Women in tech: The forgotten story of Vector Graphic

I frequently hear lamentations about the number of women in the technology field–or the lack of them. Although there have been a number of successful women in the field, such as Meg Whitman, CEO of HP and formerly Ebay; Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, men outnumber women in the field and often by a large margin.

That perhaps makes it even more sad that Vector Graphic is largely forgotten today. Last week Fast Company profiled this pioneering computer company that time forgot.

Here’s the end of the article:

Since [the 1980s], personal computer history has been written by the victors. The firms that survived were able to dictate the historical narrative of the industry—and that history usually places the two Steves at ground zero in Silicon Valley battling evil giants like IBM, leaving little room for outsiders from southern California, much less the rest of the world…

[W]e’ve forgotten how two women from California ran a firm that pioneered influential practices such as attention to product aesthetics, vertical integration (Vector has its own in-house software developers), and establishing training networks, providing packaged PC solutions, and treating employees like an extended family. Some of what Vector pioneered is now intertwined into the tech industry’s DNA.

Thanks to Vector, the origins of the personal computer cannot be separated from the story of women in technology. The personal computer has always belonged to all of us.

Unfortunately I have to take issue with the final paragraph–history has indeed separated the origins of the PC industry from the story of women in technology, by almost completely forgetting Vector Graphic, a computer company fronted by Loren Harp, Carole Ely, and Bob Harp, Loren’s husband.

Anyone who’s read me for more than about a month knows how frustrated I am that another computing pioneer, Commodore, is mostly forgotten today. But the Wikipedia entry for Commodore is book-length, and nearly every product that Commodore ever released has an entry. The entry for Vector Graphic was five paragraphs long at the time that the Fast Company article ran. The entry for Commodore’s RAM expansion unit that Commodore released in 1985 for the 64 and 128 is twice that long.

Generally speaking, the story of the dawn of the PC era goes like this: In 1974, Altair released the Altair 8800, a computer kit that hobbyists had to solder together themselves, based on an 8-bit Intel 8080 CPU. Numerous other kits followed, including the Apple I, which was a bare computer board that came already assembled. You had to provide everything else and still turn it into a computer, not unlike buying a motherboard from Asus or Gigabyte today, though the selection of cases and power supplies and keyboards to plug into the Apple I was much more limited. Then, in 1977, Apple released a complete, assembled, ready-to-use computer called the Apple II. Fast on its heels were Commodore and Tandy, with the PET and the TRS-80 Model 1, respectively.

I never realized that Vector Graphic was right there in 1977 with a ready-to-use computer of its own. Its design was derived from the Altair 8800 and it was largely compatible with the 8800’s hardware and software. Rather than compete directly with the likes of Apple, Commodore, and Tandy/Radio Shack, they targeted businesses with their machine.

I always knew there were a few machines in the late 1970s that used the Altair 8800’s S-100 bus and ran Gary Kildall’s CP/M, but all of the histories I’ve read glossed over those. The usual story of CP/M started with kit machines like the Altair and IMSAI, then quickly moved to Kaypro and Osborne.

Vector Graphic Vector4
The Vector Graphic Vector4 was a weird hybrid PC with both Z-80 and 8088 CPUs so it could run both CP/M and MS-DOS. But it wasn’t 100% IBM compatible, so it faltered on the market after its 1982 release once PC clones with good IBM compatibility appeared.

Vector Graphic started out as a project between friends Lore Harp and Carol Ely, who wanted to start a business. But they needed a product, and after a few tries at other things, Bob Harp offered up a computer memory board he’d developed for the Altair 8800 and built. Bob Harp contributed a reliable design that worked better than Altair’s own, and Lore Harp and Ely contributed their sense of style to it. They found that reliable, good-looking computer products could sell at a premium price, kind of like a couple of upstarts named Steve figured out around the same time. It wasn’t long before they were selling entire computers, working out of a spare bedroom, testing computers on a dining room table and keeping shipping materials in the shower of an unused bathroom. Michael Dell, eat your heart out.

Vector Graphic’s demise, like so many others, began in 1980. IBM decided it was time to produce a personal computer, and the original IBM PC, released in 1981. IBM’s PC exceeded even its own expectations, and every computer still on the market today, even those made by Apple, are derived from IBM’s 1980-81 design. The difference is whether they run an operating system from Microsoft, like the original IBM PC did, or one created by someone else.

Like many companies, Vector argued internally about whether to create a computer that was compatible with IBM’s PC or stay the course with what they had been making before. Ultimately this argument led to the departure of Bob Harp, who went on to start Corona, an early marker of IBM-compatible PCs. Somehow I’ve heard of Corona, but like many early PC makers, Corona’s PCs weren’t quite 100% IBM-compatible and their price wasn’t quite low enough, so they were overtaken by companies like Leading Edge and Tandy, whose prices were so much lower than IBM that software companies had to ensure their software worked on those machines as well as IBM’s machines as a matter of survival. Furthermore, Vector Graphic accidentally Osborne-d itself by announcing the Vector 4 too early in 1982, killing Vector 3 sales.

The struggles of operating a successful company took a toll on Lore and Bob Harp’s marriage, and they divorced in the early 1980s. Fortunately the founders were able to avoid financial ruin, because they saw the end coming and took the company public before competition with IBM started to unravel the business. All three co-founders became multimillionaires.

The end came quickly. Revenue was over $36 million in 1981 but just $2.1 million in 1984. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1985 and was completely liquidated by the end of 1987.

Here’s the sad thing about history being written by the victors: The companies that lost often have a good story, and lots of things to learn from, as well. Vector Graphic did a lot of things right and didn’t deserve to fade into obscurity the way it did.

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