In the Business of Time for a Long Time

Part of the thrill of living in the last century was watching onerous processes turn digital at the speed of light. The torture rack of long division succumbed to the 4 function calculator. Flat screen displays gave us more office space, and eventually our homes bigger screens using less space. And at last, wrist watches could be deadly accurate, with no resetting for long periods of time. It was this last area that followed the 4 function and programmable calculators as perhaps the most stunning change in the 70s, after calculators, and before personal computers. Everything was overlapping like mad.

In my time with Texas Instruments, I had helped with the introduction of calculators, first with four function calculators, and then scientific calculators, and then programmable scientific calculators. Nevertheless, though these were innovative and terribly useful devices, they were not disruptive. When Texas Instruments went into the business of time, they became truly disruptive. It was discovered that counting oscillations of a crystal could produce incredibly accurate time. In addition, a wrist display could read out the exact time in numbers and even counting seconds. Of course exact date and time were just a matter of counting those hours and minutes and seconds and then switching the day, just as a computer does.

Several centuries before, an international prize was given to a shipboard clock that could keep reasonably accurate time, since that was so necessary to navigation. In centuries before that — with painstaking daily maintenance — pendulum clocks, and hour glasses and even sundials displayed the time that was so necessary to planning and executing a myriad of human activities. All of these were a somewhat precise measurement of time based on natural rhythms or predictable phenomena. And obviously calendars and star charts had helped farmers plant and grow the abundance that elevated the human race. This was all about to be disrupted, with confusion and no little consequence.

I rode a motorcycle to Texas Instruments in those days. Being an employee with less than 5 years seniority, my car-parking place was about 20 minutes out from the front door, in an employee lot that had usurped about a mile of Texas prairie in Richardson, Texas. But I could ride my motorcycle seven miles on the freeway and park right at the front door. It was worth it when you were fresh in the morning and did not want to be demotivated by a 20 minute trudge that accentuated how low you were on their totem pole. Probably the fact that I faced death on the freeway several times before work made me just a little sharper on the job (, though I have seen no studies on this).

The motorcycle is worth mentioning, because the first digital watches in the early 1970’s, from TI and other companies, required the push of a button to illuminate the numbers on the face. Because I was with the sales training group which “explained” the digital watch to the public (, my first “explaining” being the calculators in the previous years), I was given one of the first digital watches. For those of you who have ridden motorcycles, you realize that one hand is on the clutch side (usually left) and the other on the accelerator. This meant that one hand had to reach over to the other wrist – at 60 mph – and press a button for a quick look by the driver away from a bevy of large trucks and road kill on the highway ahead. Time had taken a step backward with this disruption. When I brought it up to management, my answer was that there were much more common ways to die riding a motorcycle.

However, the Japanese company Seiko, then saved my life. They came with a digital watch that gave an analog readout, the good old see-it-at-a-glance no-push-button watch, but with digital accuracy, and that started outselling all of our new fandangled digital-displayed watches. Beaten again by the Japanese?

But why? Our lunch table discussions frothed with reasons we were being left behind. Was it the button? Could LCDs allow us to do away with the button? I argued no, it was more archetypal than that. I the English major then had to explain to the engineers what human archetypes were. After laying out what I thought was a brilliant diatribe on how most humans don’t want an exact statement of time, but want to see how to choreograph their next hour, or the two hours until lunch, or the seven hours until they went home. They want to see it quickly on a visual scale that rolls out into the future. That’s why the Japanese were beating us in the consumer market.

However, the engineers loved the digital numeric readout, and worked very hard to put an LCD display in that remained on the screen. They felt people would “learn” to like the precise numerical display. This kind of resistance was hard for me to stomach, so I made the case that in the old days before watches, the pendulum clock in the city square bonged out the number of hours, or perhaps the one in the hallway bonged out every 15 minutes, to give people in meetings the idea of the remaining time without their craning to see a watch or wall clock. I noted that in every meeting, everyone knows when you look at the clock on the wall, or sneak a peek at your watch. That says something, that you want to move on from these people and this meeting, clearly a slight on your part that is revealed. In the 1960 three-way  Presidential debate between George Bush (the father), Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, George Bush, the clear favorite after winning the Gulf War, glanced down at his watch during a question by one of the debate attendees. This seemed to signal that he was above such discussion with underlings — and may have cost him the Presidency.

