George Morrow was a computer programmer, an entrepreneur, and a leader in the development of the personal computer industry in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born in Detroit, Morrow dropped out of high school but returned in his late twenties. He obtained a B.S. in physics from Stanford University and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Oklahoma. He then entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley’s mathematics department.
In the early 1970s, he was a programmer at Berkeley’s computer laboratory and soon devoted much of his attention to computing. He attended meetings at the Bay Area’s Homebrew Computer Club, an incubator for dozens of companies at the center of the booming personal computer industry of the 1970s.
Within this rapidly changing field, Morrow’s niche was selling expansion cards to hobbyists who bought personal computer kits. His company, Microstuf, would later become Thinker Toys and then Morrow Designs. To promote compatibility among the variety of minicomputers characterizing the early industry, Morrow worked with the IEEE committee to develop and standardize the S100 bus.
In 1979, Morrow predicted that the future of personal computers was not in home gaming systems. Rather, he argued that “[a] computer will be accepted only when something useful can be done with it so that in the mind of the user it pays for itself.” Morrow followed his own advice, as his company built computers running applications for small business customers on the Digital Research CP/M operating system. He later sold a PC meant to compete on price and functionality with the popular Osborne 1 computer.
Morrow Designs resisted leading trends in the mid-1980s PC industry. Morrow failed to shift from 8-bit to 16-bit computers and declined to adopt the emerging IBM standard, fearing that his company would simply become another maker of computer clones.
He tried to stay afloat by developing a laptop PC known as the Pivot, which he licensed to Zenith Electronics Corporation for $1.2 million. Ironically, this deal pushed Morrow Designs into bankruptcy. In 1986, Zenith won a $27 million contract with the Internal Revenue Service to install Morrow’s computers. Zenith beat out the Sperry Corporation for the bid. Sperry had planned to manufacture the machines for the IRS contract with Morrow; the bid’s defeat signaled the end of Morrow Designs.
In retirement, Morrow collected over 70,000 78-r.p.m. records. Many of them were rare dance and jazz recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. He developed a system for digitizing and remastering these recordings and re-issued many of them on his own label.
Tom Williams, "Hazards & Opportunities in the Micro Market: Interview with Thinker Toy's George Morrow," Intelligent Machine Journal, Vol. 1, Issue 3 (February 14, 1979).
Andrew Pollack,“Chapter 11 Filing by Morrow,” NY Times, March 11, 1986.
John Markoff, “George Morrow, a Personal Computer Visionary, Dies at 69,” NY Times, May 9, 2003.