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Robert Smith & Thomas Thompson

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the headquarters of General DataComm Industries (GDC), expecting to interview the company’s founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board Charles “Chuck” Johnson, I was informed he was not available. He had, however, made arrangements for two of his subordinates, Vice-President of Corporate Development, Robert Smith and Thomas “Tommy” Thompson, Vice-President of Government and Industry Relations, to meet with me. After they gave me some of Johnson’s background, it became obvious why the telephone industry was a strategic market for GDC. Johnson earned his BSEE from Northwestern University after WWII on the GI Bill. He joined Illinois Bell Telephone, then an independent telephone company, ITT Kellogg, before two jobs with data communication equipment manufacturers. After the Carterfone decision, Johnson and five others including Robert Smith founded GDC in 1969.

This is a long interview that reviews in detail the founding and history of GDC; investigates the relationships of several key customers, e.g. Western Union, Texaco; and industries of focus, e.g. telephone industry, government; and innovations the interviewees were particularly proud of, e.g. front-panel LED diagnostics, loop back testing, LSI technology, and multiplexer technologies. Thompson gives an insider’s view of the events leading up to and following the Carterfone decision then onto the DAA (digital access arrangements) and Part 68 registration and finally the plugs and modular jacks program. I want to highlight the lengthy discussion of the formation and value of the IDCMA (Independent Data Communications and Manufacturers Association). I kept pressing that line of inquiry, for the IDCMA is an important example of collaborative action among competitive organizations. Interestingly, in Thompson’s description of the events at the 1971 ICA Trade Show, another important industry networking event, it is almost possible to see the members walking around the Trade Show floor trying to convene a meeting in one of their hotel rooms once the Show closes for the day, and how each person has to weight doing so against their individual firm priorities (See Art Carr and Matt Kinney Interviews).

Keywords: General DataComm (GDC), Carterfone, IDCMA, Western Union, Texaco, Codex, Milgo

Robert Smith & Thomas Thompson Interviewed by James Pelkey 3/11/88