These breeches of etiquette did not happen with the old pendulum clock that bonged every 15 minutes: you could seem intent and interested in the discussion at hand and still be planning your conclusion and swift exit. I even suggested that the watch have a little oblong wheel that “tickled” the users’ wrists at preset time intervals, giving them a vital piece of information that others could not have without being obvious, and thus giving them a distinct tactical – if not strategic – advantage in discussions and , of course, negotiations.

My little tickler seems to have caught on after 40 years, as I have seen that as a feature recently. The main battle I fought with the TI engineers was about the nature of time. Conventional watch businesses like Bulova and Longeins were saying “What is an electronics company like Texas Instruments doing in the watch business?” I was a lowly sales trainer at the time, but I knew the question was out there, and I knew the salesperson at the retail counter would be hard-pressed to answer it. At the time the TI marketers were doing all they could to make the electronic watches look like the old Swiss varieties. They even hired Swiss designers and manufacturers to create expensive watches with bezels and stainless steel or gold plated finishes, along with the push button and the LED numerals. Some of them cost well over $200 dollars.

So I answered the question. I had the narrator in a sales training videotape say (in a deep but friendly voice) “TI has been in the business of time for a long time.” Up the ranks that message roiled, itself traveling almost the speed of light.

Marketing puffery,” said one group of integrated circuit engineers.

“Blatant lying,” said another group in manufacturing.

So this philosophical argument seemed to pit Space against Time. These groups were busy making watches and like most engineers, cared very little what the customer thought. The marketing folks were the only ones to give me the time of day (so to speak). After all I had a sales training video that showed common salespersons how to explain the counting and sorting of natural rhythms like the guy in the mail room sorts incoming mail. It was already useful. But now the supposed ethics of science were aligning against it. Or were they? In my sales training, I had used the scanning electron microscope footage, to show viewers how TIs “chips” controlled the electrons (much slowed down) traveling at the speed of light through the paths of an integrated circuit.

“That’s Space,” sneered the designers, when I showed them the scanning electron microscope footage.

“Yes and you create space and distance in the circuit so that it hits a gate precisely when it is open, or stops if the gate is closed.” It was a layman struggling against the Gods of Hi-Tech.

“Correct.” They were getting a little impatient.

“So TI has been in the business of space?” One of the marketing guys said. “Why put in all that space?”

And it hit me. “So electricity can hit the right gates at the right time!” I blurted out excitedly.

“Well,” concluded the engineers, who were busy and had to get back to making more of the product we could never sell. “Well that’s timing, not time.”

“Timing, time. What’s the difference?” said the Marketing manager, who had been listening quietly. He had a gleam in his eye. His next call that day was to Tracy-Locke, the Dallas ad agency which handled Frito-Lay potato chips. They had been struggling mightily for a hook, and they came over to the plant the next day. They saw my sales training tape and started taking notes furiously. And then they left, and I never heard from them again.

Well, actually I did hear from them again, along with about 100 million other people. The ad for the release of the TI watch played on the Super Bowl in early 1976. It started with a shot from a helicopter circling over the obelisk in Rome, and the voice-over narrator began describing the natural rhythms which man used to segment time. And about 15 seconds in to the 30 second ad, the music came up under the narrator, and then the various timekeeping methods such as the pendulum clock dissolved to the scanning electron microscope as he began to speak again:

“Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time.”

Oh yes, I thought. And jumped up and down and missed who won the Super Bowl entirely. Later in the year Advertising Age magazine gave Tracy-Locke and TI its coveted Clio award for the best broadcast TV advertisement. God only knows where that old footage is, but to this day I still refer to that ad as “my Clio.” Can you blame me?

