The New York Times > Technology > A Toy With a Story
December 20, 2004
A Toy With a Story
By JOHN MARKOFF
YAMHILL, Ore. - There is a story behind every electronic gadget sold on the QVC shopping channel. This one leads to a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Oregon, which is the home and circuit design lab of Jeri Ellsworth, a 30-year-old high school dropout and self-taught computer chip designer.
Ms. Ellsworth has squeezed the entire circuitry of a two-decade-old Commodore 64 home computer onto a single chip, which she has tucked neatly into a joystick that connects by a cable to a TV set. Called the Commodore 64 - the same as the computer system - her device can run 30 video games, mostly sports, racing and puzzles games from the early 1980's, all without the hassle of changing game cartridges.
She has also included five hidden games and other features - not found on the original Commodore computer - that only a fellow hobbyist would be likely to appreciate. For instance, someone who wanted to turn the device into an improved version of the original machine could modify it to add a keyboard, monitor and disk drive.
Sold by Mammoth Toys, based in New York, for $30, the Commodore 64 joystick has been a hot item on QVC this Christmas season, selling 70,000 units in one day when it was introduced on the shopping channel last month; since then it has been sold through QVC's Web site. Frank Landi, president of Mammoth, said he expected the joystick would be distributed next year by bigger toy and electronics retailers like Radio Shack, Best Buy, Sears and Toys "R" Us. "To me, any toy that sells 70,000 in a day on QVC is a good indication of the kind of reception we can expect," he said.
Ms. Ellworth's first venture into toy making has not yet brought her great wealth - she said she is paid on a consulting basis at a rate that is competitive for her industry - "but I'm having fun," she said, and she continues with other projects in circuit design as a consultant.
Her efforts in reverse-engineering old computers and giving them new life inside modern custom chips has already earned her a cult following among small groups of "retro" personal computer enthusiasts, as well as broad respect among the insular world of the original computer hackers who created the first personal computers three decades ago. (The term "hacker" first referred to people who liked to design and create machines, and only later began to be applied to people who broke into them.)
More significant, perhaps, is that in an era of immensely complicated computer systems, huge factories and design teams that stretch across continents, Ms. Ellsworth is demonstrating that the spirit that once led from Silicon Valley garages to companies like Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer can still thrive.
"She's a pure example of following your interests and someone who won't accept that you can't do it," said Lee Felsenstein, the designer of the first portable PC and an original member of the Homebrew Computer Club. "She is someone who can do it and do it brilliantly."
Ms. Ellsworth said that chip design was an opportunity to search for elegance in simplicity. She takes her greatest pleasure in examining a complex computer circuit and reducing it in cost and size by cleverly reusing basic electronic building blocks.
It is a skill that is as much art as science, but one that Ms. Ellsworth has perfected, painstakingly refining her talent by plunging deeply into the minutiae of computer circuit design.
Recently she interrupted a conversation with a visitor in her home to hunt in between the scattered circuit boards and components in her living room for a 1971 volume, "MOS Integrated Circuits," which she frequently consults. The book concerns an earlier chip technology based on fewer transistors than are used today. "I look for older texts," she said. "A real good designer needs to know how the old stuff works."
Several years ago Ms. Ellsworth cornered Stephen Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, at a festival for vintage Apple computers and badgered him for the secrets of his Apple II floppy disk controller.
"I was very impressed with her knowledge of all this stuff, and her interest too," recalled Mr. Wozniak, whose fascination with hobbyist computers three decades ago helped create the personal computer industry.
She attributes her passion for design simplicity to her youth in Dallas, Ore., 35 miles south of Yamhill, where she was raised by her father, Jim Ellsworth, a mechanic who owned the local Mobil station.
She became a computer hobbyist early, begging her father at age 7 to let her use a Commodore 64 computer originally purchased for her brother, and then learning to program it by reading the manuals that came with the machine.
