Business History of Early Computers


Dr. An Wang was an inventor, far ahead of his time, rolling out Wang Imaging (software and hardware), global WangNet, Integrated Office Software platforms, integrated Voice, Data, Images, Networking - years before companies were ready or willing to buy them.  He had a "PC" ready to go in 1981, two floppies, screen and keyboard and disks all in one unit, with a cable to a modified IBM Selectric as the printer.  Wang Laboratories kept it proprietary and marketed it to Engineers and making their own DOS, own CPU boards, own OS, etc. etc.  Unfortunately, Wang Computers were never compatible with generic MSDOS software until it was too late.



The LOCI calculator embodied Dr. Wang's logarithmic calculation circuit, and proved to an eager marketplace that the electronic calculator had a place in engineering and scientific calculations.  The 300-series of calculators were the second line of electronic calculators introduced by Wang. The LOCI (an acronym for LOgarithmic Computing Instrument) machines, which were rather clunky and large machines, were the first electronic calculators sold by Wang, introduced in January of 1965. The LOCI machine sold originally for $6500, but could perform complex calculations with single keystrokes (as compared to the complexities of making mechanical calculators do the same calculation), in a fraction of the time of older mechanical calculators, and were significantly easier to use.

The display is via Wang-manufactured "Nixie" tubes. Nixie tubes display numbers by having ten different stacked electrodes which are formed into the shape of digits, all packed into a little glass envelope which looks like a small vacuum tube, filled with neon gas. When a given electrode is energized, the neon lights up around the electrode, forming a glowing orange number. Nixie tubes were commonly used in electronic equipment requiring numeric output through the early '70's, until other less complex (and expensive) display technologies such as LCD’s were developed.



Before semiconductor memory was developed (which is used on almost all current computer designs) there were many devices that were used to store information. Magnetic Core memory was very common in computers that were built before the 1970s. The data is stored in small magnetic donuts so it does not need power to retain the data. It is possible to turn on an early computer that has been idle for 20+ years and still have the last program and data that was used still present in the system.

 Dr. An Wang was issued patent 2,708,722 in 1955 for a Pulse Transfer Controlling Device used to store and retrieve information from core memory. He sold is core memory patent to IBM for $500,000 in 1956.



The earliest floppy disks, developed in the late 1960s by IBM, were 8 inches (200 mm) in diameter;[1] they became commercially available in 1971.[2] These disks and associated drives were produced and improved upon by IBM and other companies such as Memorex, Shugart Associates, and Burroughs Corporation.[3] The term "floppy disk" appeared in print as early as 1970,[4] and although in 1973 IBM announced its first media as "Type 1 Diskette" the industry continued to use the terms "floppy disk" or "floppy".

In 1976, the 5 1/4" flexible disk drive and diskette was developed by Alan Shugart for Wang Laboratories. Wang wanted a smaller floppy disk and drive to use with their desktop computers. By 1978, more than 10 manufacturers were producing 5 1/4" floppy drives that stored up to 1.2MB (megabytes) of data. One interesting story about the 5 1/4-inch floppy disk is how the size was decided. Engineers, Jim Adkisson and Don Massaro were discussing the size with An Wang of Wang Laboratories. The trio just happened to be doing their discussing at a bar. An Wang motioned to a drink napkin and stated "about that size" which happened to be 5 1/4-inches wide.



A SIMM, or single in-line memory module, is a type of memory module containing random access memory used in computers from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. It differs from a dual in-line memory module (DIMM), the most predominant form of memory module today, in that the contacts on a SIMM are redundant on both sides of the module. SIMMs were invented and patented by Wang Laboratories. Wang invented what was to become the basic memory module, now known as a SIMM (single in-line memory module) in 1983. The original memory modules were built upon ceramic material and had pins. Later the pins were removed and the modules were built on standard PCB material.

The first variant of SIMMs had 30 pins and provided 256k using 8 bits of data (plus a 9th error-detection bit in parity SIMMs). They were used in the IBM AT (286), 386, 486, Macintosh Plus, Macintosh II, Quadra, Atari STE and Wang VS systems.  The SIMM's 30 pins often bent or broke during installation, which is why they were quickly replaced by SIMMs which used contact plates rather than pins.

The second variant of SIMMs had 72 pins and provided 32 bits of data (36 bits in parity and ECC versions). These appeared first in the early 1990s in the IBM PS/2, and later in systems based on the 486, Pentium, Pentium Pro, early Pentium II, and contemporary/competing chips of other brands. By the mid 90s, 72-pin SIMMs had replaced 30-pin SIMMs in new-build computers, and were starting to be replaced by DIMMs.



With an acoustic modem, a standard telephone handset is placed into a cradle that had been engineered to fit closely (by the use of rubber seals) around the microphone and earpiece of the handset. A modem would modulate a loudspeaker in the cup attached to the handset's microphone, and sound from the loudspeaker in the telephone handset's earpiece would be picked up by a microphone in the cup attached to the earpiece. In this way signals could be passed in both directions.

An acoustic coupler is prominently shown early in the 1983 film "WarGames", when character David Lightman (depicted by actor Matthew Broderick) places a telephone handset into the cradle of a film prop acoustic modem to accentuate the act of using telephone lines for interconnection to the developing computer networks of the period, in this case, a military command computer.