I did get to be in on more marketing discussions. When the $200 Swiss-looking watch did not sell, TI decided to come out with lesser quality watches at under $100. The Sales manager was in a sweat about how to get rid of 10,000 of the original Swiss-looking watches at cost. You couldn’t really have a rock bottom sale when another product was in the offing. It was then I remembered the Dakotas, the South American cartels that flew 707s full of consumer electronics into Asunción, Paraguay. They profited immensely by avoiding 300% tariffs in most South American countries. This was done by smuggling all manner of product on mules from Paraguay over “back door” mule trails to provision the “Mercado negro” (black market).

This was the South American version of a discount store. I told the Sales manager to go to Miami, and check on large shipments going non-stop to Paraguay. Apparently he did so, because a month later I saw him at coffee in the hallway, beaming. “I’m not at liberty to give you any details,” he said, “But that South American bunch saved my ass.” He handed me a free cup of coffee before I could put my change in the machine. Such are the rewards in big business.

The next year, 1976, TI made a breakthrough which took them way out ahead in watches. They discovered how to make an artificial oscillating crystal for the watch for about three dollars. This meant they could put attractive plastic watches on the market for less than $30. They were still digital readouts, but the price was so low that it undercut the Japanese by half. It would be released at the Consumer Electronics show in Chicago in February. The promotional guy, Mike, had created great 12 foot back lighted transparent posters, and planned the public release to the last poster. Then he got sick. We had no one who knew the watch and could set up the massive displays using union crews. Mike croaked out of his swollen adenoids that perhaps I could do it. What that meant was that it landed in my lap, two days before the show. The CES was at the Stevens Hilton Hotel that year, with the Chicago Convention Center under renovation. The Stevens was a grand old Chicago hotel, with enough massive ballrooms to accommodate the Consumer Electronics Show (which was somewhat smaller then than the behemoth the CES has become these days).

As usual there were carpets to be laid over wires going to the displays, and there were heavy curtains framing the massive transparent photos. Press people had picked up on the inexpensive watch and were preparing stories for opening day of the CES. They were so persistent with the TI salesperson who would be taking orders there for Fall and Christmas, that the salespeople began to panic. There were very few spaces to meet and write orders. They needed to be out of the mainstream flow of traffic, which was a fortuitous thought because when the CES opened the crowd gravitated to the new, cheaper watches, like the place had been tilted on its side. Luckily we could create little cubbyhole offices behind the curtains, and the salespersons huddled there over small tables writing very large orders.

And somewhere on a VCR in the last area of the very large TI section, someone had learned about looping video. The 30 second Tracy-Locke ad was playing in an endless loop, and I could hear it again and again all day. “TI has been in the business of time for a long time…” over and over, throughout the days of the CES show. It was like creating a monster you could not kill.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

My Dear Aunt Sally Meets RPN

Training is usually the poorest stepchild of any corporate activity. However, at a certain point in the development of 1970’s consumer electronics, the public had yet to really comprehend the brilliance of what the techies had produced. The techies themselves, all young, and hardworking and excitable did not help much: many crashed computer programs displayed the sign: Tough Luck Turkey! , the screen message from computer geeks who made the program. This kind of error message appeared so that ordinary users — who could not understand how to use their new portable computers – might at least understand that they were considered a lower order of being. Marketing-through-derisiveness probably slowed down the computer revolution by ten years. This and other nerdish posturing, throughout all computers, unfortunately resulted in the The Digital Divide, an us-versus-them elitism that stalls everyone’s progress even to this day.