In a tiny rural town without access even to a surplus electronics store, her best sources of parts were the neighborhood ham radio operators. She learned to make the most of her scarce resources.
"It goes back to necessity," she said. "It went back to not having enough parts to design with when I was a kid."
Her first business foray came during high school when she began designing and selling the dirt-track race cars that she had been driving with her farther. Using his service station as a workshop, she was soon making so much money selling her custom race cars that she dropped out of high school.
It was fun for several years, she said, but eventually she decided that she needed to get away from the race car scene. A friend had an early Intel 486-based PC and thought they could make money assembling and selling computers. She decided he was right: "I looked at the margins and it seemed like a great way to make money."
They went into business together in 1995, but soon had a falling out and split up. For a short time Ms. Ellsworth considered leaving the computer business. Instead, she opened a store near that of her former partner, then drove him out of business. Ultimately her store became a chain of five Computers Made Easy shops in small towns.
"My business model was to find areas that were far enough away from the big cities where the larger stores were," she said. "I could generate a lot of loyalty and charge a bit more. It worked out well for quite a while."
Eventually, the collapsing price of the PC made it impossible to survive, she said, and in 2000 she sold off her stores.
"When the machines got down to $75 margins, then even putting a technician on the phone to answer a question meant you were almost losing money," she said.
Free from her business obligations, she decided to return to her first love - hobbyist electronics. She was eager to study computer hardware design, but soon found that there weren't many options for a high school dropout.
She moved to Walla Walla, Wash., and began attending Walla Walla College, a Seventh Day Adventist school that offered a circuit design program. Her attempt at a formal education lasted less than a year, however. She was a cultural mismatch for the school, where she said questioning the professors' answers was frowned upon.
"I felt like a wolf in sheep's clothing," she said.
On her own again, Ms. Ellsworth decided to pursue her passion, designing computer circuits that mimicked the behavior of her first Commodore. She turned to a series of mentors and availed herself of free software design tools offered by chip companies.
Her hobby produced a chameleon computer called the C-1. Changing its basic software could make it mimic not only a Commodore 64, but ultimately more than nine other popular home computers of the early 1980's, including the Atari, TI, Vic and Sinclair.
Two years ago she showed it off at the Hackers' Conference, an annual meeting of some of the nation's best computer designers. To her surprise, she received a rousing ovation - and a series of job offers.
One person who took notice was Andrew Singer, a computer scientist who is chief executive of Rapport Inc., a start-up based in Mountain View, Calif.
Mr. Singer contracted with Ms. Ellsworth as a consultant and has since found that she has abilities that engineers with advanced degrees often do not.
"It's possible to get a credential and not have passion," he said. He compared Ms. Ellsworth to Mr. Wozniak and to Burrell Smith, the hardware designer of the original Macintosh. Neither had formal training when they made their most significant contributions at Apple.
Ms. Ellsworth was also discovered by Mammoth toys, which hired her to design the Commodore-emulating chip for the joystick. She began the project late last June and finished, including a frantic last-minute trip to a Chinese manufacturing factory, in early September - a design sprint fueled by Mountain Dew and 20-hour days.
"It worked out tremendously well for our company," said Mr. Landi, president of Mammoth. "It has entirely changed the way we design electronic toys." He said that he has signed Ms. Ellsworth up for a series of design projects, although he would not divulge the financial details.
Old-fashioned video games like the ones on Ms. Ellsworth's product have become less common recently because kids have grown jaded and expect a "wow" factor, like intense graphics or realistic images that older computers could not produce, said Shyam Nagrani, principle consumer electronics analyst for iSupply, a market research firm based in El Segundo, Calif. He added, however, "The parents are likely to pick this up and say, 'Why not? The kids may like it.'"
When the C64, as the joystick is called informally, appeared on QVC last month, Ms. Ellsworth watched with obvious pride.
"It was one of one of the best projects I've ever done in my life," she said. "It was a tribute back to the computer that started it all for me."