Date: November 11, 2013
Title: Snell Solisequious Scientist
Presenters: Chris Gammell, Contextual Electronics and Dave Jones, EEV Blog
Guest: Forrest M. Mims, http://www.forrestmims.org/
Episode link: http://www.theamphour.com/171-an-interview-with-forrest-mims-snell-solisequious-scientist/
Source file: http://traffic.libsyn.com/theamphour/TheAmpHour-171-SnellSolisequiousScientist.mp3
Dave: Welcome to the Amp Hour. I’m Dave Jones of the EEV blog.
Chris: And I’m Chris Gammell of Contextual Electronics.
Forrest: I’m Forrest Mims I live in Texas, I write books and do science.
Chris: Yeah science!
Dave: Oh my goodness Forrest Mims. Come on Chris we have to do it…
Chris & Dave: We are not worthy, we are not worthy!!
Dave: For you young whippersnappers out there i.e. anyone post the internet era out there.
Chris: Even still it’s not like … people would still know.
Dave: People would still get his books …We’re talking the most prolific electronics author on the planet I believe with 7 million books sold. Absolutely crazy – dating back to the 70s when I was doing electronics, when I was a boy. Everyone knows Forrest Mims, the electronics author but he’s so much more than that as we will get into, so thank you very much for joining us Forrest.
Forrest: Well I’m glad to be here.
Dave: And where are you from?
Forrest: I live in Texas, in a small town called Seguin in a rural site. We live on some acreage here, a lot of trees a little creek and place to do my scientific measurements in a field.
Chris: That’s awesome. So in emailing with Forrest I realized I met my wife I think less than 30 miles from where he lives which is totally crazy.
Forrest: That’s right.
Chris: Texas days, I miss Texas some days. Especially when it gets like today in Cleveland it’s gross…
Dave: Have you always lived in Texas?
Forrest: Well I was born in Texas but I’ve lived in many states and met my wife in New Mexico after coming back from Vietnam and then came back to Texas.
Dave: Right. Oh there’s so many things we’ve got to talk about. I don’t know how we are going to fit it all in one show.
Chris: How about this. Forrest where would you like us to start? Do you want to go backwards in time or do you want to go forwards in time.
Forrest: Lets start at the beginning.
Dave: Yeah. How did you get into electronics? This is an electronics show so we don’t necessarily care about your troubled childhood or something if you had one.
Dave: Sorry about that.
Chris: That’s a nice assumption Dave…
Forrest: The beginning was when I was eleven years old building a soapbox racer which had a headlight made from a PR13 incandescent light powered by a 6v battery and when I turned the light off it would run down the battery. I didn’t realize the on/off switch had to be in series with the light.
Forrest: I put it in parallel with the light so I figured that out when the bent nail I was using for a switch became warm. I suddenly had the enlightenment that I had the switch hooked up incorrectly. That began my electronics career.
Dave: That’s brilliant.
Chris: It’s like the start of an epic journey.
Forrest: It was and my father build a crystal radio set for my brother and me and it actually worked so I began building small radios. I learned that the capacitor was not called the capacitator it was called the capacitor and I learned that I didn’t like vacuum tubes and so I stuck with semi conductor diodes. Then in 1957 for Christmas that year, I was 13. My dad was serving in Korea and my mother let me select for Christmas an order of parts from Lafayette Radio and those were the parts to build my first one transistor radio and I snuck in the closet and actually touched the transistor before Christmas day.
Dave: Nice. Now this is rather bizarre, you’re talking late 1950s here and you didn’t like tubes? 0:04:02.4
Forrest: Oh no of course not, tubes were …. When I went to college in 1965 when I was a senior everybody kept saying I should have majored in electronics because of all the work I was doing in my dorm room. So I finally decided to walk over to the electrical engineering building one day and I stood by the door and looked at some of my class mates in this class and there were all these equations on the board which made no sense to me and they were working with vacuum tube breadboard circuits on their lab bench. I went back to my dorm room where I was working with integrated circuits and ultra sophisticated light emitting diodes!
