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 Hit Counter    rev. 01/11/15

IMSAI History: The IMSAI Dollhouse

IMSAI Manufacturing Corporation had established a favored-client status with Intel Corporation by the end of 1976, and the result was to IMSAI's advantage in receiving pre-release engineering samples of parts, often 6 to 9 months in advance of formal announcement.  Thus, in March of 1977, John Coons and I, as a couple of engineering technicians for IMSAI, built the first five prototype 8048 Single Board Control computers (as they were first known) for evaluation.  They were equipped with Intel 8748 programmable (1K on-board EPROM) microprocessors, later to be called "embedded controllers".

I was assigned the task of designing and constructing the first demonstrator display for the new product, with John doing the programming (that was John's forte).  Based on the Marketing Department's and Chairman Bill Millard's vision of "The IMSAI Express"; a model train would accelerate down a 5 foot straight section of track to an anticipated exit from the track and plummet to a smashing end, only to abruptly reverse its motor and stop an inch or so from the end of the track.  A user-selectable delay time could be programmed in from the 8048 control computer keypad, and the process would then repeat with the tiny engine speeding to the opposite end of the track.  The whole apparatus was built on a slanted "C" shaped piece of 3/8" clear acrylic plastic emblazoned with press-on lettering (applied by in-house graphic artist Marcie Mafei) that identified the display as the "IMSAI Express".  Mounted 6 feet up in the air on 1 1/2" chrome pipe, it made for a dramatic showing of the more basic control capabilities of the 8048 microprocessor family at a number of major trade shows including the East Coast NCC and the West Coast Computer Faire.

A few weeks after completing the first display, I saw an ad for a San Jose, California hobby firm that was offering a rather elegant Dollhouse kit for about $55.00.  Suddenly, I saw a whole new platform for demonstrating the new single-board computer.  I envisioned zone lighting control, automatic lawn sprinklers, intruder alarm and deterrents, real-time clock, programmable zone-control heating and cooling, programmable stove, telephone interface (a pre-cursor to MODEM technology), and power-line carrier encoding so that minimal wiring would be necessary, among other support and add-on concepts.  As I discussed the idea with John and one of our engineers (Dan Carroll), the plan seemed more feasible by the day. 

Two days later I approached our Engineering Manager Jan Vath with the idea.  I showed her the ad for the dollhouse and provided a modest budget of time resources and cash requirements for materials.  She talked with Millard and Marketing Director Seymour Rubenstein (later of MicroPro International/ WordStar fame) and came back with an approval to go ahead.  I'm sure my enthusiastic description of the concept helped sway all parties, and I was convinced the project was a no-fail proposition.

John Coons would again provide programming assistance.  I drove down to San Jose that Friday night and bought one of the kits, a Woodline Products Victorian Dollhouse serial number 4369.  I had no way of knowing at the time, but Woodline Products President and owner Bill Jenkins was an IMSAI owner, and used the IMSAI FDC 2-2 dual floppy disk system for accounting, word-processing, and design tasks at his factory in Elmhurst, Illinois.  He would later become a valued customer and good friend of Fischer-Freitas Corporation.

I took the newly acquired kit to my small storefront shop on "Top-of-the-Hill" Mission Street in Daly City, which I had still retained for my sideline music electronics business.  I worked that night and on until about 4:00 in the morning.  I went home for about 5 hours sleep and returned to work the rest of Saturday and all night until about 4 PM on Sunday.  The Dollhouse was finished, needing only the fitting of the computer, fabrication of a power supply, and wiring for the peripherals.  I had purchased lights, alarm switches, a Radio Shack smoke detector, and other small accessories to complete the project earlier.

I showed up at IMSAI in Hayward on Monday morning and showed off the prize!  After much ooing and aahhing from the staff, I commenced to work on writing up the logic and I/O resources map for John so that he could start coding.  I found an old power supply from an obsolete IMSAI FDC Floppy Disk and modified it to provide the 5 and 12 volt DC, and 117 volt AC required for the layout.

By Friday, John and I were ready to show off the Dollhouse.  Bill Millard, occasionally given to excess, called the entire company of over 140 employees together at about 10:30 AM, to meet in the engineering area for a demonstration of the Dollhouse.  Millard was not an effective speaker, often rambling on and drifting from the main point.  This time he chose to shower me with a short, but embarrassing tribute and accolades for "demonstrating the spirit and creative qualities that IMSAI represented".  Once that was over, he asked me to provide the demonstration.  The overall reaction from the 100 or so fellow employees and management personnel was almost over the top in acceptance and applause.  I believe they shared a kind of "family pride" in seeing an embodiment of IMSAI's potential.  I felt embarrassed as much as I felt proud.  John Coons had elected to remain in the background, shunning the attention in his always laid back and understated manner.  I, however, maintained my stage demeanor, perfected from my years on the road with rock groups Buddy Miles and Uriah Heep.  After the season's main trade shows, the dollhouse remained in the darker recesses of IMSAI Manufacturing's marketing area for about a year and a half, brought out on special occasions to win the confidence of a potential dealer or OEM. 

In late 1978, very much to my surprise, I was called by IMSAI's Marketing Technician Duane "Duane-o" Hentrich, and asked if I wanted to come by and pick up the dollhouse.  Nancy and I had formed Fischer-Freitas Company by this time and were handling third-party support for IMSAI products, and were also helping to ease the backlog of some of IMSAI's own warranty work under contract.  Our close working relationship certainly must have been a factor in this most generous offer.  I jumped at the chance and soon had the dollhouse safely back in our possession.  Over the years damage from accidents and moving had taken it's toll, but the dollhouse has withstood the abuse very well.  I had an inventory of spare parts for the structure from the remains of 5 partially built replicas, once ordered by IMSAI's Marketing Director Seymour Rubenstein but were never completed, so restoration and preservation has been relatively easy. 

In 1999 I embarked on an urgent rush to renovate the artifact for display at the (then) upcoming Vintage Computing Festival where I was invited to display the "Wargames IMSAI".  I brought along the IMSAI Dollhouse as an added treat, and have always considered it to be an excellent representation of the capabilities and versatility of the first microcontrollers in a home environment.

-Thomas "Todd" Fischer 2002

I was honored to be invited as a guest speaker at the Third Vintage Computing Festival in Santa Clara, California in October of 1999.  Here, my daughters (Tessie on left, Elizabeth on right) and I pose for an awards picture for "Best Display" of the restored and working "IMSAI Dollhouse".

The code programmed into the Intel 8748 microcontroller has remained intact and fully operational, as did all the functionality of the IMSAI 8048 Control Computer, after almost 23 years!

Notice one of the framed IMSAI advertising proofs for the 8048 Control Computer "Complete Control"  on top of the "Widow's Walk",