Jim Maxey Interview
by Nick Jones
A shorter version of this article was originally published in COMPUTER LIFE. We now reprint the story in its full version, transcribed unedited from the author's original audio tape.
I first saw Jim Maxey on August 19, 1994 while covering the happenings at ONE BBSCON, an online convention of Bulletin Board System operators held in Atlanta. Jim Maxey was standing in the middle of the convention floor surrounded by dozens of young men and woman. He was signing autographs requested by fellow Sysops.
August 19, 1994 - 9:35pm
That night Jim Maxey agreed to sit with me for a half hour or so for an interview. He wasn't as tall as I had imagined or really that impressive at first meeting. But he was open and engaging and willing to answer questions.
I began by asking the first question:
So, Jim, how did this all start.
You mean, computers, me, what?
Well, would you start somewhere in your past, maybe an important event that got you started?
Okay. Ah, well, I guess I could say some of it started after I was shocked by 12,000 volts.
It was a utility power pole running though our property in Cloverdale, Oregon.
You were shocked? You mean electrocuted?
Yes. My heart stopped beating and ...
Just a minute. Can we slow down just a bit? We've been at this for only a few seconds and so far you've already been killed. And ...
Okay. Sure. I needed an antenna for an old radio in my upstairs bedroom. I found a long length of wire outside in the garbage or somewhere, I don't remember. But the insulation was worn off, not that insulation would have helped.
And you were how old?
16. It was July. I was in my slippers and the garden had been watered that morning. My idea was to run this long piece of wire up and into the top of a 30 to 40 foot fir tree, tie it to the top, then run it all the way to the upstairs bedroom, through the window and hook it to my radio for better reception.
So, after climbing the tree and tying the wire around near the top of the trunk, I climbed down again and pulled the wire away from the tree to take out the slack. What I had not noticed, at all, was that there was a high voltage power line, a twelve thousand volt line, two wires, one on each side of the tree. When I pulled on the antenna wire hooked to the top of the tree, the wire pulled up and touched the power line.
So what happened?
I knew instantly, without any doubt that I couldn't survive it
What do you mean, survive it?
I mean I knew I was dead, or about to be, in an instant. A person in that sort of situation knows this pretty well, I guess. Of course I was wrong. But not far off.
What was it like? Being shocked like that I mean?
Well, it was the most horrible pain you can imagine. Total annihilation. In a second, a fraction of a second.
Then what happened?
Well, about two weeks ...
No, I mean what happened to you? Did you see a white light or ... ?
No. No white light. I do remember dreaming I was standing in the middle of a road somewhere and being hit by a large Mack truck. From what I was told, a neighbor heard the crackle of electricity and after making sure the wire wasn't touching me, he check for a pulse, found none, then gave me CPR until my heart began beating. Then ..
So this guy saved your life?
Yeah. I owe my life to him. I was in the hospital for nearly a month, in a coma for quite a spell. The third degree burns took nearly a year to heal. You can see here (Maxey indicates scars on his thumb and fingers) and here where I was burned. Same on my feet. Difficult to see them these days but when I was a teenager, it was kinda debilitating.
So you got over it okay?
No problem. Just one of those things.
So how was life after this time?
Well, when I was in my early 20's, I had been a TV repairman. You know, studied electronics as a kid and loved it all. I was good at it but it wasn't a career, you know what I mean?
Did you enjoy that kind of work?
Well, I enjoyed the challenge I guess. And I always loved electronics.
Kinda odd after being electrocuted.
I guess. I don't know. I remember a year or two before being shocked, remember seeing a detailed electronic schematic of a AM radio. I was hooked. The schematic did it. I wanted, well dreamed of some day to understand exactly how radios worked, all the theory, everything, how television transmitters in TV stations worked so I could take them apart and back together or build my own, even though I didn't think I'd ever do it. It seemed impossible at the time.
Did you ever build a TV transmitter?
No. But I did build my own AM radio transmitter. Now this was not from printed circuit boards. This was back in the 60's. I designed the whole thing on paper, drilled the holes for the tube sockets in the chassis, soldered all the capacitors, resistors, etc. And it worked. I was able to broadcast my voice across town to my 15 year old girlfriend, about four miles away. The signal was very weak but she could just make it out.