Chris: Oh man
Forrest: Why would I want to use vacuum tubes?
Dave: Even in the 50s that’s fantastic I thought the …
Dave: 60s right 65. well that’s right that’s when in Australia 1965 Electronics Australia which I have had my projects published in that’s when they changed their name from Radio and TV Hobbies to Electronics Australia. So that’s when the electronics revolution took off then maybe?
Forrest: Yeah the very beginning of it and hobbyist electronics really began to come to it’s full fruition in the late 60s early 70s.
Dave: Right and when was your first article published?
Forrest: Good question, ok I was building light flashers. Small light transistorized light flashers, 2 transistors a capacitor resistor a pot and a small incandescent bulb and I was putting them in small rockets. I designed a new kind of rocket control system back in high school and I was building these in college and I was even flying them in Vietnam and I needed a way to track them so I could watch the movements of the rockets at night. One night I launched it 21 times and photographically recorded it every flight.
Chris: Oh wow
Forrest: I was asked to launch one of these at a model rocket meeting at Portales New Mexico State university and the editor of Model Rocketry Magazine George Flynn was there and he said ‘could you write an article for my magazine on how to build one of these light flashers?’ and I said sure. I didn’t realize he was going to pay me $93.50 for that article.
Dave: That was a lot in those days!
Forrest: Well it was not only a lot but it was my first freelance article and I told my wife and said I’m going to quit the air force when I finish my 4 years and become a freelance write. So that’s how I got started.
Chris: I was reading on your wiki page about you exploits when you were overseas.. What was it you were in Vietnam and you were launching a rocket at a base or something and you got into trouble for that, what was that story?
Forrest: Oh golly I got into trouble a couple of times. That was at Tan Son Nhut Airforce base right next to Saigon and I was …Some time we are very naive when we were younger. I would go riding through Saigon with rockets strapped to the back of my little motorbike. Assuming everybody knew they were harmless.
Chris: Of course!
Forrest: They didn’t know they were.
Chris: It’s a science experiment, it’s a science experiment!
Forrest: So I would launch these out of the Sholong race track which was an abandoned race track, abandoned during the war at least and one day we were launching rockets, I saw we because all these Vietnamese kids would come out an watch. They would help me recover the rockets from inside the racetrack and suddenly an army helicopter, a Huey zoomed in with 50 caliber machine guns pointed straight at us and I would take off my shirt and start waving my shirt. I told the kids to get away. I’d just assumed they were going to kill me on the spot and they lifted up and came right over me, everything blew away. They looked at me and I kept waving an everything and they left but I heard more about that later from my bosses where I worked in the intelligence office.
Chris: That must have been a heart race moment. 0:07:54.1
Forrest: Another time I was launching from the roof of my apartment. I put a map of how to get to my apartment on this rocket offering a reward for it’s return and I launched the rocket then all of a sudden military police show up at the bottom of where I … I lived right off the base gate and the military police showed up as I was going downstairs to look for my rocket and they said. get back in your place the base is under attack, under rocket attack. So I went back to my room and I remembered I had put my map to my house on that rocket. So I snuck out anyway and went looking for it I never did find it.
Chris: No one else did apparently either right cause you’re here telling us?
Forrest: Apparently not! I’m glad for that.
Chris & Dave: Wow
Dave: That’s a story and a half, I don’t think we’ve heard one like that Chris.
Forrest: Those rocket launch experiences LED to something much bigger because my friend Ed Roberts also at the Air Force weapons lab he and I had been discussing, organizing a company to sell things through Popular Electronics magazine. We never could hit on a formula that both of us could agree to. We talked about everything from electronic abacus to an op amp analog computer like I’d been building in High School and that Ed was very interested in but when I got that article published in model rocketry he was really excited. He said ‘this is it, this is what we can do’ and so we started a little company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry systems to build those light flashers as well as fault rocket transmitters and that company MITS went onto do much bigger and greater things.
