My Early Days at Wang Laboratories

By Dennis McNurland

Dennis worked for Wang Laboratories from 1973 to 1989. He started at Wang as a service technician for Wang's 400-series calculators, and later ended up working on the pioneering 1200 Word Processor, and later on Wang's advanced Word Processing systems. He moved into R&D in 1980, where he worked until leaving in 1989.

In the spring of 1972, the head recruiter for Wang Laboratories came to Sylvania Technical School looking for technicians. He brought along a 700 Series calculator to impress us with Wang's technology, given that all of us were still using slide rules to perform our difficult math calculations. With much fanfare, he plugged in the calculator, turned it on, and... NOTHING! Yup, the calculator was DOA.

The poor guy was beside himself, not knowing what to do. Three or four of us jumped at the opportunity to impress this guy and immediately wanted to attempt a fix. He didn't even know how to get the cover off. We ignored his mild protest and began to take the thing apart.

The screws in the back were obvious, but we still couldn't get the cover off. I finally tried looking under the function strip on the keyboard and found the remaining screws.

Once the cover was off, we carefully inspected the entire unit and decided to reseat each and every board. Low and behold, the thing worked. He practically offered the four of us positions on the spot.

A few days later, the top ten of us took a field trip to Tewksbury to tour Wang. I was not impressed! When an offer came about a week later, I declined.

I graduated from Sylvania, and took a job with a company called Memory Technology. They made memory subsystems for all the big players of the time: ATEX, Apex, Control Data, DEC and others. The recruiter from Wang continued to call.

Memory Tech was close to Worchester, MA so I began taking night classes at Worchester Poly. I was promoted rapidly and in less than a year was in charge of several products for Manufacturing Engineering. Still the Wang recruiter persisted.

Memory Tech developed the first solid-state memory subsystem for the IBM 360 and I began to work on that. One night, as I worked on a problem at one of our test sites (a large bank), I came to understand that the company was in severe financial trouble. Time to call Wang.

Wang was in a small slump and all they could offer me was a job as a shop repair tech for their Home Office Customer Engineering department. I took the downgrade and significant pay cut and started two weeks later.

I was assigned to the Wang 400 calculator line, which was still fairly new. I was told that Wang had great plans for the 400 including adding a printer, disk drive and other peripherals.

Wang had approximately 1,300 employees worldwide at the time and was still pretty obscure outside of technical circles. Dr. Wang didn't have his picture published all over the place, so I had no idea what he looked like. On about my third day at work, this older Chinese guy, smoking a pipe, came over to my workbench where I was dutifully studying the 400 schematics. He said "You're new here, how do you like it so far?" I explained my situation and we exchanged some further small talk. I then explained that I needed to concentrate on what I was doing and could he go away. He no sooner left than my supervisor came running over and wanted to know what the "old man" wanted. I told him about our conversation and then asked him who the "old man" was. His reply, of course, was that the man was Dr. Wang. I figured that was the end of my advancement at Wang Labs.

The 400 turned out to be a piece of cake to fix. The major problems were with the power supply and trying to keep the many versions of the unit straight. I quickly learned the power of its programmability, and in February, 1974, took home a loaner 452 programmed to do 1040 tax forms. Boy, were my friends impressed.

I felt like I was pretty lucky working on the 400 as opposed to some of the other guys in the shop. The 400 was all solid state and the only poorly designed thing I had to work on was the Punched Card Reader, affectionately known as the "toaster" for the way you dropped in the card. The 700 guy had to contend with not only the calculator with its braid wire ROM, but also typewriters and best of all, the 710 Disk Drive or "potters wheel", as it was called. I can't tell you how many disk platters where thrown across the shop.

In early spring of 74, the Arab Oil embargo hit and the economy nose-dived, we had our hours in the shop cut from 48 to 32. I was able to keep up with all of the 400 repairs except for the keyboards. They were very time-consuming to repair because you had to take them apart to change even one switch. The keyboards began to stack up, on the shelf, floor, they were everywhere. After three weeks of this, I couldn't stand it any longer and told my supervisor I was coming in on Saturday to work on keyboards even if it was on my own time. He agreed to join me and we put a good size dent in the backlog on that first Saturday.

Half way through our second Saturday of keyboard repairs, Dr. Wang showed up and asked what we were doing there. We explained the situation and he informed us that for insurance purposes we couldn't be there off the clock. We continued to come in on Saturdays with Dr. Wang's blessing and pay.

During the summer of 1974, things got back to normal at Wang and I was given a choice at moving up to a more difficult product in the shop. I had to decide whether to work on the 3300 Mini Computer, or the 1200 Word Processing system. I chose the Word Processor, which was actually a Model 600 calculator with some extra boards to control the typewriter. At Memory Tech I had worked on Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8s and PDP-14s, and I thought the 3300 was a step back, while the 1200 Word Processor was something new.

The weakest link in the 1200 Word Processor, as well as the 600 and 700 calculators was the braid wire ROM. When any of these ROMs needed repair or updating for Engineering Change Orders, they were sent back to manufacturing. Since I had worked on much better designed wire ROMs at Memory Tech, I knew there were better ways of dealing with ROM problems. I explained to the department manager how at Memory Tech we had an automated test set-up that would compare a ROM under test with a known good ROM and stop on any errors. He explained that someone from Engineering had in fact designed such a tester but didn't finish it before leaving the company. I asked and received permission to finish the tester and became somewhat of a hero in the shop, for a short time anyway.

Not long after this I was promoted to Customer Engineering Support, still on Word Processing. I later participated in the development of the Wang WPS and OIS systems and moved to R&D in 1980.