Sept 3 2014 UTSD…
Andrew Kay, an early San Diego technology entrepreneur who founded Kaypro Corp. computers in the early 1980s, died last week in North County. He was 95.
A relentlessly curious learner and inventor, Kay gained prominence not only as an early computer pioneer but also for his novel management techniques.
He noticed that workers at the end of a production line – those who could see the fruits of the labor – were more productive than those at the beginning. So he broke the assembly line at one of his companies into teams. Psychologist Abraham Maslow – who studied human motivation – spent a summer with Kay observing his techniques.
Maslow later wrote a book on the topic and gave Kay credit for contributing to his theories. Kay “had a very wide spectrum of interests,” said longtime friend and fellow MIT engineering graduate Joe Marcello, 86. “One thing that is taken lightly by many people but is very significant is his contribution to Maslow’s theory of management. That transformed the way American manufacturers ran their businesses in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
The son of Russian immigrants, Kay grew up in New Jersey and graduated from MIT in 1940 with an engineering degree. He came to California to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena before moving to San Diego County in 1949 to join Bill Jack Scientific Engineering.
In 1952, he invented the digital volt meter to precisely measure electrical current. A year later he founded Non-Linear Systems to make the devices, which were first sold to the military and then later sold to commercial customers.
“I think he was one of the founders of digital technology because the digital volt meter was the first device that actually read out in electronic digits,” said his son, David Kay. “He had a long run building those instruments, from 1952 until Kaypro.”
Kay got into the computer business when he saw that the machines on the market were not as complex as his digital volt meters. He ended up running one of the hottest companies in the computer business for a time.
Founded in 1982, Kaypro Corp. made a portable computer. It battled rival Osborne Computer Corp – which introduced its product a year earlier with a tiny 5-inch screen – in the fledgling market for computers that people could take with them, precursors to today’s laptops.
“Kaypro with the Kaypro II — the first really commercially available version — took that basic idea of a portable computer and put a 9-inch screen in it,” said David Greelish, an Atlanta-based computer historian. “That made it way more usable. So he borrowed a lot of the ideas of the Osborne, but I think he made a much better computer. It had a solid metal case. It was really rugged.”
Kaypro focused on selling to independent electronics stores and saw sales soar to $120 million in just two years. The company went public. By the mid-1980s, it was the third largest computer seller behind Apple and IBM, and Kaypro employed nearly 700 workers in Solana Beach.
But Kaypro missed a key technology landmark when it was late to adopt Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, which became the de-facto industry standard. By 1990, Kaypro filed for bankruptcy.
In a 2005 interview with U-T San Diego, Kay said he regretted that Kaypro investors lost money. He said that he lost much of his fortune when the company’s stock collapsed. He invested millions of his own money trying to save the company.
But when Kaypro failed, it wasn’t in Kay’s nature to fret about it. He founded a new company, Kay Computers. Based in Solana Beach, the small company made specialized, rugged PCs for clients around San Diego. Kay led the firm into his 90s, coming into the office every day, making sales calls.
“He was very resilient,” said David Kay. “That is something I learned from him. Set your priorities. Don’t look back. Just move forward. Take what happened and learn from it. Don’t dwell on it.”
Kay Computers was active until 2010, when health problems forced Kay to give up the business.
He was inducted into the Computer Museum of America Hall of Fame in 1998. He was an active member of the MIT Club of San Diego, and was well known in the region’s technology circles.
Outside of business, Kay served as a trustee on the San Dieguito School Board from 1955 to 1970. He also was a board member of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, which is involved in educational projects. Kay also was a founding member of the Del Mar Rotary Club.