Two articles (here and here) in my Netstalgia series covered the old bulletin board system (BBS) I used to operate back in the late 1980’s. It wasn’t much by today’s standards, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Sysop (systems operator). How the BBS died is a lesson in product management.
My BBS ran on an Apple IIGS with a 2400 baud modem and two external 30MB hard drives (the Apple II series did not support internal hard drives.) Hard drives were ridiculously expensive back then, and I had acquired the cheapest hard drives I could buy, manufactured by a company called Chinook. I never knew anybody else who had Chinook hard drives, probably for good reason. I had some of the files backed up on floppy disks, but there really wasn’t a good way to back up 60 megs of data without another hard drive.
One day I had the BBS shut down for some reason or other, and I went to turn it back on. When I flipped the switch on Chinook #1, the disk didn’t spin up. It simply clicked. Not knowing what to do, I decided to call tech support. I had lost the manual, however, so I had to do what we did before the Internet: I called information. By dialing 411 on my phone, I was connected with an operator who helped me to hunt down the number.
I dialed the number for Chinook. A nice midwestern, older sounding man answered the phone. He patiently listened while I explained my conundrum, and then said to me: “This is the Chinook fencing company. You’re looking for Chinook, a computer company, it sounds like.” I went back to information and got the right number.
Explaining my situation yet again, this time I got an answer. “I want you to pick up the front of the hard drive and drop it on the table,” said the tech support guy. I did it, and voila! The hard drive spun up. Despite my tender age of 16, I somehow suspected this was, as we say in the corporate world, “an unsustainable operating model.”
Luckily I rarely shut the hard drive down, but when I did I needed to drop it on the table to get it going again. Chinook #2 started to have the same problem. One day I flipped the switch on Chinook #1 and heard a metal-on-metal grinding noise. And thus, my career as a Sysop ended. All for the better I suppose, as the Internet was just around the corner.
I still have the Chinook hard drives, in the vain hope that I could crack them and recover some data some day. I once called DriveSavers to see if they could do it, but the request to recover data on 1980’s Apple II crashed hard drives was just too weird for them. Their proposal was expensive and not likely to succeed.
Three years ago, when I moved into my new neighborhood, we had a block party, and I ended up sitting next to an older fellow who had been a long-time product manager for Apple. He provided a wealth of interesting stories about the Apple II line, and the history of many of the computers I got my start on so many decades ago. I mentioned to him the Chinook problem, and to my surprise he knew Chinook. Chinook actually repackaged a particular model Seagate HD, which was notorious for locking up and needing physical force to unstick the head. My neighbor told me that this hard drive was included in the original prototypes of the Mac SE, over the objections of the technical product managers. The business-types who were running things wanted the drive, either because it was cheap or because they had an agreement with Seagate (I don’t really recall).
Finally one of the technical PMs built a version of the SE which had a pinball plunger attached to the front of the built in HD. Great idea! When the hard drive got stuck, just pull back the plunger and let it rip! He showed it to management and they decided to pick a different hard drive. Good for them, the SE was to be a very popular Mac and the pinball plunger might have prevented that. Anyways, as I had learned, the plunger wouldn’t work for very long.