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The Ohio Scientific

From the first day I opened the Computer Mart of New York in 1976, my store full of computers was a magnet for kids. They hung around as much as I let them, bright and eager to get their hands on a computer, any computer. I let them sit at the teletype and play Star Trek whenever it was not too busy, but many of them really wanted a computer they could own.

One day I read an ad in Byte Issue #6 for a computer trainer based upon the 6502 microprocessor, the CPU for the Apple and Commodore computers. The trainer came completely assembled with an instruction book, and only cost $99. Not only that, but after completing all the instructions and learning about the microprocessor, the student could return the trainer and trade it in for a single board computer kit, or for a blank board with instructions to build the Ohio Scientific Instruments Superboard computer. If the trade was made, the trainer only cost $10 to use. This seemed like the perfect thing to start the kids on, so I called Ohio Scientific Instruments and asked to become their dealer.

Thus, I began my long association with Mike and Charity Cheiky, the founders and owners of OSI. ­We met in person at the first computer show ever held, the wonderful Trenton Computer Show of 1976, when people from all over the U. S. came to New Jersey to see, touch, and talk about the new wonder, the microcomputer.

Mike and Charity and their Ohio crew had come to show their Superboard System. The OSI 400 Superboard could be built with either a 6502 or 6800. You could populate it with eight 2102 Memory chips for a full 1024 Bytes (K) of RAM, 512 Bytes of ROM, an ACIA serial interface chip for RS-232C interface or 20 MA current loop interface, a PIA for 16-parallel 1/0 lines, and a power supply. Then, if you had a terminal, you had a complete computer. You could also expand it with one of Mike's memory boards, or video boards and a backplane board, into a complete OSI 400 Computer system. You could buy a kit, or just the circuit boards, for only $29 each.

OSI would also sell you all the "hard to get parts" at a reasonable price. Mike had also designed a floppy disk interface (probably the first one for personal computers.) The documentation and schematics were primitive. Manuals consisted of Mike's design sketches printed with his handwritten notes, and it was a little hard to figure out just which notes applied to the version you were building. However, one hobbyist helped another until they got it "up and running," and the finished product was a very good computer.

When OSI completed their first complete "factory built" computer, called the Challenger, Mike and Charity brought it to New York , and I hired a meeting room at the Hilton to give the first public demonstration. I invited everyone I knew who had an interest in personal computers, and it was a success in New York . When OSI showed the Challenger all over the US , they developed a loyal following for their equipment. It was not as large as the IMSAI, Altair, or SWTPC 6800 crowd, but much more committed to Mike's ideas and designs. Other designers packed as much circuitry as they could into the smallest possible space, thus creating neat packages, but also creating excess heat and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI.) Mike Cheiky built computer boards that were large and had few parts on them. These boards could be expanded and still meet the Underwriters Lab specifications for electronic equipment. OSI used its own 48-pin bus with a plug-in motherboard, made with low-cost Molexr pin connectors that provided trouble-free connections. The OSI cabinets were large, with lots of room for convection cooling without a noise-creating fan.

The price of the Challenger computers was much lower than other computers of that time, and they came completely assembled. The Basic Challenger 65-IK (1K of RAM!) with serial interface was $439. If the IK board sounds strange to you, it was because you could keep adding chips to an OSI memory board. (They didn't sell a board without chips because they needed some to check out the machine.)

With the Challenger 4K model for $529, you could run Tiny BASIC without expansion, which allowed small, simple programs, and if you bought the Challenger 65V ­4K model you got a built-in video terminal so you didn't need a teletype. The top-of-the-line Challenger computer cost $675. If you ordered a memory board with the computer, for $139 you received a 16K board with 4K on board. You were limited to 3 of these because it was a big bargain. OSI even had 16K memory boards, which were almost unheard of in those days! If you ordered 12K or larger, you got the full sized Extended BASIC free!

Far in advance of its time, OSI had a floppy disk for the Challengers. It was a huge bargain: $990 for a single drive, or $1,440 for two. There was a catch, however. Mike didn't wait until he had developed a full disk operating system. He immediately sold his floppy disks with only a preliminary DOS, without a directory! You had to keep track of what was on the tracks by listing it on a piece of paper, but for less than $1,000 who cared about a simple thing like that?

