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Wang Laboratories: From Custom Systems to Computers

By Rick Bensene
October, 2001
Updated September, 2011

Wang Laboratories made it's early fortunes in the mid to late 1960's through a number of different models of electronic calculators, beginning with the LOCI-2, and extending through the extremely popular 300-series (an example being the Wang 360SE). These machines made Wang Labs a major force in the early electronic calculator marketplace. An area of Wang's calculator technology that wasn't as obvious was that of custom systems based on Wang's calculator technology. This article outlines the amazing flexibility of Wang's use of electronic technology, and how it was applied to a wide range of applications that typically wouldn't be thought of as applicable to a calculator.

The Wang LOCI-2

The story of Wang Laboratories' involvement in electronic computation goes back to the mid-1950's. From the founding of his company in 1951, Wang Labs' business growth was driven by manufacture of magnetic core memory components and custom measurement systems. Dr. Wang leveraged the experience with magnetic core memory and logic components that he gained while at Harvard to bootstrap his business. Along with the magnetic device business, Wang also took on the design and manufacture of various custom digital measurement equipment, everything from digital tachometers to a system that counted red blood cells. But, in the back of his mind, Dr. Wang's vision was to have his company become involved in the technology of using electronics to perform computation. While working at the Computation Laboratory at Harvard, Wang had been working intently on developing technology that was related to computing. In fact, while at Harvard, Dr. Wang developed some of the original principles of magnetic core memory. Dr. Wang's developments were later built upon by others, and turned into the predominant means for high-speed computer memory through the mid to late-1970's, when integrated circuit memory started to take over. When Dr. Wang left the Computation Lab to start his own business selling magnetic core memory components, he had visions of his company someday becoming a computer company. Early on, his dreams were too aggressive for his shoestring budget. Even so, Dr. Wang always made sure he had time to tinker with his visionary computing projects even though he was kept quite busy running his business. One of Dr. Wang's pet projects was a differential analyzer -- a type of analog computer that could quickly solve complex mathematical problems.

Before digital computers became the mainstay of computing, analog computers were quite common. Analog computers use varying voltages and currents to represent variables, and various types of amplifiers to represent factors in differential equations, with the result being a final voltage or current that can be read out on a meter or graph. In the day, analog computers were heavily used in process control situations, such as calculating the correct aiming of the big guns on board a battleship. Many variables had to be considered simultaneously, including the position of the ship, the position of the target, the type of ammunition, the wind and other weather conditions, the constant motion of the ship from the action of the sea, and myriad other variables. The analog computer would simultaneously combine all of these variables to generate a real-time result that would control the large servomechanisms that aimed the guns to assure that their ordinance would be delivered accurately to the target. Such calculations were performed using very complex differential equations, which were modeled using mechanical or analog electronic means.

Dr. Wang felt that perhaps digital technology could be used to perform the same kinds of functions as analog computers, but in a way that much more flexible, allowing the machine to solve a wide variety of problems. Wang and some of his small staff of engineers developed a digital differential analyzer called WEDILOG. Prior to the development of digital technology, differential analyzers were analog machines, initially using mechanical elements such as precision gear trains and differentials to model the differential equations used for simulation of physical systems. Examples of the types of problems solved using differential analyzers were ballistics calculations (calculating the trajectory of a artillery round), modeling the flow of liquids and gasses, and even things like predicting the weather. Later, analog electronics took the place of the mechanical elements, dramatically reducing the size of differential analyzers, and improving their accuracy. The WEDILOG took the process to the next step, using digital logic (ones and zeroes), along with electronic circuitry that could perform mathematical operations. The WEDILOG machine contained some elements that would be re-used later to develop Wang's electronic calculator technology. The key development that made the WEDILOG special was a means to digitally generate logarithms quickly and accurately.

The WEDILOG differntial analyser used vacuum tubes and magnetic core technology (not in the traditional magnetic core memory sense, but as logic elements such as shift registers) in its implementation. 600 tubes, 200 semiconductor diodes, and 550 magnetic core elements made up the basic machine, which consumed three standard 19-inch relay racks. The analyzer was programmed by use of patch cables that interconnected the various parts together in much the same way that analog computers were constructed. In this sense, the analyzer was programmable by how it was wired, not by a list of instructions. The calculating elements of the WEDILOG operated on five-digit decimal numbers, with a range of -1.00000 to +1.00000. Input could come from any number of sources, depending on how the machine was wired, and output could be directed to a plotter, electrified typewriter, chart recorder, IBM punched card equipment, or other types of recording equipment. The projected sales price for the base digital differential analyzer was $20,000.

