While at Magfest, TCNJ's Florencia Pierri passed along what has proved to be another gold mine resource: an oral history done by Alex Magoun with Billie Joe Call back in 2004! Call worked pretty closely with Joe Weisbecker as his hardware tech for the FRED project and on into the arcade, VIP and Studio lines, and had a lot to talk about there. Some of the highlights from the interview:
Joe Weisbecker was apparently not well liked by RCA management on account of him regularly telling them when they were doing something idiotic; as such he had a reputation of being kind of difficult to work with. Call felt that he was also incredibly forward-thinking, however, and had RCA listened to him and got behind his work they would have been well-positioned to be early leaders in home computing and video games. When Call was brought into the FRED project, he noted Weisbecker was splitting his time between working in the Labs and working from home; at home he'd be developing new prototypes, software, etc. which would be brought in on days he was in the office for the rest of the team to also work on. Later, Call remembers, they got into a huge fight when Nat Gordon (a manager at the labs) realized they were working on microprocessors, which he called a "fad." This led to the FRED team largely being moved to Somerville, with only Weisbecker and Call staying behind at the Labs as a "liaison." Phil Baltzer would eventually join them as sort of their local manager, who also happened to really be into software and hardware development.
BJ Call was also able to identify the different FRED units: we already know which one was FRED 1, but the white unit with yellow buttons (as seen in the photo from Magfest) is FRED 1.5, which he and Joe had built using the new 1801 components. FRED 2 was, it turns out, the briefcase units! They built five of them, and Call had no idea what happened to any of them; we know that Joyce Weisbecker brought one of them with her to school from when I corresponded with her, but the rest he was not able to account for.
Regarding the arcade machines: Call corroborated the paperwork that said there were six machines made, and said they were tested in pairs. Two were at a mall in Pennsylvania (which we now know is the mall in Feasterville where The Cave arcade was at the time), two were at a mall in South Jersey, which he didn't remember the name of, and the other two were at the Sarnoff Labs. After about a week or two, they returned to see how the machines were doing only to find the ones at the malls unplugged; the operators said the high voltage warnings on the monitors spooked them so they stopped plugging them in. Call suggests that he had also heard stories of the mob getting mad they put in machines that they weren't getting a cut from, but wasn't sure how true that was; either way they ended up bringing the four mall machines back to Sarnoff and tested them there. They were pretty popular, he recalls, but they couldn't find anyone in RCA willing to manufacture them, which led to the Studio II project. He corroborates what we heard elsewhere that the arcade machines were going to use physical carts to allow for the games to be changed, and that they could be set up for different inputs, including a track ball.
He said the consumer division wasn't interested in the fad of video games, which corroborates what Paul Russo told me in a recent interview I did, which is why DSP in Deptford ended up with the Studio II. He said Deptford had engineers but not ones that were well-equipped for the task, and took well over a year before they got boards back that could be a salable product (the videomate/studio II). By that time, the home Pong unit had come out (and outside the interview, of course, the Channel F came out before the Studio II could get FCC certified). He refers to the Studio II as being in many respects the home version of the arcade hardware they'd designed in 1974, and thus felt that had they gotten the support they needed, the machine could have been out well before the competition. Call felt the real reason RCA failed with the Studio II was that they never had a division set up specifically to do video games; they just didn't have the resources needed to do it at Sarnoff. He later feels they should have linked up with the New Products Division in Lancaster instead for the Studio II (the group that apparently were behind the VIP). Interestingly, he and Andy Modla both equate the Studio IV with the Atari 2600, and Call thinks they ended up moving out of the Studio IV project because they realized they just weren't in a position to catch up with Atari and their other competitors by that point with the amount of support they were getting.
Call said the Microtutor and the Cosmac Elf were essentially the same machine, just with one being an RCA project and the other being open source designs Weisbecker put forth (as Joyce told me, because he wanted to make sure this stuff was available to the public even if RCA didn't back it). The Cosmac 180 was a single-chip version of the Elf, with the 180A being a connecting module; combined the two 180 units essentially formed a VIP prototype (and now that I know this, I want to go back and check the photos I took at TCNJ - I think some of their mystery Cosmac machines are exactly these).
He mentions that Jef Winsor and Tom Chen were working on stuff for the Studio IV; he could have been misremembering but I think I'll have to loop back with Jef and see if he remembers anything.
Florencia also passed along a two-part oral history with Weisbecker's wife and daughters that I haven't listened to - it's 2 and a half hours! Interested to see what's in there, though.
Edited by ubersaurus, Wed Jan 9, 2019 10:09 AM.