The Morrow Z80
MORROW'S MICRO STUFF
The largest incubator of microcomputer people was
the Homebrew Computer Club, an organization that grew out of Bob
Albrecht's People's Computer Company and
George Morrow, a graduate student in mathematics, became interested in microcomputers and with two friends, Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg, formed a sort of company to make boards for the Altair. However, Morrow had his own ideas of what he wanted to do, and the group split. Morrow went on his own way, and Grant and Goldberg formed Kentucky Fried Computers, which became North Star Computers.
The first project George Morrow built was a combination 8080 CPU board and front panel board for either the Altair or Imsai. This board had a keypad on it, and it was used for programming the computer in place of the switches and lights used by both the Altair and the Imsai. To me this seemed like a good idea. The hardest thing to build, in both machines, was the front panel board. Morrow's board eliminated this problem. I sent for one and took it home to build. Upon completion, I found that the board would not work, so I sent it back to Morrow and forgot it for a while. One day the board came home with a note from George.
"Stan," he wrote. "Whoever built this board, never let him solder anything, ever! This is the worst soldering job I have ever seen."
When I told him I was the solder butcher, he laughed and said he meant it.
For years after, George teased me about my soldering. He never let me forget it.
The CPU board was a good idea but was not a success because George had it programming in octal notation while the rest of the 8080 world was using Hex notation. Besides, the hobbyists liked to program by flipping switches.
George's next project was the design of a 16-bit computer using the PACE chip made by National Semiconductor. With his friends, Goldberg and Grant, they would design the machine, and Bill Godbout would market it.
Although Godbout advertised the machine, it was never completed, and the partners split. George next designed a low-cost 4K memory board which was made and sold by Bill Goudbout. Priced at the low price of $189, the board sold very well, and for the first time George Morrow was earning real money from his designs. After a while, George left Godbout's distribution and started his own company, called Morrow's Micro Stuff, to sell his boards. It was a time of rapid expansion in the fledging microcomputer industry. The demand for cheap memory boards was almost impossible to fill. Most of the people buying computer kits did not realize that they would need much larger amounts of memory until after they had built the computer. Then they looked for the most inexpensive way to fill this need. Small companies like Morrows Micro Stuff moved in and sold most of the memory boards.
In 1977, George and Howard Fulmer joined forces to produce a complete computer. This was called the Equinox-100, and although it was well built and came in a very attractive cabinet, it was an 8080 machine at a time that the world was turning to the Z-80 processor. The company was short lived, and George turned to the production of floppy disk systems.
Morrow's new products, called "Thinker Toys" or "Discus," were low-cost 8-inch floppy disk sub-systems, consisting of a controller card, cables, and the disk drive, mounted in a cabinet with a power supply. The system came with CP/M and CBASIC at no extra cost, and for the first time, a S-100 computer owner could be running on a disk for under $1,000. The Morrow systems were a great success.
George again turned to the manufacture of complete computer systems with a line of complete computer systems sold as a package with a video terminal. His company, Morrow's Micro Decisions, made the Z-80 computer with 64K of RAM and either one or two floppy disks. The video terminal was made by a terminal manufacturer. The system was sold with CP/M, two versions of BASIC, and an applications package including WordStar, a spreadsheet, and a financial analysis package. The system also included a shell program, which made it easy to use CP/M. The entire package sold for $1,500 to $2,300, depending how many drives were included.
The Micro Decision system proved to be quite popular for a short time. The IBM PC was turning people toward 16-bit MS-DOS machines.
George Morrow was not one to give up easily. He designed a MS-DOS portable computer called The Pivot. This was different from the bulky "luggables" like the Compaq and IBM Portable that were appearing at that time. The Pivot looked like a small portable radio with a keyboard that folded into the package.
At this time, the Internal Revenue Service had a requirement for thousands of portable computers, and George Morrow's Pivot was the closest to their specifications. The Zenith Corporation was after this contract, and to get it they licensed George Morrow's design for the Pivot. Zenith gave George a choice of how they would pay for the license. Either Morrow could get a lump sum payment for a non-exclusive license, or an exclusive license with a smaller payment and a royalty on every unit sold. George took the larger lump sum payment because he wanted to bid on the IRS contract himself.
Zenith won the contract and made so many portables they were able to undersell Morrow in all markets. Shortly after this, Morrow Micro Decisions closed its doors.