It isn't clear if more than just the prototype WEDILOG analyzer was produced. The only references that have been found thus far for the WEDILOG analyzer occur in a report on the state of the digital computing industry commissioned by the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory in 1955, which indicates that only the one machine had been built as a prototype.

Whether or not WEDILOG ever became a production reality, the concepts that it proved would later return in Wang's calculators, and propel Wang Laboratories to a meteoric rise in the technology marketplace of the mid to late 1960's.

By 1960, the continuing refinement of digital computing technology, and the development of miniaturized components such as the transistor, began to change the face of the world of electronics, setting the stage for the beginning of the electronic calculator revolution. In 1961, a cooperative effort between two English companies, Sumlock Comptometer and Bell Punch, leading to the introduction of the Anita Mark VIII Thyratron tube-based electronic calculator. By 1965, the realm of electronic calculator technology had expanded greatly, with many companies world-wide realizing the value of bringing personal electronic calculating machines to an eager market. In the United States, Friden had introduced their very successful all-transistor EC-130 calculator in '63. Mathatronics Inc., had debuted their amazing and revolutionary Mathatron stored-program programmable desktop printing calculators in '64, and, at about the same time, Wyle Laboratories had introduced their magnetic drum memory-based WS-01 Scientific calculator. Wang Laboratories entered into the calculator market in early '65 when they introduced the transistorized LOCI-2. In Europe, Italy's Olivetti had introduced the astoundingly advanced and successful Olivetti Programma 101, and IME (Industria Macchine Elettroniche) was marketing their very capable transistorized calculators. Germany's Olympia Werke, A.G., had begun marketing transistorized electronic calculators in Europe, also manufacturing subtle variations of their designs for U.S. mechanical calculator maker Monroe, for sale into the U.S. market. In Japan, a great deal of development was going on, with Oi Electric marketing their short-lived Parametron-based Aleph Zero calculator. Sharp had their first electronic calculator, the Compet 10, on the market, while Casio, Sony, and Canon were close to introducing their own electronic calculator designs.

Digital Equipment's PDP-8 Mini Computer

At the time that electronic calculator technology was getting on the major growth curve, computer technology had come a long way from its beginnings in the 1940's. By the mid-1960's, computers had gone from massive, power-hungry, vaccuum tube monsters to smaller and much more reliable transistor-based machines. While transistors made a desktop calculator a practical reality, transistors transformed computers from the behemoths they were into the beginnings of the mini-computer. In 1965, Digital Equipment introduced the first true mini-computer, the PDP-8 -- a capable digital computing system that could fit on a desktop, didn't require special power or environmental conditions, and sold for a price-tag that would finally allow entities other than large corporations and the government to enter the computer age.

With all of this technology becoming available, there were yet still a few areas of application that neither mini-computer technology or calculator technology really could address. These areas were real-time process control and data acquisition systems. Mini-computers were just emerging, and, while much less expensive than their "giant brain" predecessors, were still quite expensive, and in some cases, still an unknown factor. Electronic calculators, in general, did not have the flexibility and interfacing ability to act as data acquisition systems, or as controllers for process control environments. This meant that these complex data acquisition and control systems had to be completely custom-designed, using 'hard-wired' digital and analog circuitry to implement their functionality. At the same time, there was a massive pent up demand for sophisticated control and data acquisition systems to automate processes which were being created that were too complex for humans to control manually, too tedious and time-consuming for a human to perform, or to speed up processes that had to be slowed down in order for humans to keep up. Examples of such systems technology included things like controlling the process of forming molten steel into sheets of metal, managing the complex mixing of compounds to grow semiconductors, or performing automated testing of the environmental control systems in space suits, among others.

One aspect of Wang Labs' business experience that gave them a one-up on their competitors is that the company already had experience with real-time control systems. In the early 1960's, before Wang got into the calculator business, Wang Labs had been involved with Warner-Swasey, a company that made metal working machinery such as lathes and milling machines. Wang developed control systems that would automate the operation of theses formerly man-operated machines, allowing faster, more accurate machining of precision metal parts. The work of developing these Numerical Control (or "NC", as the technology came to be known) systems contributed to Wang's later development of control systems based on its calculators. Another aspect of Wang's business that helped them in the custom control systems business is that early in the lifetime of the company, Wang had developed and marketed a line of transistorized, general-purpose logic devices called 'LOGI-BLOCs'. LOGI-BLOCs were a set of standardized circuit boards utilizing discrete component technology that provided basic digital logic and analog functions. Before the advent of integrated circuits, the LOCI-BLOC concept provided a building-block method for putting together complex systems.