From a background in making smaller electronics for trucks going across the Southwestern plains looking for oil, Texas Instruments had become a world leader in solid-state electronics. They had produced a series of transistor-based products a competing with Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild to instill the semiconductor phenomenon in cars and planes and the new personal computers. T.I. also created the first transistor radios, but Japanese companies and marketers left them out of the picture for 10 years. Later the worm turned slightly when T.I. patent representatives started making the rounds of companies like Sony and Pioneer in Japan, and laid a hefty patent license bill on them. But the Transistor Radio had already been lost to them: the horde of 1950’s teenagers were already listening to Elvis and Bill Haley on their picnic blankets. (You could never pry these portable radios from their cold dead ears.) Texas Instruments never received public credit for its transistor radio, and it hurt, hurt clear until they had their next big chance at a consumer market.

When Texas Instruments introduced the first four-function calculator, they had no idea how to approach a consumer market. They knew it could be hot, but their salespeople were from technical sales and had no feel for the general consumer nor the retailers who sold the calculators to them. The salespeople were near violating federal Sherman Act and Clayton Act guidelines, and the Texas Instruments lawyers had management worried with the possible liabilities. The retail market was a vicious jungle to the technical types at T.I., who considered themselves first as electrical engineers and scientists rather than consumer salespeople. Yet, this small Texas company was determined not to let this next opportunity slip away.

I was in no way academically qualified even to enter into this discussion. I was a news writer turned English major and then Communications MA, two majors of even less repute to electrical engineers than newswriting. However, I had been a communication/electronics officer in the military and was not immediately terrified of these intricate new worlds (– though I should have been). Meanwhile, I had evolved from a tech writer to a training program manager. Various persons had seen my video dramatizations and easy-to-understand technical descriptions, and asked me to be on the team training these crucial salespeople.

The four-function calculators caught on quickly, and the competition was stiff and cutthroat, but T.I.’s ability to mass produce and keep prices low kept it in the race at the lower end. I was asked to do legal tapes where salesmen found themselves in compromising (sales) situations, and were shown the severe implications of their actions and then given better practices to use instead. Anyone familiar with consumer marketing knows that salesmen can offer a mix of product, and also cooperative (half funding) local advertising and other tactics. Some were legal, some were borderline unfair practices. It was a wild and woolly world because no one had ever sold highly technical products to the mass public over the counter.

Even though T.I. still sold its semiconductors (transistor) products to the defense department and all manner of electronics businesses, the handheld calculator for the common man gave them not only a new public identity, but delivery problems that went clear back through the manufacturing structure. Mechanical engineers became important in this electronics company because you couldn’t allow the keys on the calculator to stick – not a small problem with the amount of coffee and diet Coke at many desks. At the beginning of the process, however, were the Wizards, the chemical engineers. Line workers who assembled T.I. printed circuit boards and put them into T.I. calculators depended upon the supply of “chips.” These “chips” came from wafers thinly sliced with laser saws across wide “rods” of gallium arsenide and other silicon mixtures. The mixtures of the chemical Wizards, though hardly exact at the first, produced the necessary conductive impurities that had allowed old vacuum tubes to be replaced the tiny transistor components. Some said that what took a roomful of the first computers was now in the palm of our hands.

So not only the mechanical engineer (, and not only the playwright,) but the chemical engineer was critical to making the new calculators on schedule. Not all chips worked. They had to be tested before they went into calculators, and the unpredictable yields of earlier days would not suffice. The chemical engineers stirred up the material that would go into the rods, and then into the tiny chips. Even then, no one knew exactly how it would turn out. In that manufacturing environment, it was still hit-and-miss.

Many days, the coffee areas were filled and the line workers were sitting outside their work areas, many smoking, some even knitting. At the time almost all of these line workers were women, as it was believed that women on the whole had finer attention to detail and smaller hands to place these transistors into the circuit boards and calculators. Because of T.I.s innovative profit sharing plan, many of these common line workers retired with handsome pensions for a career of repeated actions and tiny drudgeries. But right then, the company had essentially shut down. I asked a co-worker why that was.

“The Wizards had a bad batch.”

So these chemical engineers in an electronics company had the major responsibility in what was a somewhat random process. Only later did they learn to optimize the production of chips, but the ugly secret of those days was that the process was a little mystical and far from a perfect manufacturing situation.