Dave: Oh yes folks, if the name rings a bell yes it is the Altair, the Ed Roberts of Altair fame so you are co-founder of MITS?
Forrest: Ed and I founded the company with Stan Kegel and Bob Zeller in September of 1969 in Ed’s kitchen.
Chris: Where all good companies are founded right.. garages, kitchens..
Forrest: Absolutely. Well the garage became where we built all the circuitry. Those guys were watching Star Trek, I was writing the manuals and everything. Years later Paul Allen .. Paul Allen and Bill gates came to Albuquerque to build to write software for the Altair. In 2006 Paul donated money to the New Mexico museum of Natural History and Science for a new wing to the museum celebrating the beginning of the personal computer era in New Mexico so there’s really really neat exhibits of Paul’s personal collection of mini rare computer artifacts.
Dave: Oh I had no idea!
Forrest: There’s a picture of my wife typing the manual for the first MITS transmitter then the rocket I built to launch the transmitter is sitting right next to the photograph of my wife in the museum.
Chris: That’s so cool.
Forrest: It’s a kick to see that.
Chris: Wow do you get back out to New Mexico much?
Forrest: We try to go out once a year, my wife still has relatives there.
Chris: Great that’s awesome.
Dave: So Ed ended up buying you guys out before the Altair happened? How did that come about? 0:11:06.7
Forrest: We were doing very poorly we only sold a few hundred of these telemetry kits and then we moved them to building various other things and then Ed wanted to get into building electronic calculators and Stan and I thought that just would not work it would fail…
Dave: Why was that?
Forrest: We didn’t think it would work because the Japanese were already beginning to bring out inexpensive calculators
Dave: Right and it didn’t last long did it? He was successful with the calculators but I think it was very briefly.
Forrest: It was very successful for about a year or so I wrote the manuals for those first calculators and he would pay me in equipment. We sold out to Ed but we were still all buddies, I was doing my thing becoming a writer and Stan was doing his thing he was still a consultant so I wrote the manuals for the early calculators. When he did the computer he called me over to the office one night and I was only four blocks away so I got on the bicycle and rode over there and he went into the shop there at MITS and he said ‘what do ya think?’ and he’s pointing at this funny looking blue box on the workbench with rows of switches and lights. He said ‘how well do you think it will sell?’ He told me what it was and I said ‘Ed based on past experience maybe a few hundred at most’. He looked sad and I felt bad later that I had been so pessimistic and they sold over 5000.
Chris: See now what if that was what motivated him even more to push it, that’s what really pushed it over the edge – you never know.
Forrest: What really motivated the whole thing was Popular Electronics Magazine. I had 3 columns in Popular Electronics all at the same time every month and that was really my full time work. So Les Solomon the technical editor desperately wanted a computer project to keep up with Larry Steckler’s magazine Radio Electronics. They had published some work in 1974, a 4 bit microcomputer but it didn’t take off and so they wanted an 8 bit machine and them when Ed came up with the Altair it was only natural for Les to become really involved in that. I’d introduced him to Ed when he came out to Albuquerque I’d designed with Ed and Bob a light wave transmission system called the Optocomm. Transmitted your voice over an infrared beam of light. We put that in popular electronics both as a cover story and a tutorial about light emitting diodes and a construction article about the project. So we had a strong connection with Popular Electronics and that’s what made the Altair successful. In fact Paul Allen saw that magazine in Harvard Square and took it to Bill Gates and that’s how it all began.
Dave: So is there any truth to the rumor that the actual box that was on the front cover is actually fake because the real prototype was lost in transit?
Forrest: Yes it was lost in transit.
Dave: On a train? It was lost on a train or something?
Forrest: I don’t remember how, I have no idea how Ed shipped it all I know is it never made it.
Dave: The worlds first, the world’s first home computer was basically lost in transit. Laughter