Mr. Frank Trantanella (left) on the job, November, 1967

As a result of Wang's LOGI-BLOC business, the company had already been involved in the design of great deal of specialized control and data acquisition systems centered around their LOGI-BLOC technology. Wang had a department that specialized in custom systems, and one of the star engineers in the department was a man named Frank Trantanella. Mr. Trantanella started with Wang Labs at the time when the development of custom systems using LOGI-BLOCs was at a peak, and the LOCI calculator (which was initially prototype using LOGI-BLOCs), while in existence, had just began to catch on in the marketplace. Within a two year timeframe of starting with Wang, Mr. Trantanella had designed over forty complete custom systems for various Wang customers. This was a frantic pace for complex systems design, which led Mr. Trantanella to come to the conclusion that there just had to be a better way.

Whether out of foresight, or simply due to perceived market demand, Dr. Wang, (the founder of Wang Laboratories), and his engineers had designed the LOCI-2 calculator with an Input/Output capability. The idea was that a calculator was more useful if it offered a number of different options to allow data to flow into and out of the calculator rather than just the keyboard and display. The simple I/O bus that was available on the LOCI-2 allowed the addition of external devices to provide hardcopy output (such as the LOCI Printer), as well as allowing connection of devices to allow data to be input into the LOCI calculator.

The programmable nature of the LOCI-2, along with its Input/Output capability, led Mr. Trantanella to think that perhaps the LOCI could serve as a smart controller for custom systems. With the LOCI-2 acting as brains, and LOCI-BLOC interfaces for connecting to external equipment, a more generalized control system could be developed. In 1966, Armco Steel came to Wang Labs and asked them to design a system to monitor and record the temperature of steel ingots as they were travelling through reduction gates in their steel mill. To Mr. Trantanella, the LOCI seemed to be a perfect candidate as the brains for the system. A system was designed that used a Wang LOCI-2 calculator, combined with two punched card readers to store the control program, and a special interface developed to connect a Teletype Model 33 for input of data via punched tape and output of reports via the Teletype's printer. Additionally, special interfaces, built using the LOGI-BLOC circuit modules, were created that connected the calculator with a bank of ten analog-to-digital converters that allowed the LOCI to sample voltages from temperature sensors located along the path that the steel travelled through. All of these pieces were assembled together in a cabinet, and became the Wang 2315 Online Computing System.

The Wang 2315

The 2315 was sold into a number of differing environments where on-line acquisition and processing of data was needed. The 2315 was significantly less expensive than a mini-computer system of the time, and the scientific calculating capabilities of the LOCI-2 made the development of the data analysis programs quick and easy relative to the programming required on a mini-computer system. One weakness of a mini-computer system as compared to the LOCI-2 calculator was that complicated math software had to be written for the mini-computers to perform operations such as logarithms, which were 'built in' to the LOCI-2. Along with the cost benefit, the general concept of using the I/O bus to connect a myriad of peripheral devices to a programmable calculator proved to be a wonderful means of simplifying the design of customized data acquisition and control systems.

The LOCI-2-based Space Suit Test System Built for NASA
Photograph Courtesy of Frank Trantanella

As a result of his hard work in the custom systems group, in 1968, Mr. Trantanella was made a Vice President of the Systems group at Wang, reporting directly to Dr. Wang. During the time between developing the 2315, and his promotion to VP, Mr. Trantanella's Systems group had turned out a wide range of customized systems using the LOCI-2 calculator as the brains. One of the most remarkable, as well as historic, was a custom system that used the LOCI-2 to test the environmental control systems in space suits. At the time, NASA, the US Space Agency, was dead set on meeting President John F. Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the '60's. In order for a man to survive on the surface of the moon, a complete, self-contained environment had to be created for the astronaut. The space suit had to provide all aspects of life support that the astronaut needed, including heating and cooling, breathable air, and protection from various forms of radiation. NASA came to Wang with the specifications for a system that would test the heating and cooling systems of the space suit. The test system should be able to pinpoint any potential problems before an astronaut would find out about them at a time when help was almost a quarter of a million miles away. Trantanella's systems group built a special machine utilizing many of the concepts of the 2315 Online Computing System, using the LOCI-2 calculator as the main controller, that performed the testing task admirably. This was just one example of Wang calculators helping to make humankind's dream of setting foot on a different world a reality.