That's impressive. Four miles?
Yes. You should have seen the antenna! Then in South Carolina I got a job as a disc jockey, country station, then a rock station. I liked that best because the girls would come to the station after hours and that was lots of fun.
Tell me about it.
No. You want to get me into trouble.
Hey, I just ask the question. You can say anything you want. Where'd you go after the disc jockey years?
Well, during that time I had been studding to become a broadcast engineer. It had been a dream of mine, ever since that first radio schematic. In 1982 I produced and hosted a television series in Ventura, California called "Video Ventura". The series was cancelled and I accepted a job as a television reporter in Killeen, Texas
How long did the TV series last in Ventura?
It was cancelled after about, let's see, about three or four months, I believe.
"You mean why was it cancelled? Well, mostly my fault, I suppose. I tried to do everything and without much of a budget, I relied on my goofball ideas that ..."
Ideas not fully developed. I guess I was having too much fun and didn't take it too seriously. It was crude. The series started as a semi-serious community affairs but soon turned into a poorly written version of Saturday Night Live. Which is strange I guess because there was no writing, just ideas we had and went for it. Man on the street with microphone, you know. Silly stuff really, not really meant for serious TV. But we ...
So you packed up for Texas and became a TV reporter?
Well, eventually. That's about it. The reporter TV job was central Texas coverage and I was an outsider, a Yankee. I got bored quickly, didn't impress anyone as I thought I would when I did a seven part series on Astronomy for the local station. They wanted more "man in the street" stuff but I went for the big names in Astronomy, got the interviews but no one but I was impressed. At least no one ever said so. I should have done better.
Where did you go from there?
I had bought my daughter a computer for video games. And I got interested, but not in the games so much, but about something I had read about called a Bulletin Board System, BBS for short.
When was this?
Hmm. Either late 1982 or early 1983. I just jumped in, read a few things about becoming a Sysop. That's System Operator for short. The idea of operating a computer where people logged in, where they were your audience, a chance to, well, I guess a chance to entertain, to make them think. Early on I thought of the idea, the idea of running a BBS, synonymous to operating a television station. Well, after about a year or so ...
What year was this?
Ah, must have been late 1982 or early 83. I'd been looking around for something different. The Fort Hood Army base was next door and there was an opening for a media director to work with Human Factors Engineers. My job was to make training ..."
Right, basically psychologists with PhD's. We set up tests for the Army's M1 tank, its thermal imaging site..."
You worked with M1 tanks?
Well, yes I did. But I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't drive them. Well, I did once but for only a quarter mile or so. Don't tell anyone. Mostly I just followed the good doctors around as they scribbled notes and directed the army enlisted guys to drive the tanks.
Sorry, I'm a little confused. You worked for the army and these were army psychologists?
I gathered the video on broadcast quality equipment the Army purchased. I spent lots of time learning about black hot and white hot imaging. As much as I needed anyway. The idea of course is that heat from human bodies gives off a thermal image. So does the tank of course. Each tank when hot, gives off a characteristic pattern. We had to train tank operators to correctly identify those patterns. It wasn't easy, for us or for them.
Did you like the work?
Honestly? No. But I guess it's important to note that because this is where we began to use digital video processing. I didn't work for the Army directly but for a private Human Factors Engineering firm, Essex Corporation. They were hired by the Army Research Institute. ARI was responsible for hiring someone to make the training films in regard to thermal imaging techniques. From what I knew, ARI had had no experience in Human Factors, that is, how people operate or interface in the work environment or with machines. Essex crew were all civilians, including myself of course. Damn great bunch of people too. They were the brains. I was just the media guy. ARI was typical army stuff you know, Lieutenants and Captains, most tying to be Majors or Colonels, up the ladder.
So you made training films. Was that on Fort Hood on the ...
