Original publication date: July 1992
Heurikon Historical Highlights
A series of articles for The Horizon
by Jeffrey Mattox
One of our original investors and business advisors was Ed Gray. He ran the NIKA Corporation, a Madison firm that contracted with the government and insurance companies to provide cost estimates for renovating or repairing damaged buildings in cities throughout the nation. NIKA maintained a database of material and labor rates for all building trades across the country.
The process of settling an insurance claim and doing cost estimates for government rehab projects involved a lot of paperwork. Ed wanted a machine that would eliminate the paper and could be taken directly into the field. Today, the perfect solution would be a portable PC, but back then there were no such things — there weren’t any personal computers, either.
We designed a 50-pound “portable” computer that included a four-slot Multibus I card rack, a 3M tape drive, a Burrows plasma display panel, three switching power supplies, and two fans. The tape drive was for loading the program and database and for saving the results of a site visit. The plasma panel was that era’s idea of a liquid crystal display, except it was made out of glass and required a lethal 250 volts to operate.
Chris designed a distinctive front panel and an internal support structure for the components, and somehow managed to fit everything into a metal travel case with barely any room left over. To power the unit in the field, we built a separate Gel-Cell battery pack. (That was another 50 pounds — it had to last for four hours!) It was a masterpiece of design in many ways, and it really was a forerunner of today’s portable computers. All it lacked was low-power logic, an LCD, and modern battery technology.
The Computer Drop Test...
We weren’t designing the unit from written specifications. It was an interactve design that entailed frequent meetings with Ed to work out the details. One day, well into the prototype construction phase, Ed announced that he was going to do a “drop test” before he’d accept the unit. He wanted it to survive a three-foot fall off of a table. Whoa! “Over my dead body,” Chris said. “Not with our plasma display, no way!”
Talk about portable! The NIKA Field Scribe came complete with it’s own tote system, including handles and wheels! The computer weighed 50 pounds, so the wheels were very handy. And, for use in those out-of-the-way places (i.e., buildings without AC power), we built a companion battery pack (same size, same weight).
On one of our trips to Kansas City to show Ed our progress, an airport security guard asked us to take the unit apart, presumably so he could make sure it didn’t conceal a bomb. I had the special tools we needed with me, just in case, and we wrestled the system apart in the security check area. Later on that trip, while waiting for a plane at O’Hare, we bumped into some of our patient Oscar Mayer associates from Madison (the hog scale people, remember?). They looked at us, then the NIKA equipment case, thought for a second about the lateness of the project we were still working on for them, and said: “So, trying to skip town, are you?”
... And The Ultimate Crush Test
Ed was very impressed with his machine; he called it the NIKA Field Scribe. He showed it to the heads of all the major insurance companies and demonstrated how it could total up the costs for anything from repairing a window or painting a wall to installing electrical cables or a new roof. After a few months, however, Ed realized that the insurance industry wasn’t ready to sign onto the new technology, so he used the machine to help trumpet his other services. It was, as they say, an idea ahead of its time.
Ed visited us a few months ago, and I asked him about his Field Scribe, hoping he’d tell me about how it was still stashed somewhere in his living room. Well, I shouldn’t have asked. Ed says he removed the electronics so he could temporarily use the metal case for something else, but, while laying about in his garage, the guts were run over by a truck. I hope he got the license number. (Makes me rethink the merits of the three-foot drop test.)
NEXT MONTH: Domiciles of the bench and famous.