple, robust solutions. Somewhat like Thomas Edison. He never wanted to provide quick answers to anything; something which took me years to appreciate and to accommodate. Pose a question or a problem and then give him at least a week to mull it over. He also disliked managing people or holding himself personally accountable for mistakes. He left that to me; sometimes in humorous or unpleasant ways.
One the other hand, I don’t qualify as Steve Jobs. I became CEO because, when the two of us founded Pro-Log in November of 1972 he wanted to concentrate on his microprocessor ideas and he gladly left the rest of it to me. I’d been VP of engineering (From 1967 to 1970) at MSI Data and had hired Matt to work at MSI after he graduated from Cal Poly in Pomona. Before that he’d been a technician at Burroughs ElectroData in Pasadena, a place I worked at for 5 years, although I never met him there.
Like Steve Jobs, who (several years later) knew the consumer potential for micro-computers, I knew from Matt’s work at MSI (and from a 4004 based heart monitoring machine we co-developed as consultants in the summer of 1972) that microprocessors were going to revolutionize engineering. In fact, in September of 1972 Matt and I visited Intel’s head of marketing to announce the fact that we were going to build a company around the 4004 because it was going to revolutionize engineering. At the time, Intel’s slogan was “memories are made at Intel” and the 4004 was something they’d developed for the Busicomp calculator in Japan. (Note another microprocessor at that time was the PP4 from a large Southern Calif company whose name escapes me now.) That director of marketing told us we were nuts. He emphatically stated that there weren’t more than 1000 customers for microprocessors and that Intel already knew who they were. We weren’t in the least discouraged.
Unlike Steve Jobs vision of satisfying the customer, my vision of the microprocessor’s potential was that of a vehicle for building a company in a good location for raising our families. I had already been through the “don’t spare your personal life for the business” scenario twice… once in 1961 when I first got married and later in 1967 when we founded MSI Data. What I saw in the microprocessor was an overwhelmingly good strategic opportunity for which one might balance the quality of life with a successful company. I also saw the company as a higher level system which we had to develop in order to profit from the technical opportunities; which was my job as CEO. Even today, I see companies as a species of autonomous systems that include other autonomous systems (people) and computers as a species of much simpler systems. Anyway, our targeted market was much smaller than that envisioned by Steve Jobs, and our willingness to sacrifice personal lives (our own or anyone who worked at Pro-Log) was deliberately zero.
For example, I made it a policy not to work weekends or for anyone else to do so. This balance had its benefits and liabilities. We were never attractive to venture capital because of our (isolated) location and our balanced policies. On the other hand, we learned to make money and grow from earnings. We lost $90 k the first year and broke even the second year. For the next 8 years we made a profit every quarter.
While turnover in Silicon Valley (only 50 miles away) was north of 25% per year, ours was less than 5% for all causes. At one point I realized we needed more new blood and tried to develop an outplacement program open to every employee. The management resistance was enormous, and the program eventually withered away. I’m still convinced that no-fault outplacement should be used to keep turnover between 7 and 12 % per year for any large organization. Sure would help the education system.
I hope you’ll continue to pump questions at me, even though I’ve yet to answer all those you’ve already posed.
(Much more to follow in the coming weeks. Questions and comments are welcome from all readers.)