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George Morrow, Bill Godbout, and dildo motors

The late George Morrow was the best raconteur I’ve ever met – you might say he was the Garrison Keillor of hi-tech. Just like Prairie Home Companion, George needed at least 90 minutes to tell you one of his stories – and usually they were just as funny as the stories on radio.

Sadly, I don’t remember George’s entire chronicle of his (claimed) invention of the first PC bootstrap loader, but I’ll recount what I do remember.

The first microcomputers just sat there and blinked their lights, but did nothing unless you knew how to flip their paddle switches in the exact order. This booted (boot-strapped) the computer. At this point, the computer would be ready for keyboard input. In 1977, we didn’t have disk drives – you loaded your programs from the keyboard, from a cassette tape deck, or from a paper tape reader on a big clunking Teletype machine. Boy were they loud – and they could shake a concrete building.

George’s great contribution was to put the boot-up sequence that enabled the keyboard and I/O devices into a programmable read-only memory chip. Any microcomputer with one of these chips would be able to boot from the instructions on the PROM. (By the way, it’s entirely possible somebody else invented this first – I only know George’s side.)

George had several side-stories that went along with how he came to invent this process, and they revolved around his relationship with Bill Godbout and his recycled parts store in a Quonset hut near Oakland airport. I’ll reduce this very long story to a short version – Bill had a way of finding surplus parts of all kinds, and George spent a lot of time rummaging through Bill’s parts bins. On one of these trips, George found the PROMs he used for his bootstrap loader.

But what made the story really fascinating was that somehow Bill had become the owner of 10,000 dildo motors. Only Bill and God know why, and neither of them is talking. This made for a very interesting branch of George’s story.

Well, after George got his PROM set up, he took it up to Processor Technology in Berkeley – the home of the SOL micro, which was probably the third microcomputer, and arguably the most interesting. The company was run by Bob Marsh, and Lee Felsenstein was the designer of the SOL and its “personality modules.”

Processor Technology got its start making memory boards for the S-100 bus computers, like the IMSAI and the Altair. Because IMSAI was late in delivering their memory board, and Processor Tech was already shipping theirs, they were doing very, very brisk business.

So in the end, George didn’t sell his PROM to Bob, but nevertheless his life was changed by seeing – as George described it – money sitting everywhere. In fish bowls, hanging out of drawers, on shelves. Orders for the memory boards were coming in with cash in the envelopes – and they were so busy they couldn’t get to the bank often enough to deposit it all.

It will probably seem odd now, but that memory board was either 8 or 16k. That was heaven, because the original micros had only 4k of RAM.

In the end, processor Technology lived its too-short life and folded. George went on to start other computer companies (Morrow ThinkerToys was my favorite). George funded Newstar software so he could get a less-expensive version of WordStar. He also funded the company that made the first truly portable computer – a design that Morrow Designs had to sell to Zenith (remember their computers?) to stave off bankruptcy.

George died a few years ago, and I miss him. We didn’t talk often enough because you always had to allocate at least 2 hours to a phone call. Now I’m sorry I didn’t do that more often.

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4 Responses

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  1. David says

    Thanks for his great story about George Morrow. I use to enjoy his visits on The Computer Chronicles back in the 80’s. It was such a fun era for computers.

    • Walter Feigenson says

      Glad you enjoyed the post. George was the best story teller I’ve ever met – although it did take some patience, since all his stories went on for at least an hour! -walt

  2. Steve W. says

    I visited Bill’s place once and he gave me one of the dildo motors. Never thought I’d see or hear that story again!