05/12/2021

056 – Databases for PCs – 1978

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Database:  the information you lose when your memory crashes.  Dave Barry

While completing his degree and for thirteen years, C Wayne Ratliff worked in aerospace with the Martin Marietta Corporation.  Avoiding service in Vietnam, using his programming skills he worked on COBOL-based war games focusing on logistics.

He operated as a contractor at Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he wrote MFILE, a data management program for the Viking Lander.  JPL is a NASA field centre, managed by Caltech and focused on the development of robotic spacecraft.

At JPL in the1960s Fred Thompson and Jack Hatfield had cooperated to improve Retrieve, a program used to manage a database of calculators.  They created JPLDIS, the jet propulsion laboratory data information system.  Jeb Long inherited JPLDIS and was responsible for software developments for the Mariner and Viking missions.

Ratliff purchased an IMSAI computer kit and took a year assembling it, only to find that like all other IMSAI users he had created something with little utility.  Undeterred, he added a keyboard and other I/Os; he spent some $6,000 on his finished computer.

His co-workers had an American football pool where employees attempted to forecast the winner of a match and the point spread.  Ratliff would pore over the Monday morning statistics and in 1978 this task inspired him to write a database program for his IMSAI.  He wanted this to be in natural language. 

He based his initial approach on his MFILE work but changed his tack to use the JPLDIS system which proved more suited – in those days plagiarising was the norm!  He named the program Vulcan, inspired by Star Trek’s Mr Spock.  It took eighteen months to complete; twice he lost three months waiting for floppy disk drive repairs. 

In October 1979 he promoted the product as ‘Software Consultation Design and Production’ in Byte magazine, offering it at just $50.

George Tate and Hal Lashlee created Software Plus Inc and published Discount Software, an early mail order catalogue; they also formed Softstream Inc, a software distributor.

Tate and Lashlee negotiated exclusive rights to Vulcan.  The user interface was improved for use with a TV screen or monitor and they promptly raised the price to $695.

SPI’s marketeer, Hal Pawluck, came up with two ideas.  First he suggested Ashton-Tate as the organisation’s name, despite there never having been an Ashton – though Tate subsequently used the name for his pet parrot!  Pawluck also decided the first issue of the product should be named dBase II to imply it was an established, evolved product – just as with Oracle, there had never been a dBase I.

dBase II was both a programming language and a database. As a language it used simple commands such as find, list, use…   Similar in its approach to VisiCalc, the software was designed to allow those with no programming knowledge to manipulate and calculate data and then format, analyse and present it – without realising that essentially they were programming.

The dBase II software, with its simplicity of approach and customisation, became the first widely-used PC database system.

Ratliff and Jeb Long were recruited to join the newly formed Ashton-Tate company at its formation.  

By 1982 it had turned over almost $4m, managing to lose money through poor internal controls.  That year it ported dBase II to MS-DOS and the new IBM PC – which really took off.

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