Glimmers of Silicon in the Rogue
Every time you type a letter on the computer, surf through a website, back up data or run an "app" on your iPhone, think of home — for some of the computer world's most significant breakthroughs were invented in the Rogue Valley.
The area's natural beauty, quality of life and, most recently, reliable Internet infrastructure, have attracted masters of the digital age ever since Paul Lutus developed the first word processing program while living on a ridgetop cabin in the wilds of Southern Oregon.
The Rogue Valley plays host to inventors of all kinds, some of whom are featured in "Inventions and Innovations: A Legacy of Blue Sky Ideas From Southern Oregon Thinkers and Tinkerers," this year's Our Valley edition included in today's Mail Tribune.
Lutus was living in a tiny, homemade cabin outside Ashland when he developed Apple Writer, one of the original and most popular word processing programs. Released in 1979 for Mac users, that version limited users to writing only in capital letters. Two years later, the company released Lutus' Apple Writer II, which would become a staple in word processing and help propel Apple on its skyward trajectory.
Calling himself a "cottage computer programmer," Lutus was a former NASA engineer who wrote poetry and tended a vegetable garden. In 1976, after he helped design the electronics for the space shuttle, he happened to see an ad in Scientific American for an Apple II.
He promptly rode his bike to the post office and ordered one.
Within weeks he'd written programs that made the Apple II draw pictures and play music — and Apple paid him for the programs, bringing in more money than he'd spent on the computer.
A writer, Lutus decided to create the world's first word program, for which Apple paid him $7,500. Lutus didn't ask for royalties, an oversight he corrected in his newer Apple Writer program, according to the biography on his Web site, http://arachnoid.com.
They became the most popular word programs of the day — and Lutus' world changed. He bought an airplane he likes to fly around Oregon and also a sailboat, which he sailed around the world and wrote about in "Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor." Now he likes to photograph wildlife in remote areas.
"Lutus was an extraordinary early pioneer who totally got what software was supposed to do," said Charlie McHenry, a computer historian and former member of the Oregon Telecommunications Forum Council. "It was the first write program for Apple. There was no word processing available 'til him."
Paul Mace of Ashland achieved industry fame in the mid-1980s by saving owners of personal computers a lot of grief from crashed or accidentally erased hard drives. Most people thought if you erased a disk, there was nothing on it. But Mace said he figured out, while trying to write a defragmentation program, that "it's not gone."
"I was the first to take the next step, and if I made a copy of the indexing information, I could put you back where you were," Mace said.
His success with Mace Utilities was a story of coincidences, with influential Infoworld columnist John C. Dvorak getting an "over the transom" copy from Mace right after a hard drive crash. Mace was in Sunnyvale, Calif., in conference with a company that was about to buy the rights for 20 cents a copy, when his wife called and told him Dvorak was going to review it.
Mace knew if Dvorak wrote that his software worked, he'd be famous, and if it didn't, he'd get clobbered. The call from his wife was on a speakerphone as the potential buyers were literally thrusting a pen into Mace's hand.
"Instead, I went home, set up business lines, hired people and started production in an outbuilding," said Mace. The offices for Paul Mace Software went in across from the Ashland post office.
"It was a whole new category of software," Mace said. Once it was proven successful, he sold it and it eventually was absorbed by Norton Utilities and Symantec.
Since then, Mace has done many software projects, including animation software, figuring out how to allocate revenues generated by TiVo digital video recorder and writing a Symbolic Flight program that integrates GoogleEarth and GPS data so pilots always can see what's outside, even if it's foggy or dark.
Paralleling the advances of Mace, Michael Burmeister-Brown, formerly of Central Point, created a utility package, Copy II Plus, that allowed the backup and management of files — this in the days of 51/4-inch floppy disks.
"Floppies were very fragile," said Burmeister-Brown, in an interview from his Portland home. "The whole computer thing was pretty new. You would get some damage and the computer would no longer work. With Copy II Plus, you could copy a lot of programs and it allowed people to keep using their computers."
Burmeister-Brown started his Central Point Software business in 1980. He created PC Tools, a software utilities suite, in 1985 and, with its success, moved operations to Beaverton. He sold CPS in 1994 to Symantec for $60 million, according to The New York Times.
Of the early days in computer software, Burmeister-Brown said: "It was a new industry and all the companies were small. It made it easier to compete as a small company or as an individual. Today, it takes more people and it's harder to develop something."
Burmeister-Brown said he's still involved in writing software and is now focused on developing wireless capabilities for low-income housing.
"Mace and Mike Brown absolutely invented the software utility category," said McHenry. "Mace was the first one to successfully recover data from an inadvertently wiped drive. He was even consulted by the FBI because he could recover data from a drive that took a .45 bullet."
Sage Weil of Ashland was only 16 when he invented WebRing, software that manages a collection of Web pages with a common theme, linking them and providing access through a common gateway.
Weil developed the software in 1994, formed the WebRing company in 1997 and eventually sold it to Starseed, which was acquired by GeoCities, which in 1999 was acquired by Yahoo.
One of the earliest of cyber-pioneers was the late John Backus, inventor in 1957 of Fortran. Early last decade, Backus moved to Ashland to spend his last years with his daughter. He led an IBM team in the development of the first general purpose and procedural programming language, essentially opening the doors for humans to talk to computers.
So why were these creative lights ensconced in the relatively remote Rogue Valley, when, by all rights, they should have been in the cyber-hotbed of Silicon Valley?
"Of course, these brainiacs came here for the quality of life," McHenry said. "They come on their own and set up shop. The downside has been the profoundly oppressive conservatism of the area.
"In the '90s, we thought the Internet might pass the valley by, but the Oregon Telecom plan ... brought in some pretty big pipes to the Internet, and that's been really attractive."
The Oregon Telecommunications Forum Council, which McHenry served on from 1997 to 1999, was created in 1995 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to develop strategies for expanding the state's telecommunications infrastructure, specifically the Internet. It also was charged with ensuring that access to that infrastructure was available throughout the entire state, including rural areas.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.