When I was brought into the actual sales messaging, the engineers had created T.I.s first scientific calculator, the SR-50. What they really wanted was to educate business professionals to use complex business formulas, and with the SR-52 their first programmable calculators, with a “chewing gum stick” to hold the simple program. Because they really wanted to sell to this business community, they decided to build their scientific calculators around an Algebraic Entry. Without trying to make readers into mathematicians, math teachers could tell you that the way you construct a complex problem can affect its accuracy.

Hewlett-Packard already had a handheld calculator for scientists and engineers, and they all loved the fact that these calculators were based on RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation. RPN dictated that every subset of caculations within a larger calculation be “nested” within successive parentheses. Texas Instruments, because it was aiming at the larger consumer and business markets, decided to build their scientific calculator around Algebraic Entry, which meant you entered the elements of the problem as you would read them. That meant one kind of calculation was automatically prioritized instead of being placed in a succession of nested parentheses. Teachers used to say that decided the priority of calculations should follow the mnemonic My Dear Aunt Sally – Multiplication then Division then Addition and finally Subtraction. That is as far as I will go. If you understand it all, good. If you understand that there were major ideological considerations here – and that it was a critical business decision — well, that’s enough for here.

Because my training videos largely made sense to the common business user, I also became involved in competitive advertising strategies. Print materials would line up the HP calculators facets with the comparable Texas Instruments facets. When the HP advertisers put in their entry system, it was always RPN. I wondered why. Well of course, if you knew very little about mathematical theory, would you buy a calculator based on “Reverse Polish Notation”? Oh my God! The cruel ethic joke everyone knew was that Polish clocks were right twice a day. And then, calling it Reverse Polish. To me this looked like an immense marketing gift from Hewlett-Packard. I lobbied, and won, the ability to spell out RPN to Reverse Polish Notation on every comparison sheet in magazines and handout literature. The early T.I. Scientific calculators were never the hit product that the four-function calculators were, but we kept trying. 20 years later, from a distance, I saw the TI Business calculators — programmable and based on Algebraic Entry — become the most popular briefcase calculators for business people. It was a long haul.

The first step in that long haul was for salespersons in department stores to demonstrate the T.I. Calculators to the shopping public. At first, the salespeople they  used were selling programmable scientific calculators just like other business products, like desk lamps and planning calendars.  However, these ordinary salepersons were so afraid of trying to show the T.I. scientific calculators that they usually hid them. When our people went out to stores as mystery shoppers, the salespeople could not find the T.I. Scientific calculators and blamed their misplacement on earlier work shifts. In my sales training roles, I made tapes, but also small programs, so that salespersons could show how to easily do amortized loans and other common business tortures. When they began to look good with these examples to the customer, they began to hide the T.I. scientific calculators just a little less.

Along the way I did the first simple – and I mean simple – book on “How to Program.” With a good cartoonist, I showed the program as a conveyor belt with buckets moving along, and the variables were being dumped into the buckets by funnels above the belt, with users pouring various variables into the buckets and sometimes stopping the conveyor belt to rearranged buckets. Frankly, every other explanation since that has appeared confusing to me. But what do I know? Also, I had the idea for a book with each key of the scientific calculator explained simply on one page. I was never even listed on the credits, but the idea for T.I.s classic The Great International Math on Keys was mine. I had fought for it until the logic was clear, and as a reward it was (, as so often happened,) given to another more-qualified group to develop.

In the old West, a motley assortment of gunfighters worked for cattlemen to run off sheep men and settle water disputes with their guns, with few considerations of logical right and wrong, and they all accepted that they “Rode for the Brand.” I guess that was I was doing, riding for the T.I. brand. Although when you are riding for a brand you are largely anonymous to the outside, with technology companies you often enter new and fantastic problems in areas critical to the success of humankind. I learned a lot “riding for the brand,” and I hope I helped Texas Instruments find their way into providing breakthrough products to the general market.

