Tech Trailblazer Wayne Green: Still on a Mission
Before there were cell phones, before there were laptops, before there were PCs, there was Wayne Green, a ham radio enthusiast turned magazine publisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Starting in the early 1960s with an army of can-do, build-it-yourself amateur radio fans behind him, Green encouraged readers of 73 magazine (73 means "best regards" in ham radio lingo), his first and longest-lived publication, to push the limits on the electronic bits and pieces that would evolve into today's e-mail systems, cellular networks and PCs.
Green was there at the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, committed to two ideas that were novelties at the time: that home enthusiasts could build and program their own computers, and that they'd be willing to subscribe to magazines and buy books that told them how to do so.
He was one of the world's first microcomputer software distributors -- his Instant Software company sold reader-submitted programs that could be loaded automatically from cassette tapes. He predicted the rise of the "pico" computer, better known as the laptop. And he encouraged his readers to build a grass-roots wireless telephony network -- a nationwide array of amateur radio repeater towers that was the precursor to today's cellular networks.
Starting in 1975, Green built a small publishing empire in rural Peterborough, N.H., that included the magazines BYTE, Kilobaud (later called Microcomputing), 80-Micro (for enthusiasts of the TRS-80), inCider (for Apple II fans), Hot CoCo (TRS-80 Color Computers) and RUN (Commodore-64).
He rubbed elbows with high-tech elites such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and met international figures such as King Hussein of Jordan, an amateur radio buff.
Then he abruptly sold out -- in 1983, to IDG (Computerworld's parent company) for $16 million -- and, he says, never looked back.
Green went on to found a few shorter-lived publications -- Pico, for laptops, and Tele, which covered the nascent cellular industry -- as well as CD Review, which helped establish the compact disc as the successor to the music LP. Later still, he founded Cold Fusion Journal, covering the controversial field of "tabletop" nuclear energy, a subject about which he remains passionate. All titles have since ceased publication, with 73 magazine finally folding in 2003 after a 43-year run.
Now 86, Green lives in a 250-year-old farmhouse on 200 acres along the back roads of Hancock, N.H., from which he runs Wayne Green Books, a cottage business that offers titles such as The Secret Guide to Health and Moondoggle -- Apollo Hoax Expose.
Famous for his outspoken editorials over the years, Green's views have, if anything, become more controversial. A self-proclaimed "conspiracy factist," Green is convinced that man never set foot on the moon, that cell phones cause brain tumors, that the foods we eat are toxic, that the IRS and the Federal Reserve should be abolished, and that big oil has undermined efforts to prevent the development of cold fusion as a cheap and unlimited source of energy for America.
For all that, Green is not a pessimist, nor is he wallowing in the past. For him, only what's ahead matters. "I'm always impatient with [the pace of] new technologies. I live mostly in the future," he says.
Computerworld national correspondent Robert L. Mitchell, who formerly worked for Green, caught up with Green at his farmhouse to look back on his role in the computer revolution; to find out what the upbeat entrepreneur, visionary and high-tech publisher has been doing since; and to hear what comes next.
Your first exposure to technology was with amateur radio. How did that come about?
In 1936, I went to Sunday school, and a fellow came in with a box of radio parts and said, "Do you want these?" I said, "You bet." So I took them home. There was an article in Popular Mechanics on how to build a cigar box radio. So I built it and it worked. It changed my life.
[Later] I was an engineer at WPIX New York. While I was there, I [asked] permission to have a ham station on the top of the building. It was a 38-story building, and boy, did I have a line of sight from the top of the building.
Can you talk about how you promoted teletype over ham radio messaging, which was really a precursor to e-mail?
At the top end of the ham band, I heard these strange noises. Someone said, "That's Johnny Williams in Flushing with his hand teletype." So I went out to see him and the next thing you know I built a converter for a ham teletype. It was like e-mail is today, where you can send a message to anyone that can receive you. It turned on the printer automatically, received the message, and then turned everything off and sent a little "beep-beep" acknowledging the message.
And that's when you first got into publishing.
I said to Williams, "You've got to get a newsletter going on this and get more people involved," [but] he didn't have time for that.
So I started an amateur radio teletype newsletter. Within a couple of years I had 2,000 subscribers and a column in CQ Magazine, one of the three ham radio magazines at that time. [Then] for five years I was editor of CQ, and that was an adventure in itself. I got a free trip around the world, all expenses paid and visited 26 countries with a ham station on board the plane.
Then you launched 73, a competing magazine, which promoted emerging technologies as do-it-yourself projects, like your amateur radio repeater network and the advent of "cells."
A few ham clubs in the country were extending the range of their handy talkies and mobile units. A handy talkie is a little two-way radio that you can hold in your hand.
They were putting repeater stations on top of mountains and tall buildings to extend the range. The station's receiver was tuned to the frequency you were transmitting on, and it would rebroadcast on a different frequency, which you could pick up on your handy talkie. In that way, instead of talking for a mile or two, you could talk [to people] 200 miles away.