Early LAN cabling had always been based on various grades of coaxial cable. However shielded twisted pair was used in IBM's Token Ring implementation, and in 1984 StarLAN showed the potential of simple unshielded twisted pair by using Cat3—the same simple cable used for telephone systems. This led to the development of 10Base-T (and its successors) and structured cabling which is still the basis of most commercial LANs today. In addition, fiber-optic cabling is increasingly used in commercial applications. As cabling is not always possible, wireless Wi-Fi is now very common in residential premises - and elsewhere where support for mobile laptops and smartphones is important.


Standards Evolution - WangNet

The development and proliferation of personal computers using the CP/M operating system in the late 1970s, and later DOS-based systems starting in 1981, meant that many sites grew to dozens or even hundreds of computers. The initial driving force for networking was generally to share storage and printers, which were both expensive at the time. There was much enthusiasm for the concept and for several years, from about 1983 onward, computer industry pundits would regularly declare the coming year to be “the year of the LAN”.

In practice, the concept was marred by proliferation of incompatible physical layer and network protocol implementations, and a plethora of methods of sharing resources. Typically, each vendor would have its own type of network card, cabling, protocol, and network operating system. WangNet was one of the first systems to truly integrate terminals and printers.

 A rival PC solution appeared with the advent of Novell NetWare which provided even-handed support for dozens of competing card/cable types, and a much more sophisticated operating system than most of its competitors. In the 90’s, Microsoft and 3Com worked together to create a simple network operating system which formed the base of 3Com's 3+Share, Microsoft's LAN Manager and IBM's LAN Server - but none of these were particularly successful. Today Microsoft dominates the market.





A Disk pack is a layered grouping of hard disk platters (circular, rigid discs coated with a magnetic data storage surface). A disk pack is the core component of a hard disk drive. In modern hard disks, the disk pack is permanently sealed inside the drive. In many early hard disks, the disk pack was a removable unit, and would be supplied with a protective canister featuring a lifting handle.

The protective cover consisted of two parts, a clear plastic shell, with a handle in the center, that enclosed the top and sides of the disks and a separate bottom that completed the sealed package. To remove the disk pack, the drive would be taken off line and allowed to spin down. Its access door could then be opened and an empty top shell inserted and twisted to unlock the disk platter from the drive and secure it to the top shell. The assembly would then be lifted out and the bottom cover attached. A different disk pack could then be inserted by removing the bottom and placing the disk pack with its top shell into the drive. Turning the handle would lock the disk pack in place and free the top shell for removal.

The first removable disk pack was invented in 1965 by two IBM engineers, Thomas G. Leary and R. E. Pattison. The 14-inch (356 mm) diameter disks introduced by IBM became a de facto standard, with several vendors producing "IBM-compatible" drives and disk packs. Examples of disk drives that employed removable disk packs include the IBM 2311, CDC, Wang, and the Digital RP04.


Wang Marketing

By the end of 1978 Wang claimed to be the largest worldwide supplier of CRT-based wordprocessing systems and the largest supplier of small business computers in North America.  Wang strengthened its marketing efforts during this time and launched a three-month television advertising campaign in 1978, portraying Wang as David and IBM as Goliath. Wang, then the 32nd largest computer maker, was second only to IBM in television Marketing advertising.

“WANG - We're Gunning For IBM!”  That was the slogan WANG Labs Inc. the computer hardware and software maker launched during Superbowl XX in 1986.  It was a bold strategy for Wang Labs, the global computer giant most notable for Wang Word Processors and Engineering computers.  The TV commercial was a campaign where Wang was attempting to out do IBM, the Ad agency had the brilliant idea to utilize the helicopter from the 1983 movie and the 1984 TV Series “Blue Thunder”.  The ad featured a clueless corporate exec sitting at his big exec desk with the "Think" plaque on it (to make sure you knew he worked for IBM), busy swatting flies (smaller computer companies) and behind him, many floors up in his office skyscraper, this sleek black attack helicopter with the blue Wang logo on the nose rises up and trains it's weapons on him, he slinks down in his chair, and the announcer voice says "Wang.... We're Gunning for IBM!"  It was short and effective and everyone was talking about it the next day.




Further Reading

Wang, with Eugene Linden, published Lessons: An Autobiography in 1986. For brief accounts of his career see "The Guru of Gizmos," TIME (November 17, 1980) and "Wang Labs' run for a second billion: One-man rule will fade into professional management," Business Week (May 17, 1982). On the history of magnetic core memories see E. W. Pugh, Memories that Shaped an Industry (1984). On electronic calculators see H. Edward Roberts, Electronic Calculators, edited by Forrest M. Mimms III (1974). Wang is also included in Historical Dictionary of Data Processing: Biographies, by James Cortada (1987). The Wall Street Journal covered the fall and resurgence of Wang Laboratories in two articles, Steep Slide: Filing in Chapter 11, Wang Sends Warning to High-Tech Circles (Aug. 1992), and Wang Labs Reorganization is Cleared, Allowing Emergence from Chapter 11 (Sept. 1993).