That was certainly true when T.I. next came out with their first digital watches, Japanese watch companies like Seiko and Casio and Hamilton (which made the Pulsar) were making electronic watches, and a Texas Instruments watch seemed a very odd fit. The consumer public in unison scratched its many heads and said: What is Texas Instruments Doing in the Watch Business? From my ignominious perch in sales training, I provided the answer to that question, much disputed but finally triumphant. In my first training tape for salesmen, I showed a live scanning electron microscope with date flowing through its tracks and gates and I put forth the slogan “Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time”. Well, the T.I. scientists at first came unglued in their resistance to this layman’s near-lying puffery, but eventually I won the argument. My slogan eventually became the core of a Clio-winning television commercial. My Clio, I always say. That will be another saga to relate before I forget: 1975 and T.I. Digital watches.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

From Dostoyevsky to Digital Subsystems

Down the road from Oklahoma is the Texas border, and further down the road from that border is Dallas. From South America to Oklahoma was a major step, which I luckily took with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. From that backwater college in Oklahoma in 1972 to the leading edge of digital technology in 1973 was several more steps, including a piano teacher, the first commercial video recorder, and actors in Texas with very few opportunities.

Teaching English in a small college was one of those dream jobs you soon awaken from. It had looked good from a distance, first from Vietnam and then from Lima, Peru, but small college politics are no fun especially if you are merely on a short-term visit. You have no actual territory to defend in the vicious budget sessions, or any way to assure your place in a diminishing pie. So waking up went this way…

One day a student I knew needed a short play for his director’s class. I brought out some short plays I had written for South American conversation classes, simple English with exceedingly obvious characters and plots and bare stage with a few chairs. The drama instructor at the college snapped them up for use with his director’s classes, and the directors’ group started playing them at county fairs because they were also bare stage with few actors and fewer props. (Later these plays were published as Rehearsals for Armageddon and then were used by the Second City in Chicago, and later became English  conversation classes as Not Quite Shakespeare. Another story…  But this fits.)

Along the way at some party I met an instructor for Redkins hair products, who said he would give a performance cutting hair for anyone who could make movie of it. I had been reading about the new Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder, and decided to buy one and give that a try. I had him talk while he was cutting the hair, as he would with a live audience of hair stylists. But the video was odd. He had already almost finished the phase he was talking about, and the viewer had to make the connection several seconds into the new area of cutting. It was like you were always feeling left behind. I tried to get him to start his dialog sooner, but he actually used his cutting as cues for his talking, so it was never natural sounding.

It was then that I realized something that was of course one of the bedrocks of early movies, that the sound track was separate from the video track. In movies it was the reason for all the loops of film in the projectors, so that the audio was read from the side of the track in a different place than the video. Film was processed that way, and novice projector operators often got the sound out of sync by not putting in the proper loops into the wheels of the projector. In this case, the separation of video and audio provided a different opportunity.

By moving the sound track off the reel to an audio tape, and then mixing it back in offset by about 6 seconds, it made the instructor start talking about the process just slightly before he started doing it. The narration then fit the video perfectly, and viewers were not confused at all: they saw what was being talked about in the same moment it was being done.

At another party Anita, the piano teacher at the college introduced me to Joe, a male friend of hers who was up from Dallas. Joe was a child prodigy who interned with Texas Instruments in Dallas as a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, became skilled in integrated circuits and went back to teach in the SMU graduate school on loan from TI. There was indeed brainpower in Texas, and a lot of it gravitated to Texas Instruments, which had invented the first transistor radio. When I first heard of them through Joe, TI was leading the world in integrated circuits, which would put thousands of transistors on one small chip.

Joe entranced me with a story of his Texas Instruments development team being given a contract to make an electronic collar for self-destructive children, which would allow parents to zap them if they tried to hurt themselves. It was much like a dog training collar, and this team of engineers realized it could easily be used on bad children, and finally just precocious children. However, these TI engineers realized they could not just refuse to do this project (which came from a child-welfare organization), but they must find some answer that would prevent any other group of engineers from doing what obviously could be done. After some weeks of despairing of a solution, Joe’s engineering team finally refused the project because (they said) any such system could also be activated by lightning.

