To some people, a TV set is an object associated with wasting time. For Mike Volker, video terminals represented an opportunity to boost the productivity of computer science students and technology professionals around the world.

Mike Volker and Alan Warenko at a trade show

Mike Volker and Alan Warenko at a tradeshow in the late 1970’s

Volker, who graduated from  Waterloo’s Engineering with a  BASc  in electrical and a  MASc  in systems design  in the early 1970s, is the co-founder with Ronald Craig, also an alumni with a BASc in Chemical, a MASc and PhD in management sciences, of Volker-Craig Ltd., one of the earliest producers of video terminals. The company’s products offered a way of displaying information electronically long before PC monitors became a staple of the average desk.

“Now it’s so common to work with information on a screen, even down to your smartphone, but in the 70s there was no such thing. It was all paper, basically, and printouts,” Volker says.

Students creating computer programs would use IBM keypunch machines, for example, which would then be read on an IBM 360 mainframe and printed out.

Idea for video terminals came directly from market need

“I remember thinking as a student, ‘This is a really tedious process,’” Volker recalled. “If you made a mistake, you had to go back, stand in line and punch up a new card. Each card was basically one statement in a computer program. There could be thousands of cards in one deck. And they could easily get shuffled or disorganized.”

Volker-Craig VC 4400 video terminal

The VC4404 “Chat” contained a 6502 and could emulate the Lear Siegler ADM-3A.

As a fourth-year engineering project, now known as a Capstone Design project,  Volker worked on an electronic circuit design for their video terminals that would allow the presentation of characters on the screen of a relatively inexpensive TV set. Early customers not only included the University of Waterloo but also Samsung, with which Volker-Craig entered into a joint venture.

“Most of the companies that were competing with us were in the U.S. There was huge market demand,” Volker said. “By getting Samsung into the monitor business, it really helped us build that international reputation.”

Volker says that while entrepreneurship may not be for everyone, working with a group that combines a mix of talents and skills is a good way to prepare for success.

“As an engineering student, I didn’t know a lot about the business side,” he says. Craig, however, had been studying management in addition to engineering. That was the beginning of the team that later brought on experts in finance, marketing and other disciplines, including fellow engineering students are Dave Yardley and Alan Werenko.

Being at Waterloo not only offered an opportunity for Volker to meet his future business partner, but a way to determine his true calling. For example, Volker worked in co-op placements at several large, well-known organizations, and while he enjoyed the experience, he says he walked away knowing he wanted to work more independently, and not as part of a corporation.

You may know you like to tinker, maybe, but you don’t really know until you’re in there, experimenting, playing around, trying different ideas, what will be fulfilling.

The next-generation of engineering talent at Waterloo Engineering should go through a similar process, Volker advises, as they may never get a better chance to explore their options.

“You may know you like to tinker, maybe, but you don’t really know until you’re in there, experimenting, playing around, trying different ideas, what will be fulfilling,” he says. “Having that environment where you can learn about yourself and learn about what it is you really like to do, that’s important.”

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