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Tech War: AMC's New Show Reveals the Scrappy Roots of PCs

'Halt and Catch Fire' follows an entrepreneur who takes on IBM in the early 1980s.
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How did IBM, considered the king of personal computers in the early 1980s, essentially fall into obscurity in the category by the end of the decade? Perhaps part of the answer can be found within the dozens of untold stories about the scrappy teams that tried to take down the big blue giant.

"Whenever you can walk people into a moment in history that they didn't know existed, this seems to be a wonderful, dramatic entry point," Chris Rogers, co-writer of AMC's new series Halt and Catch Fire, said. 

The 10-episode drama, which premiered on AMC Sunday, follows one such fictional team in the nascent years of the PC. (The pilot episode is available now.)

Rogers and fellow Halt writer Chris Cantwell depict a ragtag, but serious, bunch that have (most) of the qualities needed to stand a chance of catching up to the imposing IBM. There's the debonair former sales executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the experienced, but under-challenged, engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and the genius college dropout Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). 

"Come for the computers, stay for the human drama," Cantwell joked, alluding to the fact that there's no shortage of ego on the show.

A Familiar (Entrepreneurial) Story

Particularly interesting is Pace's character, Joe, who displays some sociopathic tendencies in the first episode. He manipulates Gordon--a husband and a father with a lot to lose if things go wrong--into working with him. Yet, without Joe, this high-risk, but potentially high-gain situation would never happen. 

"I think what's important about MacMillan and guys that might be 'visionaries' is that they think they're right and they think they see the future," Rogers said. "And they think they're doing everyone a great favor by bringing them along to that place, whether the like it or not. And I think that's how Joe McMillan perceives it."

Much about the show--from the stiff office atmosphere to the way that ever-confident sales people close deals--is influenced by Cantwell's experience growing up in Silicon Prairie, the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area. This is where Halt and Catch Fire is set. 

In the early 1980s, Cantwell's father moved his family from Chicago to Texas to work in  systems software sales. Cantwell said his father never got involved with the PC industry, but he watched as Texas-based companies like Compaq and the Tandy Corporation made plays.

Cantwell said his dad now loves the show. "Most importantly, he thinks we got in right in terms of  how people talked to each other and the way it looks and feels." 

That's not the only thing Rogers and Cantwell hoped to get right. Not surprisingly the show requires a huge amount of technical knowledge, and Cantwell said when they're not writing, they're researching. The show also has at least three technical consultants at any given time. 

There's also the challenge of accurately depicting the mixed bag of emotions that come with beginning a new and potentially disastrous undertaking. 

"It starts with a big idea. And then it's all about execution," Rogers said. 

"You get out of your own way. Was your idea as good as you think it was? We really explore all of those things that, I think, are going to be familiar to anyone that's kind of taken that bold step out and tried to make their own thing."

IMAGE: Courtesy AMC
Last updated: May 30, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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