I told Joe I had done some playwriting and that his solution would make a great play. In fact, that year I wrote that play, The Collar, and it won the Olivet National Playwriting competition. So I sent that play to Joe, and, when I saw him again, told him that I was also working on reel-to-reel video projects. He remembered he had been talking to a friend at TI who was running the Learning Center, which had acquired some old studio videotaping equipment, and may need people like me who would know what to do with it. They had been using surveillance cameras in classrooms to record the classes of engineers on various uses of their integrated circuit products. I went down to Texas Instruments with Joe, my Redkins video and my new book of short plays in hand.

While I was visiting with Jack, the head of the Texas Instruments Learning Center, I offered my thoughts on their current use of video. It was then one step above warehouse surveillance.  I suggested that the two-hour recorded sessions could be done in forty five minutes if they were first scripted with the presenter, graphics were developed to that script, and the blackboard and easel graphics they used popped in and out of the video while the instructor continued talking. These visuals were always getting out of order or falling off the easels or chalk was breaking — or 100 other things that were slowing down the classroom presentation – and putting students to sleep.

(Those who remember early video will have fond memories of the “pop ins” where an original reel and a new reel had to sync to the frame, and often had to be done several times because of rollovers. Sorry to recount this to those of you who were never there and never will be.)

Having to key the presentation to the visuals also made each area more cohesive and visually representative of the subjects. With the first class I reorganized for them they saved time and money on instructors and students and had an altogether better result. I was hired as a contractor for the next summer not only to construct classes in digital electronics, but to create videos on Supervisory Skills. The world’s leading electrical engineers had hired a playwright. The summer went so well that I requested a leave of absence from the college, and got it. Brenda and I packed up our few belongings and our son Liam and, frankly, never looked back.

Technically I was a tech writer. At the time all tech writers wrote entirely in the passive voice (observe : the passive voice was used by all tech writers). There was a sign on the wall in the Tech writers area: We explain what we barely understand because those who understand can barely explain it. I started doing scripts for electronics courses I did not understand, but I did understand the active voice. This immediately made my stuff intelligible to ordinary people and the other tech writers looked bad. “Hey, if batteries not included, who’s not including them?” I offered to the tech writers. This exposed the dirty secret of much of the technical writing of the day, that in having no subject, the sentence had no responsible party. That was the essence of objectivity, to dodge responsibility, or so it appeared.

Then Jack said they had a client who wanted to make little video sketches to demonstrate supervisory skills. Though I scripted them so that no one could possibly fail, these male electrical engineers and various female employees were all uniformly lifeless in the roles we tried at first. I knew there must be local actors starving out there. It was a difficult sell to Texas Instruments management, especially when the outside actors could not be paid for an afternoon’s work on a net 90 payment aging schedule. What I did was total the amount of hours it would take for these dramatic novices to be pulled off their high-yield electronics manufacturing jobs. Then I calculated the hourly rate that TI was paying. Then I compared it to the local SAG-AFTRA scale for actors. Furthermore, I said, the actors were pros and could finish the shooting in half the time. My numbers won, except there was another problem: when the TI managers told me I could use actors, they expected me to find them.

I started going down the list of talent agencies in Dallas. Most of the talent was in these gorgeous photo books where they all gaze off with their cheeks on their hands. It turned out that most of them were pretty faces and had never had a speaking role. But they certainly wanted them, because these roles paid more and looked better on the resume which was their road to stardom, right here in Dallas, Texas. There was really no precedent for the talent agents to turn pretty faces into actors. I sat through a couple of meetings with possible actors and everyone was fawning and trying to guess what I was looking for in these supervisor roles. And frankly, I wouldn’t know who I wanted until I saw them try a role.