I put one up on the local mountain here in Peterborough and made it so that any amateur driving anywhere in New England could talk to any other one. I published hundreds of articles and developed the technology. The next thing I knew a group of hams out in Chicago put a transmitter on top of the Sears building and then put receivers around town to pick up the stations that were weak. And they called them "cells." Within three years, we had 8,000, and they were all over the world.
I wrote in my editorials and said, "Look, I'm able to ski the mountains of New Hampshire and Colorado with a little handy talkie in my pocket and make telephone calls anywhere in the world through the local ham repeater. Everyone is going to want to be able to do this."
Well, Art Housholder, who worked for Motorola, went to the top people, said, "Look at this," and showed them my editorial. And that's where we got cell phones. That's where it happened.
No Cell Phones, Please
Do you use a cell phone?
No. They burn out brain cells.
But you could use one with a head set.
You say yourself that the cell phone is a successor to ham radio. Why haven't you embraced the technology with the same enthusiasm that you held for ham?
With ham radio, the only thing I was interested in was what was next. When we started sending pictures with slow-scan television, I got into that. And when single sideband came along, I pioneered that. [With cellular radio] there was nothing to pioneer. That's old technology. I'm always working on next week instead of last week.
Which leads us to BYTE magazine, the first publication for microcomputers. How did you make the leap from ham radio to microcomputers?
In January 1975, [Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems], a little outfit in Albuquerque, put out a computer kit for hobbyists, and I had been publishing a bunch of computer articles about it in 73. I got one of the kits and I put it together and I said, "Wow, I see a future in this."
The only way to have a technology develop rapidly is to have a publication. So I tried to think up a short name. I liked 73 for ham radio, which means "best regards" [in ham radio speak] and I came up with BYTE.
So the MITS Altair 8800 was your first computer?
Yes, the Altair 8800. I built it. It included a box and all of the parts and some switches on the front panel. There was an outfit, Southwest Technical Products, down in San Antonio that was putting out a keyboard, so I got one of those, and I got it to work with the computer.
I took the first issue of BYTE to a friend of mine, Ed Juge, who had been an advertiser in 73with his Juge Electronics for hams, and I said, "This is going to be big." He eventually folded up Juge Electronics and went to work for Radio Shack [which developed the TRS-80 microcomputer].
You famously lost control of BYTE in the early years. What happened?
I had a problem with the IRS. I hadn't done anything wrong, but that didn't make any difference. I ended up having to pay a $20,000 fine.
I had gotten back together with my first wife (we had been separated for 10 years or so). She brought in a lawyer, and he said, "Look, you'd better put things in her name until this IRS thing is totally out of sight." So we put the magazine in her name.
After the fifth issue, she and a boyfriend of hers moved everything out one night. I went out to give a talk to a ham radio club and I came back and the office was empty and the back issues were gone. I went to a lawyer and he said, "You have a choice. It's going to take several years of legal work or you can start a new magazine." So I started Microcomputing.
Then came the other magazines ...
Then I said well, the best selling computer out there by far, 40% of the market, was the Radio Shack TRS-80. Let's do a magazine on that. That was the first computer magazine for a specific computer. In two years, it was the third largest magazine in the country. By 1982, it was around 500 pages. One month, BYTE magazine was the largest, with 800 pages, 80-Micro was third and Vogue was in the middle.
Then I started inCider for the Apple II, RUN for the Commodore and Hot CoCo for the Radio Shack Color Computer.
And [I started] Instant Software, because there was very little out there for software for these things. I said to readers, "If you develop a program, send it in; we'll get it commercial and you'll get a royalty on it." So they kept coming in and we ended up with about 250 programs. Ed Juge's program was one of the first, the Lunar Lander program.
Tale of the Tape
You printed program listings in the magazine and sold readers tapes so that they could load the programs automatically using a cassette tape player.
Yes. We had a wall of tape recorders so we could make the cassette tapes. We had wonderful business programs.
Then, in 1983, you sold everything to IDG. Why?
I needed something new to do, and there was nothing new there, just the same old, same old.
How much money did you have to work with after the IDG buyout?
It was $16 million. I just used that to build new businesses. IDG was holding the money, and I just spent it. [laughs]
After selling off the magazines, you seemed to stray from the technology field. You haven't been as involved with PCs or trends such as the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Did your interests change?
I went on to compact discs. They had just been introduced in 1982, and the universal reaction of the music magazines and the hi-fi magazines was, "We don't need another technology." So I started CD Review and had the readers review every CD they bought for performance and sound quality. Within a year, it was the largest selling music magazine.
The major labels said, "We hate your magazine because you forced us to rebuild our studios and put in all new equipment, but your readers are spending $30 million a month and we can't ignore that."
How was it that you were so prescient at identifying the technology trends such as the microcomputer, cellular phone, the CD and the laptop revolution, to name a few? How were you able to see those things coming?
