August 19, 2007 4:05 PM |
Off Amazon recently I picked up a book called Priming the Pump: How TRS-80 Enthusiasts Helped Spark the PC Revolution, a personal history of the early home computing era written by two of the entrepreneurs who participated in it. David and Theresa Welsh were the duo behind Lazy Writer, one of several first-generation word processors available for Tandy's TRS-80 series of computers. The Welshes ran one of thousands of small businesses that popped up to support the TRS-80s, Apples, Ataris and Commodores that spread across homes and businesses from 1977 onward, placing dozens of ads in computer magazines every month and ballooning them up to the many hundreds of pages.
I'm a sucker for early computer history, and while Priming the Pump isn't as evocative as On the Edge (or as funny as iWoz), it's a great addition to the library, covering a computer that arguably had the #1 userbase for most of the early era but is all but forgotten today. For mag fans in particular, though, one passage brings up an interesting incident in computer media history: the saga of Norman Henry Hunt Jr. (aka Harry Hunt aka Jim Anderson aka "Colonel David Winthrop"), one of the PC biz's first serious con artists and definitely the first one to work through magazines.
Byte, July 1977
A career felon whose first parole violation dated back to 1965, Hunt was with the PC industry from its outset, joining the Southern California Computer Society in 1975 and ripping off its members by organizing a fraudulent group hardware purchase. (The pioneering computer club fell apart two years later as the ensuing lawsuits dragged on.) In 1977, Hunt founded DataSync, a company that continued the nonexistant-hardware scam but made it national, advertising RAM boards and computer terminals in Byte and other computer mags that were a good 25% off the going prices.
The Santa Maria, CA-based outfit dissolved in late June 1977, when police tracked Hunt down and arrested him on three counts of felony false-pretense theft. Hunt pled guilty and was centenced to 32 months in prison. Although the DataSync operation was on a national level and Hunt had earned about $250,000 between 1973 and 1977 from his criminal operations, federal agencies decided against prosecuting him further. They probably regretted that decision a bit on February 26, 1978, when Hunt escaped from the minimum-security Chino State Prison.
"[Hunt's] method of operation has been to move to a town under a new identity, rent a house with option to buy and to make contacts in his field of endeavor (recently, computer hobbyists)," the Santa Maria police wrote in a 1978 bulletin. "Hunt will generally begin his operation by soliciting backing for product design from private parties. Often he will sell his qualifications so well that it is the victim's idea to ask Hunt to design a product for him.... He will rent a building, hire employees, begin a credit line with suppliers. After enough equipment has been received from suppliers on credit to look impressive, he will apply for a bank loan to start production. If the loan is received, Hunt empties the business of its equipment and leaves the area, leaving the creditors and the bank high and dry."
Kilobaud Microcomputing, April 1979
Incredibly, despite this police bulletin being published in Kilobaud magazine alongside several mugshots of Hunt, the con artist managed to strike the computer industry again with the exact same MO. Setting up shop in Tucson, AZ, Hunt (operating under the name Jim Anderson) signed a deal with hobbyist Perry Pollock to found World Power Systems, a seller of computer hardware and interfaces, with Hunt as president and Pollock the head of R&D. They published their first advertisements in the April 1979 issues of Byte, Kilobaud and a couple other magazines, featuring a beaming Pollock and his wife Korrine espousing the ideals of their company:
"Starting out as a hobbiest, I realize your needs, concerns and most of all the requirements of a good, well designed and fairly priced interfaces [sic] for your computer. It is my goal to supply you with the most for your investment and the highest quality possible... I am available 24 HOURS A DAY. I have a telephone answering service that will put your call through to me anytime day or night, or if you wish you can call me at home. If you have a problem, question or just want to talk, give me a call."
The first product WPS solicited buyers for was the "3S+P Interface Card," a device that allowed PC nuts to interface their S-100 computers with three serial and one parallel device at once -- which, if that flew over your head, was a pretty amazing thing for a $189 board to do in 1979, trust me. The problem was that, if you look at the advertisement above and have any sort of electronics knowledge, you'll see that the board was plainly bogus. There are way too many components jammed on the board, and nowhere near enough traces going in and out of them for the device to function. (Multi-layer PC boards can allow for this kind of density, but that technology wasn't cheap enough in 1979 to be feasible for the hobbyist market.)
Still, enough excited (or maybe just hopeful) users sent in order sto get Hunt's scam rolling. The basics of the scheme duplicated what Hunt did with DataSync two years earlier. First, WPS borrowed cash off Pollock's good credit record, then acted as the model company for a few months -- buying equipment from local businesses for straight cash, shipping out a few orders, that sort of thing. Things went awry when WPS began to place huge orders for PC parts -- RAM, disk drives, whole computers -- on credit, even as they completely failed to ship out enough product to meet the increasing demands customers made for their too-good-to-be-true products. Just enough orders would be processed to keep a mass of irate customers from contacting authorities, and to keep the local cops off their back, WPS would be absolutely sure to pay the rent and salaries on time and ship any Tucson orders immediately.
When the house of cards collapsed and creditors and customers began to threaten criminal action (in WPS's case, about two months after the April 1979 ads), Hunt's plan was set to reach its conclusion. His process: clean out the bank accounts, shift all the merchandise brought on fradulent credit to another state, set up a fall guy (Perry Pollock) as the company's new president, and skip town. After the president was arrested, Hunt would show up in the next state, set up a store front to sell off the merchandise in a Homeboy Shopping Network-type arrangement, disappear again to a third state, and retire rich. Easy. Or, at least, easier pre-Internet.
The jig was up April 25, 1979, when Hunt, fearful that rival hardware makers and some magazine editors were on to him, decided to abort the operation early. As described in the October '79 issue of Kilobaud, Hunt chose to make Texas his next point of operations -- and for whatever reason, he decided to take two employees named "Eva" and "Joan" (pseudonyms used in the Kilobaud article) along with him, ostensibly to a computer training seminar in Florida.
Hunt swore the two ladies to secrecy, but Eva's father contacted police anyway, wary of the sudden "business trip". It turns out the two left with Hunt in a van loaded with computer equipment -- and when they found out that the whole company was a scam and Hunt was out to sell off the goods, they called their parents. The Kilobaud article has all the details on the ensuing police work, but the end results were impressive: "well over half a million dollars" of PC hardware in storage lockers all across Tucson (1979 dollars, remember), and the June 2nd arrest of Norman Hunt in Honolulu, HI, with his wife and about $11,000 in cash. "Jim was actually in the process of dyeing his hair when the FBI broke into his apartment to arrest him," the article gleefully notes.
This sort of thing is the reason why I love having such a big collection of magazines. Somewhere within all the thing three-inch advertisements that swarm all over the pages of early computer mags are some incredibly interesting stories. It's great fun to ferret them out, if you'll pardon the pun, and I can only hope that as the pioneer generation of PC users continues to age, more of them get inspired to write memoirs like the Walshes'.