Whatever seems like a good straightforward idea is almost always in fact a potential labyrinth of ugly logistics and impossible timing. Theoretically, nothing should ever get done. The talent agents were protective, the wannabe voice actors saw this as their way out of Dallas, and – as you can imagine – the Texas Instruments management was suspicious of all this glitz when their background, up to transistor radios and the current 4-function calculators, had always been selling the electronics for Harpoon missiles to the Defense Department.

So I asked the talent agents if their people could audition on tape for us. Uh Oh! That meant the SAG-AFTRA union had to approve these aspirants being put on TI tape without being paid. But our taping studios were onsite. So I asked SAG-AFTRA: if the tape audition place was in a neutral setting, could we skip those fees and give copies of the tapes to the actors as payment? That finally passed after my bear dance to the union bosses, promising their share of the electronics revolution to come. But where was a place that was neutral enough? No self-respecting talent agent would allow his or her people to audition at the offices of another agent (– agents bandit away talent all day long anyway.)

Finally it turned out that one of the actors had a cousin who managed one of the big downtown theaters, and got that cousin to let us use the massive lobby on one Thursday morning when there were no movies showing. Texas Instruments had to be talked into renting portable taping equipment and lights audio, etc. that they could use in other situations that week. The unions slipped me a free audio guy just so its actors would sound OK. (So far I had no budget whatsoever.)

It was almost cruel, this march of the wanna-be actors through the taped auditions, with cue cards giving them sentences which would come from little supervisory skills dramas. Probably the only crueler thing would have been the Dallas auditions for the local production of the musical Annie, with hundreds of little girls from tiny Texas towns hundreds of miles away, bellowing and tap-dancing with their stage mothers hovering too far away to whisper, but mouthing encouragement non-stop. Mine was not that bad, but Texas Instruments had an international clientele, and many a dream died when a clipped set of words (gotta hep us out ta do binez hair) or a too-nasal Texas twang failed to match the pretty face on tape.

The supervisory skills tapes were a hit, got some national awards in training (also good for actors resumes)  and led to my getting professional narrators to do the electronics courses in which they explained what they could never understand with golden throated credibility. Pretty soon other divisions, such as sales, were requesting tapes, and my pallet got so full I had to find other producers to take scripts I’d written and produce the little shows. It was an empire, to be sure…except for one thing. I had to use the tech writers — who hated every bone in my active voice body –as producers! I was about to have a raft of failures when Jane walked in. Jane Sallis was high class and somewhat exotic for Dallas, and totally out of place and more totally unappreciated at Texas Instruments. None of that mattered for either of us. What mattered was that Jane saw exactly what was needed and came back to me with ten zinger questions that made me fall in love — almost. Jane had been a debutante in Dallas best society, and a fine arts major at Tulane, and with the first production I gave her (insisting to the Texas Instrument brass that we could bring in a producer as well as actors and let the other tech writers continue with the really important user’s manuals for digital subsystems), she offered a professional job on time under budget that looked great. The actors loved her, the crew loved her – she made their stuff look so good!  I still don’t know exactly how Jane stumbled into my life, but Jane was great at Texas Instruments and later in producing video and art for my CPR system and eight years later when I had my own company in Seattle, we produced a bunch of training videodiscs for GTE Directories in – guess where – Dallas.

There are several joys in the hassle of professional life, but maybe none more rewarding than being remembered in an enthusiastically favorable way by people whom you had treated decently, but thought were lost in the past. When Jane put out the word that Hon was back and needed actors for a production, there were no weeks of negotiating and meandering through talent agencies, no bear-dancing for union bosses, none of that. They remembered we’d gotten starving actors paid the very week they worked, they’d elevated some of the talent I used through taped resumes to approach national accounts, keeping large Dallas ad agencies from having to go to the coasts for talent. The whole Dallas creative community was there for us. One week we walked into town and the next week Jane had the production going for GTE, a big one, and one the first training productions ever using interactive videodisc. Whatever goes around… does come around.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved