History of HAL Devices and HAL Communications Corp.

Discussion in 'Working Different Modes' started by W9GB, Apr 2, 2014.

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  1. W9GB

    W9GB Ham Member QRZ Page

    HAL Devices - HAL Communications Corp.

    By Bill Henry, President HAL Communications - Retired

    HAL history goes back to 1966/67. We started as "HAL Devices", a partnership, but formalized in 1972 as "HAL Communications Corp.", an Illinois Corporation. From the start we were hams and graduate students at the University of Illinois In Urbana.
    Until last year, HAL was owned by one or more of the original founders.

    The name "HAL" was chosen by the first HAL Devices partner, George Perrine. George said he picked the name because it is "one letter ahead of IBM". Turned out to be a good choice and easy to remember. It also does not seem to have any "nasty translations" into any other language.
    There was not and never has been any connection to "Hal", Arthur Clarke's intelligent computer in the screen play "2001" - later published as a book. We were very surprised when the movie hit the Coed Theatre on campus and discovered that the movie's computer had our name. We never had any problems with that similarity - "Hal" for the movie and "HAL" (all caps) for our small company. But, from time-to-time, we did have issues with others trying to use "HAL". That resulted in us paying lawyers. The offenders folded or eventually went out of business.
    I've also had issue with others reprinting several of my technical articles under their own names. I am sensitive to that and over the years paid a lot of money to attorneys to protect HAL's documents.

    HAL Devices:
    HAL Devices started in 1966 as a loose partnership of 3, 4, or 5 graduate students at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois. We bought parts from various sources and then resold them at hamfests. The big items were the Fairchild 900 RTL chips - 8 pin round plastic packages. We bought ours in 100 lots from Semiconductor Specialists in Chicago and then resold them at hamfests for a price midway between list and the 100-lot price. Our first "product" was a double-balanced modulator circuit board that used HP hot carrier diodes. That was based on an article in Ham Radio Magazine. We also sold CW keyers - the 111/211/311 Keyer, then the 1550, and finally the 2550. The numbers used to mean something but I have no recall now. My activity started with the RT-1 TU that I designed for use on USAF MARS. It worked but was not manufacturable or easily serviced - live and learn.
    The ST-6 was of course our first big deal product and it continued for almost 10 years. The RVD-series of video display generators put us on the map. Terminal products continued to dominate sales well into the 1980's - until the IBM-PC and its clones came along. HAL Devices evolved as our products and customer base increased. Our "facilities" included George Perrine's unheated garage, my basement, Paul Tucker's kitchen, and finally 2000 sq. ft. on Locust Street in Champaign. Jim McNabb, WA9YLB, was our first full-time employee, complete with a paycheck, payroll deductions, and all that stuff. The assemblers still did piece-work but now had a place to work other than their kitchens or basements. We soon hired several high-school students to help with bagging parts, packing orders, and testing of equipment.

    HAL Communications Corp.:
    On January 1st, 1972, George Perrine, Paul Tucker, and I met at in Champaign to discuss the future. The meeting started at 8AM and lasted until NOON the following day, 1/2/1972. With pizza, donuts, Big Mac's and many pots of coffee, we hammered out the organization that became HAL Communications Corp. As a result of the meeting, HAL Devices was sold to HAL Communications Corp. with each of us receiving equal shares in the new company. HAL Communications quickly out-grew the 2000 sq. ft. facility in Champaign and in 1973, we purchased an old grocery store building in Urbana. That building served us well until we built the present facility on Kenyon Road in 1980. In July, 1976, George Perrine moved on and Paul and I purchased his interests. In 1983, Paul also moved on and I became the sole stockholder and owner.
    On December 7, 2012, I sold my stock and interest in the company to Barrett Communications in Perth Australia. Joe Wittmer (my son-in-law) continues as Managing Director for Barrett.

    That's the short form of the "history". The list of products is long - several hundred, I think.
    Some were successful, many were not. We had some really great ideas - like the video display generator, ASR terminal, MSO (mailbox), fancy modems, and of course CLOVER. Other ideas were not so great! You win some and you lose some. I had a flirtation with doing MIL-SPEC products and for 5 or 6 years it was very successful and profitable. But I almost lost my shirt when a big contract was suddenly dropped. Learned my lesson - never bid on another government contract after that (1995).
    Over the years, I counted over 300 different names in my employee files. Two people who started with us in 1972 are still there - Phyllis Costa, Assembler, and Mark Prather, Manufacturing Manager. As I mentioned above, Joe Wittmer continues as General Manager. None of us at HAL ever had much money. The company was always "leveraged" - heavily leveraged in some years. Growth depended on selling something. I was approached by "investors" and venture capitalists but never accepted their money - or control. I witnessed several friends go through that with generally bad results. We did make use of bank loans but that became increasingly difficult after 1993. The best plan for a small business is to not spend any more than you have! (Easy to say now.)

    I thoroughly enjoyed the job. There are not many occupations where you get to pay yourself to do exactly what you always wanted to do. I had never planned to retire - "I'll die at my desk" was my response when asked. BUT - Barrett came up with "an offer I couldn't refuse" and here I am. In hindsight, I see that I should have planned for this. I really miss the place. "Retirement" is OK but gets boring at times. I still wake up in the wee hours worrying about business things - like I had done most mornings for the last 45 years. "Getting old is not for the faint of heart"!

    Bill Henry, K9GWT
  2. K8ERV

    K8ERV Ham Member QRZ Page

    I had a HAL RTTY terminal way back. I think the model was 300?

    Looked it up, had a ds3000 and st5000.

    TOM K8ERV Montrose Colo
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2014
  3. W7UUU

    W7UUU Super Moderator Lifetime Member 133 Administrator Volunteer Moderator Platinum Subscriber Life Member QRZ Page

    I remember jonesing over a HAL CW keyboard in the late 70s when I had just
    learned how to type (65 WPM on a mechanical no less!) - but WAY out of
    any price range I could have afforded for sure.

  4. AF6LJ

    AF6LJ Ham Member QRZ Page

    Thanks for passing that along, it was a great read.
  5. W9GB

    W9GB Ham Member QRZ Page

    DS-3000 KSR, RTTY Visual Display Terminal, Keyboard Send/Receive, 1975-1980, $995
    ST-5000, RTTY Demodulator, 1977-1990, $295

    Rest of HAL Products List
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