Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don Tarbell...

The very first programming I ever did for money was done for a guy named Don Tarbell. If you're old enough to remember the early, heady days of microcomputers, you'll know that name – he manufactured an S-100 board that became the gold standard of cassette tape data storage. He also made one of the first affordable floppy disk interface boards, also for the S-100 bus.

He's got a special place in my memory for a different reason, though: way back in 1976 or 1977, he published an RFQ (request for quote) for someone to write a Basic interpreter. He wanted something with better features than could be found on the then-standard Microsoft Basic, and he wanted to sell it at a low price. I answered that RFQ with an absurdly low bid (and and even more absurdly fast delivery) and absolutely nothing else to recommend me. At the time, I was still in the U.S. Navy (I didn't know it, but it was against regulations for me to engage in a contract!). I had never written any software for money before. I had no education in software engineering. I had no references. I had no samples of my work. And I had never even seen a Basic program before. Don talked with me on the phone, and ended up giving me a contract.

Later he told me that all the other quotes he'd received were 25 or more times the price I had quoted, and all the delivery times were 4 or more times what I quoted. So he figured he didn't really have much to lose by trying me out; if I failed (something he thought was a high probability), he could still go with another contractor. Well, I didn't fail – I delivered it on time, collected my hard-earned payment, and then went on to have a very good relationship with Don, delivering many enhancements over the next couple of years. That contract was the start of my career in software engineering.

Something like 15 years ago, when trying to reconnect with Don, I heard that he had committed suicide. This was shocking to me, as the Don I knew was full of life and enthusiasm, and I had trouble even imagining him being depressed enough to take his own life. After that, of course, I stopped looking for him.

Today, purely by accident I stumbled on this forum entry at the Classic Computers site:
My name is Paula Rouse. I worked for the "Famous" Don Tarbell at Tarbell Electronics in Carson, CA from 1976 to 1983. I was his first employee when he began selling cassette interface kits and assembled units. He was a terrific boss and his wife Brenda and I have been best friends for all these years. She called me this evening to say that Don passed away this morning, May 19th, 1998, after a long bout with cancer. I was on the internet tonight, looking for information on old friends who used to come into the shop, hoping to contact them to let them know of his passing. When I typed Don's name into Yahoo's search engine, your page came up. It is not dated, so I do not know when you tried to contact him by e-mail, but Brenda said that he had not been checking his e-mail but once every two or three weeks since he had been so sick. That may be the reason for your not receiving a reply. He was a great guy and he will be sorely missed. It was so much fun being a part of the early years of computing. He was instrumental in shaping my career and there are many good memories of the times spent together.
It's still sad to know that Don has passed away, but somehow I feel ever so much better that it was cancer that took him, and not suicide.


  1. I was around at the time Don passed, he did die of cancer.

    Don and his wife Brenda were long time friends of my father. Paula Rouse was a long term employee of my father and went on to work for Don directly. Don and my father used to meet at the ACP Swap Meet until Don could no longer show up, after Dons passing it was hard to get my dad to go to the ACP swap Meet, Don's death hit him pretty hard.

    To quote my father "Don is probably one of the smartest men I have ever met." My father was not one to hand out such compliments.

    I am sad to say that Paula Rouse passed about 3 years ago. Her and her parents were like our extended family.

    R.G. Culbertson

    1. I remember Don Tarbell well - I was at his place several times to pick up hardware. He was a wonderful man...

  2. Thank you for the confirmation, and additional details...

  3. I knew Don and Dick Culberton. Dick had a workshop and at the time that a friend and I knew him, Dick was manufacturing systems for Don. Dick later passed away from cancer as well. Don came over to my house in Irvine a time or two, because I had wanted to run one of his new CPUs. and had it running CPM. I don't remember much about it, and it was a month or two loan from Dick to play with.

    I think it was a 256k unit. At the time, I was running IMSAI chassis and Northstar and doing my own thing with a Tarbell controller in the NS Horizon with a dual bios, and an MDS NS controller in the Imsai as well. Don knew of it, and I was happy to have the capability to easily move stuff onto the NS directly from floppies.

    I had a lot of floppy hardware from my hobby, and had the reference system for a floppy controller subsystem we did for work (Microdata) for a system we were selling to Olivetti. I had bought an IBM 5100, and the floppies that came off that system were formatted with deleted sectors, and oddball feature that almost noone ever implemented.

    Was a great thing to know Don, and I never heard the suicide story. I heard thru Frank about him passing away. I think Dick continued manufacturing for a while, but don't recall for how long.

    I know that Don continued tinkering with his basic and other software, interesting I'd not seen or didn't recall your doing the original work. I would occasionally get updates from him, and his (and your works) basic was the best I had.

  4. Thanks, Jim, for that bit of additional background. It still astounds me that so little is known, and can be found out, about some of the personal computer pioneers...

  5. There was a profile of Don Tarbell in the magazine kilobaud Issue #5, May 1977