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Write-only Memories

(Note: Since this article was first written, I've been informed that Mike Quinn Electronics is still in business, presumably under the direction of Mike's stalwart employee, Vince "Vinnie the Bear" Golden.  The address is: Mike Quinn Electronics, 401 McCormick St, San Leandro, CA 94577)

"Mighty Quinn and the Surplus Connection"
Part 1

Oakland Airport, Oakland, California-  Relatively few people will recognize the name "Mike Quinn" as a significant influence on the history of the personal computer industry.  But pioneering firms like Processor Technology (builders of the Sol), North Star Computers, Digital Microsystems, Godbout Electronics, Morrow Designs & Thinkertoys, James Electronics (later known as Jameco), IMSAI Manufacturing Corporation, and numerous others did.

Individuals recognized as pioneers in the field like Lee Felsenstein, George Morrow, Bill Godbout, Bob Marsh, Gordon French, Chuck Grant, Mark Greenberg, Howard Fulmer, among so many others also knew and depended on Mike to supply items that helped fuel their imaginations and bring their electronic creations to life.  A few, like George Morrow and Bill Godbout, even sold their wares on the cluttered front counter of Mike Quinn Electronics, located in a dilapidated former wooden barracks on the northeast corner of the sprawling Oakland, California Airport.

The faded beige World War 2-era building with extensive dry-rot, occasional broken window pane, and crumbling wooden foundations was one of about a dozen just like it arranged in rows of two.  The building behind Mike Quinn's was occupied by Godbout Electronics.  Bill Godbout had worked as a manager and buyer for Mike for a time before starting out on his own in the early 1970's and, joined by employee Corky Deeds,  started a mail order business selling electronic experimenter kits, similar to MITS, PAiA, and Southwest Technical Products. 

Mike Quinn Electronics was a gritty, unadorned , unswept, smoke-filled haven of surplus electronic gear and components, some of which never moved from the shelves for a  dozen or more years.  Mike Quinn stood a little over six feet tall, wore glasses and and his trademark Stetson hat, plaid shirt, rumpled pants held up with a wide belt adorned with a large belt buckle, and cowboy boots.  Mike walked with a slightly stooped-over posture and always with a lit cigarette in his mouth or in his hand.  He was a chain smoker, his fingers stained dark yellow from many years of holding a lit cigarette. He was probably in his late fifties when I first got to know him in 1967.

The inventory included military electro-mechanical relics from World War 2 and earlier, military surplus scopes, test equipment, motor and gear units, aircraft gyros, radio gear, power supplies, transformers, obsolete resistors, condensers (whoops... capacitors), bakelite rods and sheets, odd sheet metal of various shapes and sizes, assortments of fasteners of every description, wire and cable, and endless other one-of-a kind oddities.

There were newer pieces of test equipment, power supplies, electronic components and discarded prototypes from regional companies like Diablo Systems, Systron-Donner, Signetics, Raytheon, Philco-Ford, Lawrence Livermore Labs, Qume, Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix and others.  The inventory was market-driven and the less-desirable items could be had for little or nothing if Mike knew you or liked you.  Give him or his employee Vinny a bad time and you were banned! 

Despite the distressed clutter, Mike nearly always had desirable components including the latest logic chips, 1/4 watt and 1/8 watt resistors, small monolithic and chip capacitors, memory chips, microprocessors, sockets, connectors and nearly all of the small items that a true hacker needed to complete his or her Mark 8 computer, TV Typewriter, or other project.  Here was a virtual cornucopia of digital and analogue parts priced reasonably and usually in plentiful supply.  The front counter often had a photocopied schematic and parts list for some interesting project or gadget, an inducement for hobbyists to buy more parts.

No one ever questioned Mike as to how he obtained any of his stock for fear of being banned.  Mike was honorable and up front in his dealings with everyone, but his business was none of yours!  Mike was well connected with engineers, technicians, buyers, brokers, purchasing managers, and others who would willingly provide merchandise for cash, which Mike never seemed to be in need of.  He was savvy too, despite the fact that he had no knowledge of the technical field he was purveyor to, nor did he have a desire to learn.  He had people like his manager Vince "Vinny" Golden, and Bill Godbout who could keep him up to date as to current values. 

Occasionally, he'd find that he wasn't charging enough for a certain item.  If you asked him "How much for the whole box?", expecting to get a better price, you'd immediately find that it was much more expensive, or maybe not for sale at all.  That was Mike's way.  He was no one's fool.  But if he liked you and knew you needed parts badly, maybe to meet a deadline, his generosity was overwhelming.  This kind of behavior endeared him to many and alienated him to a few.

"How come you sold that to him for less money than you charged me?", you might overhear.

"Because I like him, and I don't like you!", would be the direct and matter-of-fact reply from Mike.  He didn't mince words.  He would appear to be grumpy and curt, but I don't think I'd ever seen him angry.  He always appeared to be in control of his business and his temper.  You either liked Mike or didn't, and he pretty much felt the same way.

If you arrived early in the morning, the musty smell of damp decaying wood, cosmoline, and the ancient fungus-retarding varnish of military electronics would permeate the air inside.  Soon, the smoke from Vinny's and Mike's cigarettes would displace almost all breathable air.  Step out a side door into the fenced yard adjacent to the building and you would be greeted by towering, rotting packing crates, reminders of the military surplus gear that was once housed in them.  Carefully negotiate your way down a narrow aisle piled high on either side with machinery or more crates and you'll find a large wave-soldering machine, weathered but probably serviceable with a lot of cleanup and some minor repairs. 

 "How much, Mike?"

"Oh, I don't know... how about $400?"

"Geeze, that's cheap!"

"Well, when I bought it, it had $1400 worth of solder in it.  I figure I've made my money on it a couple of times over."

Mike likes me and sees the hunger in my eyes as I try to figure out how I'm going to make this work.  He says:

"It's going to need at least 80 pounds of solder just to get it going, and it's not OSHA approved."

Suddenly, my $400 machine is going to cost me over $1200, not counting flux and other materials necessary for production soldering.  Mike smiles as he sees my disappointment.  He knows it's not for me.  Several months later the big machine is gone, scrapped for the metal value.  Suddenly, all temptation is gone.

The story of Mike Quinn is relevant to the beginnings of the Silicon Valley microcomputer revolution because he provided not only the hardware resources, but sometimes the chance meeting or introduction between individuals, some of whom went on to become minor legends in their own time.  Bill Godbout (Godbout Electronics) and George Morrow (ThinkerToys, Morrow Designs, Zenith Data Systems) are two prime examples, as are Bob Marsh and Lee Felsenstein (Processor Technology), and Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg (North Star Computers).  Mike was on a first-name basis with all of them, as well as most of his repeat customers. 

One could speculate that without Mike's purveyance it is likely that the technical outcome of those early days of microcomputer development by what amounted to, for the most part,  the efforts of hobbyists, might have yielded very different results.  The larger picture of those chance meetings and connections in the formulative years of the Silicon Valley rebirth was one of timing, availability, circumstances, egos, and resources.  And Mike Quinn Electronics was a kind of regional touchstone for many who would achieve a degree of fame and fortune.

End of Part 1

Coming in the next installment: " The IMSAI Connection"