The American computer designer Jay Miner (1932–1994) created the Amiga, a personal computer that competed effectively with products by Apple during the 1980s and included graphics capabilities that were far ahead of their time. Employed by Atari and Commodore, two of the corporate giants of computing in the early 1980s, Miner went his own way, devising original ideas first and finding funding for them later.
Jay Glenn Miner was born in Prescott, Arizona, on May 31, 1932. Raised in southern California, he enrolled at San Diego State University and was taking classes there when the Korean War broke out in June of 1950. Miner decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard, which sent him to an electronics technician training program at their base in Groton, Connecticut. In Groton he met his future wife, Caroline Poplawski, and the couple was married in 1952.
Miner served in the U.S. Coast Guard for three years, working, as he recalled in a interview for Amiga User International, reproduced on the Retro Computing News website, “in the North Atlantic Weather Patrol repairing radars, radios, and also the captain's hi-fi.” ; He returned to California after his discharge, resuming his college education at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with an electrical engineering major in 1958, specializing in generator and servo motor design.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Miner held various jobs in the California electronics industry, often working for small startups that provided the soil from which the Silicon Valley electronics industry grew. At one company, he was asked to design a computer control console and video display. At the time, transistors were in their infancy, and Miner needed a crash course in transistor and logic board design. Few books on the subject were available, and experts in the field were likewise few. “This was an advantage, however, since it was easy in those days to learn enough out of one book to become the company expert,” he recalled in his Amiga User International interview.
In 1964, Miner joined the semiconductor firm General Microelectronics, which manufactured metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) chips. These were among the first semiconductors capable of enabling compact video displays, and once again Miner mastered the new technology. A chip is a strip of semiconductor material, and when the company released a pioneering calculator based on 23 custom MOS chips, Miner was part of the team that designed it. Between 1964 and 1974, Miner was employed by several chip companies and worked on calculators, watches, and chip designs for other computerized components.
In 1974 Atari was just beginning its rise to prominence in the embryonic video-game industry. Through a friend, Harold Lee (one of the very first video-game chip designers), Miner met Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and was asked to work on chip design for the Atari 2600, a home videogame console featuring interchangeable game cartridges—a video game hardware configuation still in use today. Such consoles had been developed by a team led by engineer Jerry Lawson at Fairchild Electronics, but Atari hoped to use its superior marketing muscle to displace the smaller firm in the market. The 2600 quickly outstripped the Fairchild Channel F, and Miner was rewarded for his work with an offer to join the team working on the Atari 400 and 800. These were among the first “personal computers,” typewriter-like machines with ports for game joysticks and software cartridges. Miner accepted the offer.
The Atari machines earned the company large profits in 1979, but Atari antagonized its engineers by using an accounting technique to avoid paying them their promised bonuses. Miner was one of a group of engineers who left the company, joining a firm called Zimast that developed chips for computer-controlled heart pacemakers. In 1982, a programmer friend of Miner named Larry Caplin suggested forming a new computer and game company. Miner directed Caplin to funding sources, and when the original executive team fell apart, he signed on as vice president of Hi-Toro.
The atmosphere at Hi-Toro was freewheeling, and Miner, in a 1992 interview transcribed on the Elwood website, described some of the employees as “quite frankly weird. There were guys coming to work in purple tights and pink bunny slippers. Dale Luck looked like your average off-the-street homeless hippy with long hair and was pretty laid back. In fact the whole group was pretty laid back. I wasn't about to say anything—I knew talent when I saw it…. The job gets done and that's all that matters. I didn't care how solutions came about even if people were working at home.”
Hi-Toro raised money quickly by designing and marketing a group of successful video-game cartridges for the Atari system, but their programming team had bigger things in mind. Miner had a personal reason for wanting to design a computer with superior graphics capabilities: “My friend at Singer Link, Al Pound, had shown me the real milliondollar [airplane flight] simulators, and I was hooked. I had to have a low-coast version of that to practice on at home,” he recalled in the 1992 interview. He set to work, using a Motorola 68000 microprocessor, a unit more often used in corporate workstations than in home computing. The firm attracted an infusion of cash from Atari's rival Commodore.
As the project developed, Miner incorporated other innovative features. One was the use of blitters, circuits that transfer data quickly within a computer's memory in a way that bypasses the computer's central processing unit, or CPU. “I read about blitters in one of the computer magazines, and this seemed the ideal low-cost way to improve animation such as flight simulators,” Miner explained in his Amiga User International interview. When trademark disputes loomed involving Japan's Toro lawn mower firm, Hi-Toro changed its name to Amiga, meaning “female friend” in Spanish. “I thought using a Spanish name wasn't such a good move. I was wrong!” Miner recalled in his Elwood website interview.
As work on the project proceeded, Miner developed a prototype that was ready for display at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Illinois. The prototype was so fragile that the Amiga team booked it a separate airplane seat, using the name Joe Pillow. Visitors to the show were impressed by the machine's color graphics, which would not be duplicated by other companies until some years later, and the Amiga 1000 hit the market in late 1985. With prices starting at a very low $750, it had the familiar home computer configuration of keyboard, processing unit, and monitor and it immediately became popular. Subsequent Amiga machines, such as the German-designed Amiga CD32 and CDTV, also achieved significant market share.
Facing competition from Apple and from rapidly growing Microsoft by the early 1990s, Amiga and Commodore both faltered. Miner left Amiga and joined the biotechnology firm Ventitrex, headquartered in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale. There he designed chips for the company's implantable and externally programmable cardiac defibrillator (a medical device that regulates the heart beat). As Miner's friend Harold Lee would later tell the San José Mercury News, “He was always designing. He never stopped designing.”
A fixture of Miner's corporate life, familiar to anyone who worked with him, was his cockapoo dog Mitchy, whose office access he negotiated into the job he took at the company that became Amiga. When he worked at Atari, Mitchy had her own nameplate on Miner's office door as well as her own corporate ID badge, which was clipped to her collar. She often observed Miner's creative process from a couch in his office and her contributions to the Amiga 1000 were commemorated in a paw print molded into the machine's case.
Miner had a varied set of interests outside computing, including bonsai, model airplanes, square dancing, and camping, all which earned him many friends outside the technology field. Troubled by kidney problems through much of his life, he died in Mountain View, California, from complications of kidney disease, on June 20, 1994. He was outlived by Caroline, his wife of more than 40 years, and was memorialized in services at a local Unitarian Universalist church.
Miner's substantial importance in the history of personal computing has not been widely recognized. Much of what is known about his life and career comes from interviews on historical computing websites, and there are few articles that formally examine his contributions. Among retro-oriented computer hobbyists, however, there is no doubt as to his importance: he is known as the father of the Amiga. In the words of a Retro Computing News writer, Miner's Amiga “remains one of the most popular hobbyist and creative computer systems ever, … occupying a proud place in the history of computing.”
Elwood website, http://elwoodb.free.fr/ (November 10, 2016), transcript of interview with Miner, September 1992.
Low End Mac website, http://lowendmac.com/ (November 10, 2016), “The Amiga Story: Conceived at Atari, Born at Commodore.”
Retro Computing News online, https://retrocomputingnews.com/ (May 31, 2015), interview with Miner, transcript of June 1988 issue of Amiga User International.❑