While Trantanella and his team were busily working on building all of these custom systems based on the LOCI calculator, Wang Laboratories had continued to grow its success in the calculator market. The LOCI-2, while an amazing machine for its time, wasn't very user-friendly. The LOCI was especially tedious for use in non-engineering applications, and Wang's marketing people were getting feedback indicating that a more easy-to-use calculator would dramatically expand Wang's penetration into the marketplace. As a result of this, Dr. Wang set his engineers to the task of building a similarly capable, but easier-to-use calculator. The result was the Wang 300-series calculators. These machines utilized much of the same logarithmic logic that made the LOCI-2 so capable, but improved dramatically on the usability angle. The 300-series calculators made it possible for Wang to market calculators into financial, business, and educational markets rather than just in the scientific and engineering areas of application that the LOCI-2 addressed. This move by Wang Labs proved to be a monsterous success. The Wang 300-series calculators were an instant hit in the marketplace, drawing droves of customers to buy Wang calculators rather than those of their competitors.

While this was a wonderful development for the company, the success of the 300-Series calculators shifted focus away from the LOCI, as well as the custom systems business. The business reality was that the lion's share of Wang's revenue was now being generated by the 300-series calculators, and from a percentage point of view, the systems business, as well as Wang's other businesses (typesetting machines, LOGI-BLOC logic modules, and machine controls) were compartively small-potatoes. To Mr. Trantanella, it was clear that the days of his Systems group were numbered. To try to fend out the inevitable, Trantanella had the idea of using the calculating guts of a 300-Series calculator as the basis for a general purpose computing system -- a system that expanded on the ideas developed in the making of the 2315 and other custom systems. The key concept that Trantanella had in mind was the use of a standarized bus structure that would allow various parts of the system to communicate with each other in a consistent fashion. In this way, the 300-series math processor could communicate to a core-memory system, which in turn could communicate with I/O modules, which would interface the system to the outside world. The resulting system would act a lot like a computer, but would have high-level math functions built-in, and would be much more simple to progam. The system would also be a major step above a programmable calculator, as it could have significantly more data storage capacity, as well as a great selection of input/output capabilities that even the best calculators of the time couldn't match. The other concept of the system was that the various functional components were modular, meaning that the system could easily be expanded by simply adding a module to the bus structure, not to mention making troubleshooting and repair much easier.

A Wang 360E System

Mr. Trantanella devised a standardized bus structure that could be used to connect the various functional modules of the system. The functional modules (Wang called them "boxes") were each contained in a rack-mountable chassis with connectors on the rear to connect the units together via the bus structure. The system consisted four main boxes; the "MEMORY CONTROL", "ARITHMETIC UNIT", "TELETYPE INTERFACE", and "MEMORY" boxes. The MEMORY CONTROL box was the main control for the system, which managed communications between all of the boxes, and performed instruction fetching, decode, and execution sequencing, as well as providing 1K bytes of base memory for the system. The ARITHMETIC UNIT served as the math processor. This box was essentially a modified Wang 360E electronics package, with interfaces to the standard bus rather than the keyboard/display unit normally used with the 360E. The TELETYPE INTERFACE managed various I/O functions, including connection to the 4002 keyboard unit(s) as well as providing I/O interfacing for a Teletype Model 33 teleprinter. MEMORY boxes provided the main memory for the system, each of which contained 8K-bits (organized as 1024 words of eight bits each) of magnetic core memory, with interfacing circuitry to allow the memory to communicate with the other units. Up to three memory boxes could be connected to the system to allow it to address up to 4K bytes of memory.

Trantanella and a number of engineers on his design staff worked in 'skunk-works' mode to put together a prototype of the system in late 1966, and found that the whole concept worked out remarkably well. The use of a Wang 300-series calculator as the arithmetic unit for the system meant that the calculator operated in decimal, had floating-point math, two add/subtract accumulators, four store/recall memory registers, multiplication/division, and scientific functions (log, antilog, square root, and squaring) all built-in. On a mini-computer, a large and complex library of programs would have to be written to provide the same capabilities, and wouldn't make the calculations as quickly as the 'hard-coded' Wang hardware could. Trantanella was understandably proud of the accomplishment. The ease of programming, speed, memory, and interfacing capabilities of the machine really gave it an edge, and the fact that a complete system could retail for around $10,000, with a healthy dose profit margin included, made it all the more exciting. Trantanella felt that it would be easy to sell Dr. Wang on the idea of making the computer an official product.

