One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.
In July 1974 Dr. Robert Suding (1937-2018), a former Latin teacher and a self-taught electrical engineer, saw the Mark-8 Minicomputer of Titus on the cover of Radio Electronics magazine and then built one. In just a few weeks Suding became a Mark-8 “expert”, who started to design his own upgrades and improvements for the system, including a cassette drive interface and a boot PROM. Suding had one of the few working Mark-8 computers in the Denver, Colorado area, and like-minded hobbyists came from far and wide just to see his system and to get help for theirs.
At the time, Richard Bemis ran The Digital Group Clearinghouse, a Denver-based newsletter for Mark-8 computer enthusiasts. Bemis was impressed with what Suding had accomplished and convinced him that they should join forces and start a company, so in August 1974 Bemis, Suding, and their wives incorporated The Digital Group to market and sell Suding’s improved Mark-8 designs. Bemis was to be the president, and Suding the resident genius and designer, as they eventually sold about 300 Mark-8 kits.
In 1975 Bemis was convinced that The Digital Group (DG) have to launch its own machine, so Suding created a new, reasonably priced, multiple-board computer system with these advanced features:
• Intel 8080, Motorola 6800, or MOS 6500 CPU card
• Video display/cassette interface card
• 8-bit parallel input/output ports
• 2KB dynamic memory
The 3-board Intel or Motorola CPU kit cost $425, while the MOS 6500 CPU kit cost $375. Later, the Zilog Z-80 CPU was added to the selection for $475.
DG computers were among the most advanced microcomputer systems available at the time and were designed to be more user-friendly than other computers. Its products were based on a system of interchangeable boards and components (DG offered both kits and assembled systems, and quite an assortment of peripherals for their systems, including disk drives, a dot-matrix printer, and even a speech synthesizer) which allowed users to upgrade to different CPUs without having to replace their peripherals. Loading software on an audio-based system was as simple as pressing play on a cassette tape player and then the reset button on the system to load a selected application or operating system. Disk system (Diskmon) or data tape system (Phimon) startup was as simple as pressing the reset button, and requesting the desired application by name with the keyboard.
The software applications available were numerous and varied from business applications to hobbies and gaming. The popularity of the DG platform was such that programmers were eager to write applications for it, and the standardization of the hardware allowed for an immediate and large potential customer base.
The DG business was growing fast, perhaps too fast (by 1978 they had 105 employees). Quality suffered, systems were shipped late, upwards of 80% of systems were returned as nonfunctional, and expenses were exceeding income. They continued like this for a year or so, but could not correct or recover from the situation. Popular until the very end, DG went to bankruptcy in August 1979 due to management troubles, not a lack of customer interest or product orders, as it had thousands of product information requests and orders waiting to be filled.
Biography of Robert Suding
Robert Thomas Suding was born on 10 June 1937 in Auburn Heights, Oakland, Michigan. He was the son of a Catholic family from Indiana—August Joseph Suding (1901-1970), an ancestor of German immigrants, and Clara Henrietta Suding (1900-1989).
Robert had been a serious ham radio operator since 1953, always designing & building his own transmitters, amplifiers, antennas, and receivers. In 1955 he graduated from Sacred Heart Seminary (a private Roman Catholic seminary in Detroit, Michigan), and later received MA from the University of Denver, and Ph.D. from Florida State University (1974).
Suding began his career teaching Latin at a junior high school in Michigan but transitioned into a self-taught electrical engineer. In 1967, he left teaching and joined IBM in Denver as a field engineer and became a specialist on the IBM 360/20 computer in hardware and software. Suding worked for IBM until 1975 when he left to dedicate his time to the newly created company the digital group, which he founded together with his colleague Dick Bemis (a software support for IBM in Denver), and their wives (Dick reserved 51% of the shares for himself and generously gave 10% to Suding. He thought this was rather unfair since it was all his designs, but Dick informed him that he was a financial wizard so he deserved 5 times as much as him 🙂 For the next four years, Suding worked on dg microcomputers, usually in his basement. He designed them 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and got used to having 4 hours of sleep a day for four years.
After the bankruptcy of dg in the early summer of 1979, Suding moved to Virginia and became Chief Scientist at GTE Telenet (an American commercial packet-switched network). Later he started a company called Ultimate Chargers, which supplied equipment for the radio industry.
Suding was known as a mad scientist who passionately invented anything for his hobbies: computers and periphery, amateur radios, binocular telescopes, radio-controlled model airplanes, and pipe organs.
Robert Suding was married to Mary Jane Suding (b. 1938), and they had four children: Linda, Dennis, Ann, and Paul. Dr. Robert Thomas Suding died aged 80, on 6 January 2018 in Conifer, Colorado.