Anyway, Mike would have his DOS "real soon now." OIS owners might not have a directory, but they did have faith in Mike. He was a prolific designer, and when he got an idea he would not wait until the next revision of the board to put it into effect. No, Mike would make the changes on the drawings in pencil, and the very next board made had the new design. His schematics and drawings often looked like chickens had walked over them, and when you had a problem with a board and wanted to trouble shoot, it was wise to check with the factory to find out exactly what modifications had been made to your board.

Mike Cheiky was a pioneer in the use of multiple processors coexisting in the same system. The Challenger 3 had a 6502, a 6800, and a Z-80, all on the same CPU Board. At first there was only software for the 6502. If you wanted to use one of the other microprocessors, you were on your own. Later, this capability provided the ability to run CP/M as well as the OSI operating system OS 65.

This flexibility of the OSI design was also the reason the Challengers were one of the first computers to have a multi-user system and a multi-user operating system, OS 65/U, to go with it.

Not only was Mike Cheiky one of the first to design a floppy disk system for his computers, he was the first to add a Winchester hard disk to a personal computer. The Okidata Company had a 14-inch 84 Mbyte hard disk drive, which Mike interfaced to his Challenger personal computer at a time when most PC were using cassettes to store data! For this reason, OSI got a head start in selling to businesses, and he made some large machines to cater to this market segment.

The one problem that Mike never solved was the inability to add large amounts of memory to his computers. This was not considered too much of a drawback at a time when 64K was considered the absolute limit to RAM memory. Because of this lack of RAM, the disk systems had to do a very large number of disk accesses to load and store portions for the program and data.

The business end of OSI was always quite haphazard. Delivery dates were long and often missed. Development time for new software was very long and seemed to lack priority in OSI. The dealers were quite fed up, and in 1978 OSI called a meeting at the plant. We went to Ohio , as did dealers from all over the world. Mike Cheiky and his company described their plans to expand into business systems, and the dealers presented all their gripes and problems. As a result, a cooperative software development project was set up, funded by the dealers. Its aim was to develop business application software for use by the dealers who subscribed to the project. Our store did not join because we were mainly devoting our efforts to the Alpha Micro Time Sharing computer as a business system. However, we continued to sell OSI computers to those who wanted them.

If you asked me in 1977 which companies would last into the next decade, I would have never picked OSI. As a company they were badly organized and almost impossible to do business with. They were undercapitalized and very slow to deliver ordered equipment. This lost them a lot of the business they could have obtained because of their technical ability.

In 1987 OSI attracted investment capital, and went into both the business computer field and into the very low end of the business. For a long time it seemed that the thing they did best was to advertise and sell equipment. The low-priced personal computers never lived up to the promised performance unless the user learned a lot about the machines. They never could compete with TRS-80, or Apple, or Atari, although OSI low-priced models sold for less and had more features. The main problem was lack of software support. OSI locked out third party software developers, who then turned to Apple and TRS-80 and wrote no software for OSI machines.

In OSI's quest for additional sales, they established a quota which dealers had to meet to keep their dealership. Our store did not sell too many OSI computers, and we refused to sell the cheap models after we found out that we could not get repair parts. We gave full credit of the price toward an Apple because we could not repair broken machines. As a result, we gave up our OSI dealership, and our former landlord at Polk's Hobby Store picked it up.

At the peak of OSI 's popularity, they were bought out by MaCom, a large communications firm who wanted to get into the PC industry. The first thing they did was to get rid of Mike Cheiky and stop the low-cost hobby end of the business.

Mike and Charity Cheiky started Santa Barbara Research Company to build super office computer systems.

MaCom looked like they were successful in turning OSI into a business computer company, but the competition was too rough so they sold OSI. The buyer went bankrupt and the company was put up for sale. A company named Isatron purchased the name, but not the company. For a while they built 68000 Unix computers and a few older designs using the OSI operating system OS 65U. The name OSI was used for this line of business computers.

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