Well, I'm smart. And I have one other big plus: I don't believe in anything. Belief is a prison for the mind. In every science, in medicine, every new thought has been fought by the establishment.
I sat down with [Ken] Olsen at Digital [Equipment Corp.] I said, "Microcomputers are the way to go." He said, "No." I sat down with Edson deCastro at Data General. I said, "You've got to start adopting microcomputers." He said, "No. They're toys."
I sat down with An Wang and said, "You've got to start adapting to microcomputers." He said, "I know computers better than anybody else in the world, and [micros are] never going to be anything."
I had a vision of what was possible because I knew the technology. When anything comes in at one-tenth the price, it's going to clobber the competition, and it did.
Many of the folks who were entrepreneurs in those early days have retired or left the business. Bill Gates now runs a health care nonprofit. Has the age of the entrepreneurs passed?
We haven't got any big leaders in the field. The industry has slowed down a lot. Microsoft has not been a big help. They're dragging their heels all the time on technology. Apple isn't marvelous, but they're a hell of a lot better; they're out there first with everything.
You were friends with people such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, yet you chose a different path. How come you're not a retired billionaire today, or running another company as your second act, like Jobs, or cashing in your chips and running a health care nonprofit, like Gates?
Well, the main problem is that I've never been interested in making money. I always say, "Gee, somebody ought to do that. Oh, maybe it's me." [But then] I'm always on to the next thing. That's why I sold everything. I'd done that.
I've visited 146 countries. There's none I want to go back to. The ones I want to see are the ones I haven't been to yet. I like to do new things.
A Head for Business?
While some people have described you as a visionary and entrepreneur, others have described you as less strong when it comes to the nuts and bolts of building and running a business. How do you respond to that?
The magazines I were building were growing by 50% a year for eight years. How's that for management? I think the people who worked for me liked working for me and enjoyed it. I gave responsibility to people.
So what's the next big thing in technology?
What would you think of a $20,000 car that never needs fuel -- with a proven technology? You've heard of cold fusion? When I heard about it I said, "Wow, it needs a magazine." So I started Cold Fusion Journal in 1994. I finally gave up publishing that because the developers kind of disappeared or got killed and there was nothing new coming in.
Killed? People were murdered?
When I published Cold Fusion Journal, I got Eugene Mallove [to be] the editor. Well, he went off to start another magazine, but he made the mistake of trying to organize a congressional hearing on cold fusion. So he got murdered.
Law enforcement speculated his death was the result of a robbery gone wrong. Who would want to murder him?
Who wouldn't in the oil business? We're talking about a unit about the size of a dishwasher that could provide all of the heat and electricity that a home would need.
What do you think it would take for cold fusion to become a reality?
Not much. Somebody has to put a couple of million into the development and R&D for practical units. It's been proven. Jim Patterson, an inventor down in Sarasota, Fla., demonstrated a cold fusion cell at a conference, and he had it carefully metered. He had 1 watt of power going in and 1,000 watts going out for the length of the conference.
Are you doing anything to promote the technology today?
No, I'm waiting for the opportunity. Opportunity will tell me when to do something.
What are you doing in the meantime?
I'm publishing New Hampshire ToDo magazine. I'm pushing my book The Secret Guide to Health, which explains how you can cure any illness with no drugs. You don't need pharmaceuticals at all if you don't make yourself sick. If your immune system is strong, nothing bothers you. And you have a strong immune system if you don't put poisons in your body. It's that simple.
You have said that you no longer believe that Americans went to the moon. That the events of 9/11 are incorrect. That fluoride is bad for people, and that most of the food supply is toxic. That cell phones cause brain tumors. And that the Fed should be abolished. Are you a conspiracy theorist?
I'm into conspiracy facts. Whenever something unusual comes along and there's a conspiracy theory I say, "OK, let's read about it and find out what the story is here. Let's get the data."
With regard to the trip to the moon, it's pretty simple. You've seen the pictures of people with the moon dust. You can't have dust on the moon. You can't have dust unless you have atmosphere of some kind. But that's just one [piece of evidence]. We didn't have the technology at that time. They were using slide rules.
Of all your accomplishments to date, of what are you most proud?
I feel most proud at having changed the world. The cell phones, the personal computers. I feel that I have changed the world more than any other living person by pushing these technologies. Somebody else would have done it, but I did it, and I'd like to go on and be the one that spreads health throughout the world, puts the medical industry in the business of accidents only and gets rid of oil.
Also I would love to revolutionize the school system and make it so that we are actually teaching people to think.
Any plans to retire?
Why would I want to retire? I enjoy making things happen.
Well, you are 86 years old.
I was doing a TV show over in Manchester [N.H.] four years ago, and one of the other fellows there was a psychic. I met him one day when I was taping, and he shook hands with me and looked at me and said, "You're going to live to be 120!" So I figure I have a few years left.