On the base, on Fort Hood. Actually, the media lab was 300 yards inside a high security tunnel, a mountain actually. My job was to make video films. I'd be handed a concept and dialogue here and there. We cast army types in the films as that's all the budget allowed. We couldn't hire outside people of course. And I generally had only a few days to shoot a script and sometimes the end result was, well, less than award winning on my part. But the generals loved it.
One of the stars of two of the training films was a full bird, full Colonel. He commanded the main base hospital, one of the largest in the world but he really wanted to be an actor. He played a Colonel in one production called Training For Combat but I had trouble getting him to be blood and guts.
What do you mean?
Some of the generals thought he was a bit effeminate, or at least, being the commander of a large hospital, they thought he didn't quite look the part of a field commander, which is the part he was portraying. And I guess they were right. I tried like hell, in the three days we had to shoot the film, to get him to sound more masculine without telling him so directly. But his gestures were all wrong and half way through the script I wish I had not cast him. But he was a very nice guy and it worked out pretty well.
So it all turned out okay?
Yes. Identifying the enemy was important. The brass, ARI directors and generals, wanted to be sure their men didn't kill each other. We used computers to digitize 35mm slides of mock-up M1 Army tanks. This was a basic MS-DOS system with one hard drive. It was called an XT. This all took a long time to develop because there were too little packages that digitized in color. And remember, in 1983, 1984, people didn't associate images with computers. In fact, the PC could only display a image at in CGA mode, 640x200 in two colors, black and white, or, if I remember, 320x200 and four colors.
So this is where history was being made ...
Well, you know, [curious point] (not certain of this phrase - ed). While in Texas a few years later I went to a Siggraph Convention and kept ...
SigGraph? What's that?
Ah, let's see. SigGraph. I believe it stands for Special Interest Group on Graphics. Anyway, here I was, no one knew me and I knew no one convention. And understand that the computer or at least the PC was not known for imaging or video, not unless you used a specialized video add-on board such as Revolution Number 9. Companies were digitizing then, yes, but the standard, or even non-standard user had no good way at all to use images with the MS-DOS operating system. Early on it was CGA with four colors, then EGA with 16 colors, then finally in 1987 256 colors out of a palette of 250 some thousand colors. That was a big leap, 256 colors. Get back a few feet and the color looked almost photo realistic.
This is fascinating but let's be sure we keep some kind of continuity here. You made training films for the army. When did that end and what did you do from there?
Well, the contract with ARI came to an end. I had been with them for the most part of the last two years. I could either try to follow Essex Corporation back east and attempt to work with them if they needed a media type, or return to my home state of Oregon and get a job there. I had sent video tapes of some of my work to Oregon TV stations, hoping to get a job but I had no offers when Essex left Fort Hood and had made up my mind to go home to Portland, certain I could get a job with the experience I had over the last few years.
I had full custody of my daughter and I wanted to raise her in Oregon, the state I loved. I had a good bundle of money saved so we took two weeks to get to Oregon, stopping here and there on a mini vacation.
Yes. Pulled a big trailer. It was great. When we got to Portland we stayed with my aunt. I hit the market, TV stations for interviews, jobs, possibilities, etc. No job offers. About a half year later we moved into an inexpensive apartment, I mean really inexpensive, because my savings had all but gone and I was worried. Remember, I was a single parent with a six year old girl. No one was hiring. At least not me.
That happens to most of us.
But then, maybe they just didn't like me. I don't think they saw me as a real potential team player. And if so, they were probably right.
Maybe you should thank them for that?
Well, later maybe but at the time I was scared. And really disappointed. What I expected would happen didn't pan out at all.
What did you do?
Well, I did the only thing I could. My daughter and I moved into an inexpensive apartment. Real cheap like and I decided to see if I could make some money with the BBS.
So what made you think you could make money with a BBS?
Well, honestly I don't know. I'm not as smart as I thought I was and as I get older, that's pretty humbling. But the best part of my life now is my wife and has been since I met in 1991. Since then everything else pales in comparison. She's the really smart one you know, the really genuine article. Nothing else is important ."
In our next installment Maxey discusses how Event Horizons became profitable and how the infamous Playboy lawsuit started and ended.