Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Cybertronics Catalogs – 1975

When I was 23, I began the second year of my mail-order electronics parts business, operating out of a 2-bedroom apartment in Louisville. This was profoundly liberating, especially as I had just taken the huge leap of quitting my job as a field engineer for Singer Business Machines. My own work was much more exciting; I had built one of the first personal computers (which came alive on October 31, 1974) and was spending all my energy on related projects… more machines, music synthesis, graphics, an assembler/monitor/editor called CYMON, and even a few fumbling attempts at relationships. Where in all that would I have time for a full-time job?

Of course, I had to make money somehow, and in 1974 I had connected with Bill Godbout during a tech-school era for Singer, living in Oakland’s Edgewater Hyatt and commuting to San Leandro. Suddenly I had access to Silicon Valley technology and the amazing surplus business, and my hotel room turned into a lab… the logic-design obsession overwhelming. When I got back home to Louisville, the obvious way to monetize that was to start a chip business… doling out plastic-bagged goodies to other geeks around Louisville and doing business via mail order. I loved it; nickels started flowing from a single bi-fold flyer, and all profits turned back into inventory… not just for the business but for my own development projects. 

8008 System, Teletype, and Tektronix 7504 Oscilloscope

My homebrew 8008 machine was a powerful business tool for its time, with the customer list maintained on fanfold paper tape that I read and wrote with surplus Friden equipment interfaced to the system. The Model 28RO teletype let me print pin-feed catalog mailers directly from my database… all written in hand-coded assembler language, and interfaced via wire-wrapped boards made with the products I was selling. It was a magical time. Here’s the loopback test catalog, still stapled after all these years:

Naturally I couldn’t resist that alluring blank surface on the back, so that became the place for specials:

Sales started climbing, and the bedroom walls were lined with shelves packed full of inventory: wire-wrap boards, sockets, power supplies, tools, cabinets full of chips, random specials (like core memory with sense amps and drivers!), passive components, and more. My friend David Martin got this photo of me really getting into the business, curling up with my beloved Augat and Robinson-Nugent wire-wrap panels:

By late 1975, the microprocessor revolution was in full swing. Prices were dropping, new chips were appearing, and a whole new breed of hobbyists were diving in. Commercial boxes (like the Altair) burst onto the scene and made the technology much more widely available, though my own strongest interest remained focused on homebrew until the S-100 alternatives became too seductive to ignore. But most of all, I really needed a new catalog; 6 months in computer time was like 2 years in traditional businesses!

The rest of this post is a scan of the 28-page Cybertronics catalog. I had a ball with this; the front page had an epic sentence that prompted one customer to diagram it on an 11×17 sheet (“By God, it works!”), and pages 12-13 were a spirited essay on how to choose an architecture and JMP in. This was widely distributed, and kept me going until late 1976, when one of my flyers reported: “We will be publishing a long-awaited new catalog soon, containing many new products and items of interest, and updating our hopelessly out-of-date October, 1975 edition.”

Had I only known… by 1977 I had abandoned the parts business entirely, and was deep into consulting and writing.

“When the chips are down, call Cybertronics.”

Well, so you’re on the Cybertronics Mailing List! If you are not already aware of the significant advantages thus afforded you over others in your field who do not yet have access to the veritable plethora of Integrated Circuit – related resources represented by the firm whose proud name graces this letterhead, then your imminent perusal of the treasures contained herein is about to astonish you to a degree that would boggle the collective imagination of the thriving and rapidly burgeoning industry of which you are a part, an industry so universally characterized by change-engendered surprises that the conscientious engineer must, in order to insulate himself from the psychological melee that would certainly result from the necessarily hurried ingestion of frivolously contrived literature conceived by countless advertising departments hawking the plenteous and usually wonderful but occasionally dubious wares of their parent corporations, secure a solid working relationship with a purveyor of state-of-the-art systems and components who is fully capable of providing both fast response and the degree of operational convenience ascribed to that which our less sophisticated but market-wise counterparts of the commercial world so blithely call “one-stop-shopping.” It is to this ideal that we at Cybertronics have addressed our efforts, and we offer to the industry as the partial fruition thereof the contents of this catalogue, to be followed in the approaching months by an ever-expanding repertoire of products designed or chosen to fill the needs of the electronic engineer.

In addition to our broad-spectrum coverage of ICs and related devices, we have chosen as our focal point the microprocessors, endowed as they are with endless magical qualities and enabling the imaginative designer to perform miracles with a small handful of logic. As the result of an almost explosive surge of interest in this area, we have established a special mailing list to aid in the dissemination of information in this field which has, of late, been the scene of both technical and price changes of a frequency very nearly approaching the clock rates of the devices in question. One of our microprocessor systems (a homemade multiprocessor – 6502 and 8008) is currently being set up to generate mailings covering changes and additions to the computer-oriented portions of this catalogue. Please let us know if your obsession lies in this area, as does mine.

In conclusion, we present the remaining 27 pages of this work. Those of you with whom we have already dealt, we sincerely thank – because of you we are still here. To you with whom this catalogue is our first communication, we issue forth with a hearty “Hello!”

Steven K. Roberts
President, Cybertronics

A Sad Footnote

In 1977, we decided the old catalog was hopelessly long in the tooth (it was) and decided to do a new one… with the reference catalog separated from the price list. That was a terrible idea, and ended up killing the company except for the consulting part… I shut down the place in the Bluegrass Industrial Park and moved to a 4,000 square-foot Victorian house in Crescent Hill. Here is the front cover of that expensive nail in the coffin, which generated almost zero orders… with thanks to Keelan Lightfoot for the flawless reproduction of the tattered copy long-buried in a box in the lab. Memories of waxing rollers, Letraset, Bishop Graphics, dot matrix, snarfed clip art, and the other joys of manual layout in the Olden Days…