As it turned out, rousing Dr. Wang's interest wasn't quite as easy as thought. After a bit of prodding, Dr. Wang did approve making the system a product, initially marketed as the Wang 4000 Computing System, though it was clear Dr. Wang was really looking for something else. By the time the system was ready for production, major changes were afoot in the calculator market, as well as the computer market. Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-8 minicomputer had been selling like hotcakes. And, even though it was rather expensive, many of the systems were sold into exactly the process-control and data-acquisition markets that Mr. Trantanella's pet project was targeted at.

The Wang 4000 Computing System with 4002 Keyboard/Display Unit
Photograph Courtesy of Frank Trantanella

When Dr. Wang was asked about making Trantanella's brainchild a product, it was clear that he was preoccupied. Always thinking ahead, Dr. Wang knew that the calculator marketplace was changing very rapidly, and that while his company had a major leadership position in the high-end calculator market, there were forces afoot that could jeopardize Wang's position in fairly short order. Among these were the introduction of practical integrated circuits which made it much easier to manufacture a calculator which consumed less space and provided more capabilities. Also, another big factor was "Japan, Inc.". Japan's electronics industry had seriously embraced the calculator market, and companies like Sharp, Casio, Sony, Hitachi, and Sanyo were hitting the market with low-cost desktop calculators using early integrated circuits. While not as capable as Wang's 300-series calculators, they were nonetheless making a dent in some of the lower-end market areas that Wang had focused on adapting to, including finance and accounting, the insurance industry, and other non-scientific areas that still needed calculating power. Dr. Wang had come to the conclusion that Wang needed to enter the computer business to expand his company's product offerings and revenue base, providing future room for growth as the calculator market inevitably shook out. With these thoughts churning around in his mind, Dr. Wang had his own concept of the computer he wanted to market. Wang wanted a "true" computer, not just a glorified calculator, that was faster, less expensive, and more powerful than Digital Equipment's mini-computers. Dr. Wang wanted Wang Labs to become the #1 computer manufacturer, pushing DEC aside in the mini-computer marketplace, with an eye towards making a big dent in "Big Blue" IBM's computer business, and it wasn't clear to Dr. Wang that the system Trantanella was proposing was what was needed to meet this objective. Dr. Wang's enthusiasm for the project seemed luke-warm at best, but he went ahead and gave approval to go ahead with the product.

The Wang 4000 Computer that was displayed in Dr. Wang's Museum at Wang corporate headquarters
Photograph Courtesy of Bob Trottier

With Dr. Wang's rather weak blessing, production of the system began, along with all of the peripheral functions related to selling the system, including generation of marketing materials, documentation, and service and support systems. Finally, the machine known as the Wang 4000 Computer System, was informally introduced at the annual IEEE conference in New York, in March of 1967. As Trantanella expected, there was a reasonable amount of interest from potential customers in the areas of process control, data acquisition and processing, and happily, some less obvious areas such as accounting, finance, and engineering computing. Wang Labs' marketing organization managed to generate enough interest in the press to get the system written up in the April 24, 1967 edition of McGraw Hills' "Product Engineering" magazine with a title of Components "talk" to each other through computer's "busline". Trantanella's vision had become a reality.

Another View of the Wang 4000 Detailing the Model 4002 Keyboard/Display Unit

The Wang 4000 Computing System was formally introduced at the BEMA (Business Equipment Manufacturers Association) show in New York in late October, 1967. Interestingly enough, it appears that Wang's marketing people siezed the interest from folks with financial applications, because the machine was touted as developed for financial applications -- not quite the data acquisition and analysis applications the 4000 was really designed for.

A shot of the Wang booth (note Wang 4000 at left) at the 1967 BEMA show

By December of 1967, orders had been booked for seven of the 4000 Computing System, with some pretty impressive customers, including the New York Stock Exchange(Financial Analysis), Western Electric(Automated Diode Testing), and Schweickart & Co.(Bond Pricing & Coupon Value Financial Calculation). It was clear that the 4000 had a broad potential market, and given that some large business entities had ordered machines, it seemed that the 4000 was on its way to great success.

The monolithic version of the Wang 4000 Computer System
Image Courtesy of Bob Trottier

One of the objections in the business/accounting market of the 4000 Computing System was that its rackmount design didn't really fit well into an office environment. As a result, a monolithic version of the 4000 Computing System, adding some enhancements (two built-in magnetic tape drives, and the ability to address more memory, up to 32K bytes), was developed. This machine packed all of the components into a single chassis that was more attractive for an office environment, organized in a more horizontal form-factor. Very little is known about this machine. It isn't known when production of this verion of the 4000 began; how many of these machines were produced or sold, and details about its capabilities. The machine pictured above was from the museum maintained (at Dr. Wang's direction) at Wang corporate headquarters. After Dr. Wang passed away, corporate interest in maintaining the museum waned, and over time, the content of the museum was put into storage and later, disposed of.

Wang 370 & 380 Programming Keyboards for Wang 300-Series Calculators

When all was said and done, the 4000 Computer simply didn't work out as one might have thought. Wang's sales force didn't really know how to sell this "computer", as it was much different than the calculators they were accustomed to selling, making it difficult for potential customers to really understand what benefits the system could deliver. Along with this difficulty, shortly after the introduction of the 4000 Computer, Wang's calculator division introduced some enhancements to the 300-series calculators, including the Model 370 and 380 Programmer Keyboards. These devices allowed the Wang 300-series calculators to provide much more advanced programming and I/O functions to the 300-Series calculators. An input/output interfacing capability within the 370/380 keyboard units provided the ability to interface external devices such as analog to digital converters, output devices (including the Teletype Model 33), additional core memory storage, and even custom interfaces to test and measurement equipment. The Wang 370 provided programmability from punched cards, and the 380 utilized a special magnetic tape cartridge to store the programs. While not as capable as the 4000, these enhancements to the 300-series took away some potential customers for the 4000 system, because they provided programmability and I/O interfacing capabilities at significantly lower cost than the 4000. Wang's own calculator business in some way subverted it's own "computer" business. At the same time, Dr. Wang had started up a special project for some of his sharpest engineers to design a true minicomputer, capable of winning sales away from Digital Equipment.

Hewlett Packard's 9100A

Just a year after the 4000 was introduced, something happened that turned Wang Labs upside-down. Hewlett Packard, a very highly- respected manufacturer of high-end electronic test equipment, introduced a calculator that took the world by storm. HP's 9100A set a completely new and much higher standard for a high-end electronic calculator. The 9100A offered amazing math capabilities, including comprehensive trigonometric functions, true computer-like stored program capabilities, and a large core-memory that could store data and program steps interchangeably, all of which was crammed into a smartly-styled monolithic desktop unit that was not all that much larger than one of Wang's 370 or 380 programmer units. To add insult to injury, the 9100A was more accurate than Wang's 300-series calculators, much faster, and also provided extensive I/O interfacing capabilities. Along with this, the machine used the same discrete-transistor circuitry that Wang's machines used, but did so much more efficiently than Wang's LOCI and 300-series calculators. Many potential customers looking for a high-end calculator at the time promptly dropped the idea of buying a Wang calculator and got in line to buy one of HP's wonder-machines.

Wang Labs didn't have a calculator to counter HP's 9100A. Dr. Wang had his braintrust all working on the special computer system project, focusing tremendous resources on attacking DEC's market. However, the computer wasn't yet ready, and Wang Labs' revenue stream was entirely dependent on its calculators. With past Wang customers looking to HP's machine to ugprade from Wang's 1964-era technology, and potential new customers enamored with HP's amazing machine, a dramatic downturn hit Wang's bread-and-butter business in no time flat. Something had to happen. The first thing Dr. Wang did was redirect the efforts of the entire company toward converting the "computer" project into a high-end calculator to challenge the HP 9100. Along with this, price reductions across the entire 300-series line were implemented, and major incentives given to the sales and marketing departments to push as many 300-series calculators as they could.

The Wang 700-Series Calculator

All of Wang's resources were channeled into making the new calculator to keep Wang's core business alive. The re-directed computer effort became the Wang 700-Series, which by all accounts were very capable machines, but the machines simply took too long to get to market. Wang announced the 700-series calculators in February of 1969, even though they had no real product ready to market. The computer re-engineering effort took longer than expected, frustrating some customers that held out for Wang's response to the HP 9100A. Production shipping of the 700-series didn't begin until early 1970, leading some customers that had placed advance orders for the 700-series to cancel their order and buy HP's machine. Along with those difficulties, just a few months after HP introduced the 9100A, they announced the 9100B, a follow-on calculator with double the memory of the 9100A, along with improved programming functions.

As a result of the coming 700 Calculator's computing capabilities, and in an effort to add some life to the aging 300-Series, Trantanella's 4000 Computer System was demoted to being marketed as an extension to the 300-series calculators. The system lost it's Computer System nomenclature, and was re-badged the Wang 390 Programmable Calculating System. By losing the computer designation, becoming a mere calculator, it became more difficult to sell the 4000. Getting any resources to enhance the system to make it more marketable was impossible with Wang's engineering department devoted entirely to making the 700 Calculator a market reality. HP's machines offered similar interfacing capabilities, cost less, were faster, and offered much better programming features than the "390". Lastly, the cost of mini computers continued to come down, with Digital Equipment offering reduced-cost versions of it's PDP-8 series of computers into the process control and data acquisition markets. All of these factors contributed to a continuing decline in Wang's ability to sell the 4000/390 system, and finally in mid-'70, it was dropped from the product line. Mr. Trantanella had seen the handwriting on the wall, with Wang's Systems business languishing for lack of resources, and his computer system generating perhaps only a dozen or so sales. Mr. Trantanella left Wang Laboratories shortly thereafter, and went on to start his own very successful company, Tranti Systems, essentially inventing the business of Point-of-Sale computing systems used in fast-food restaurants.

The Wang 3300 Timeshared BASIC Mini Computer

Wang's 700-Series calculators did help rescue the company from the decline of its calculator business, allowing Wang to continue to compete in the calculator marketplace into the late 1970's. But, in the early 1970's, Dr. Wang knew that a major shakeup was imminent in the business. The advent of large-scale integrated circuits that could hold an entire calculator on a couple of chips meant that in order to compete, a calculator manufacturer either had to be at the mercy of the integrated circuit manufacturers, or had to have its own IC design and fabrication facilities, which were extremely expensive. Though Wang still had a good share in the calculator market, things were changing very quickly, and Dr. Wang knew that he could no longer rely on calculators to keep his company healthy.

A Two-User Wang 3300 System

Dr. Wang decided to slowly de-emphasize Wang's calculator business, allowing it to gracefully age out of existence, while still providing revenue to fund future research. At the same time, he drove the company to pursue new markets. One market Dr. Wang still wanted to compete in was the minicomputer marketplace. By that time, though, Digital Equipment Corporation had a five-year head start in the mini-computer business. Even so, Wang had his engineers re-use some of the design concepts of the computer system that became the 700-series calculators, and created a true computer system called the 3300 Time Shared Mini-Computer.

The 3300 computer, announced in February of 1970, and first shipped in March of '71 (in keeping with Wang's reputation of announcing product long before it is actually shipped to customers), was quite aggressive for the early '70s', with true multi-user capability and the popular BASIC programming language. The 3300 could support from two to sixteen simultaneous users connected to the system via modified IBM Selectric I/O terminals or Teletype Model 33ASR terminals. Remote terminals could also connect via telephone lines. The system could contain between 12K and 64K of core memory, organized as 8-bit words. The CPU architecture was quite forward-looking in terms of the use of the 8-bit word, the same word-size as used in the revolutionary 8008 microprocessor from Intel. The CPU was relatively fast, with a memory cycle time of 1.6usec, utilizing Small and Medium-Scale TTL integrated circuits for the logic. The arithmetic unit of the CPU provided both binary and BCD (Binary-Coded Decimal) math processing, allowing the machine to perform native math operations on decimal numbers for better numerical accuracy. The computer operated with a 4-byte Binary-Coded-Decimal (BCD) mantissa (eight significant digits), and a single byte binary exponent ranging from -64 to +64.

The basic two user Wang 3300 system consisted of the 3300 CPU unit, which came with 4K bytes of memory installed. Two additional 4K memory modules were added for a total of 12K bytes of core memory, a Terminal I/O Controller, two IBM Selectric I/O typewriters, a dual drive magnetic cassette tape system, the BASIC language software, and system installation and setup. Total cost for the base configuration was initially $17,550. A comparable two-user timesharing system from Digital Equipment would come in at around $20,000, giving Wang an edge in price over their competitor. However, there were some limitations to the 3300. The only online storage was either a magnetic cassette drive, which was rather slow, and made file-based operations cumbersome. DEC's mini computers could be had with high-speed, high-capacity disk drive systems which made file operations fast and efficient. The lack of a disk storage subsystem for the 3330 was a pretty serious detriment. Wang later introduced a disk system for the 3300, but by the time it came out, it was too little, too late.

The 3300's BASIC language was fairly comprehensive, providing all the functionality needed to perform just about any type of operation. A rich set of math functions was included, with trig, logarithmic and expomentional functions. The BASIC language provided an "immediate mode", which allowed a math expression to be typed in online, with an instant solution printed on the terminal without the user having to resort to writing a program. This made the 3300 useful as an interactive calculator, albeit an expensive one.

Wang 3300 Timeshared Mini Computer In Use at Weymouth South High School, Weymouth, Massachusetts, April, 1971

The 3300 sold reasonably well in a number of markets, especially educational institutions, where the cost of commercial time-sharing services were very high, and shared desktop programmable calculators simply couldn't keep up with the demands of higher learning. Schools were also under a great deal of pressure to produce graduates who had practical skills in computer science -- skills that could only be taught using real computers. Even though the 3300 had a reasonable degree of success, there was a problem.

By early 1972, mini computer technology was advancing at a tremendous rate, and some aspects of the 3300 made it increasingly difficult to sell against fierce competition from DEC, and newcomer to the mini-computer industry, Data General. Dr. Wang had seen the future coming, and had an idea that he thought would make a big splash. A "personal" computer. (I use quotations around the word "personal" to distinguish it from the ubiquitous "PC". Back in those days, there were only mainframe monsters, commercial time sharing systems, and complicated mini-computer systems.) At the time, the notion of an individual having a true computer all to themselves seemed ridiculous. Even so, Dr. Wang's idea was to make a computer system that was small, comparatively inexpensive, very easy to use, and suitable for use by an individual user. The idea was to put the power of the 3300 timesharing computer right in front of the user, eliminating the need for timesharing.

Hewlett Packard's 9830A "Calculator"

A great idea, provided it could be brought to the market first. As was the case with Hewlett Packard scooping up the calculator market with their 9100A calculator, in early 1972, HP introduced a machine that made the 3300 system much more difficult to sell. The HP 9830A "calculator" was a monolithic, desktop computer, programmable in BASIC, with built-in cassette tape drive, and extensive I/O interfacing capabilities. The HP9830 was the first "personal" computer. HP defined the line in the sand distinguishing calculator from computer. Essentially, the 9830 was the machine that Dr. Wang had envisioned, and had devoted a great amount of resource to develop. Unfortunately, Wang would have to wait until almost a year after HP's introduction of the 9830 before their new computer would be ready to sell.

By early 1973, the new computer was ready. It was christened the Wang 2200. The 2200 was not monolithic like HP's machine, but instead consisted of three parts. The CPU unit was a 60-pound module that connected via cables to an enclosure that contained a raster-scan CRT monitor and a digital cassette tape drive. The display head then connected to a seperate keyboard unit, using microswitch-activated keys similar to those used on Wang's calculators. This keyboard made the machine somewhat tedious to use, as the keys felt more like a calculator than a conventional typewriter keyboard, and were not laid out in a standard "QWERTY" keyboard arrangement. Even with the weak keyboard, the CRT display gave the 2200 an advantage over HP's 9830, as the 9830 provided only a 32 character, single line LED dot-matrix display. The CRT display on the 2200 could display 16 lines of 64 characters each, providing much more data at once to the user. While sharing the CPU architecture of the 3300, (as well as the 1.6us basic cycle time), the 2200 was more optimized, had a more powerful BASIC language, and overall was considerably more flexible than the 3300. Another great improvement was that the BASIC language firmware was embedded in ROM, meaning that the machine came up immediately ready to use. The 3300 had to have its BASIC system loaded into core memory from paper tape or cassette tape in order to be usable -- a process that could take quite a while.

Wang 2200 System Used by 8th Graders at Fenn School in Concord, Massachusetts, Late 1973

Even with Hewlett Packard stealing the thunder from Wang Labs, the 2200 was a great success. Wang was able to leverage their good reputation for providing quality solutions to specific areas, including financial, insurance, engineering, and educational institutions. Successes of the 2200, along with Wang's new Word Processing Systems, allowed Wang to let its calculator business decline gracefully, leading to the beginning of a long line of successful mainframe, mini, and later, micro-computer systems that made Wang a serious player in the computer industry for years to come. While Wang never became a serious challenger to Digital Equipment, and remained a mere speck on IBM's radar, the evolution of Wang's computer business from that of providing customized process control and testing systems, to a solid participant in the computer marketplace of the 1980's, is a great reflection of the committment, leadership, brilliance, and persistance of Dr. An Wang and his company.


Special thanks to Mr. Frank Trantanella for his time and patience during all of my questions.

A great measure of thanks also go to Gene McGough, who provided the museum with a large collection of Wang Labs' "Programmer" periodicals which provided invaluable information and photos on Wang's machines.

Text and images Copyright ©1997-2011, Rick Bensene.