The Reality Behind “Halt and Catch Fire”

Paul Carroll talks about the TV show’s technological background

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Stephen Cass: Hello, this is Stephen Cass for IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations.

The early 1980s were a tumultuous time for the computing industry. Personal computers were moving from the hobbyist fringe into homes and offices, and companies like IBM and Apple squared off for market dominance. Capturing the zeitgeist of these years, when fortunes seemed to be made and lost overnight, is the TV show “Halt and Catch Fire,” which has recently started its second season on the AMC cable channel.

Centering on a core trio of characters, consisting of a Machiavellian businessman, a canny hardware engineer, and a gifted software developer, “Halt and Catch Fire” is set in Texas, part of the so-called Silicon Prairie, that sprung up around companies like Texas Instruments. The show is rich in period detail, as fat issues of Byte magazine sit on desks, while characters discuss the 400 millisecond Doherty Threshold for real-time computer responses.

The original technical consultant for “Halt and Catch Fire” is Paul Carroll, who covered the PC industry during the 80s, as part of a long career at the Wall Street Journal, and who is now CEO of online publishing company Insurance Thought Leadership. We talked to Paul at the close of the first season about how the production tried to integrate the technology of the day into dramatic storylines.

Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul Carroll:  Nice to be here.

Stephen Cass: First off, when I saw “Halt and Catch Fire” initially advertised, I was really surprised to see such a deep nugget of computer geek humor being used as the name of a TV show. For those who don’t know, can you explain the origin of the term?

Paul Carroll:  It’s an old term that I had actually not heard of. One of the chief writers is the son of a longtime tech salesman, and had somehow heard the term. It basically just refers to a command that will make a chip go into an infinite loop, and basically burn itself up. There are also aspects of it that have to do with claiming control of the computer, and basically once you give that command, it’s all over, and you can’t regain control of the computer. I think that’s more the metaphor for the show.

Stephen Cass: So the role of science advisors of technical consultants can vary considerably on productions from people who are involved with the production or development stages to people who are brought in late in the day to help with the particular details in the script. How are you involved?

Paul Carroll:  I came in after they had done the pilot. They asked me to review the script in the pilot just to make sure that all the details were correct. I then spent a day with the writers as they were brainstorming the series to help them think, not so much about the storyline, because they already had that going, but mostly I was just trying to help them understand who some of these folks were in the computer industry, just so that they had more of a sense of what a real life programmer, say, would be like. And then I just told them a bunch of stories from my days covering the computer industry, in particular about Comdex, which showed up in one of the later episodes. So I was involved not at the very beginning, but early on, and then did some review and answered some questions just to make sure that things were technically accurate as they went along.

Stephen Cass: Part of the delight in watching a period show is all the little details, including things like a character getting excited about the advent of high-density floppy disks. What was your favorite memory that the show evoked?

Paul Carroll: Oh, I’d have to think about that. They were remarkably thorough, and just had so many...I mean they had all the details right, but they came up with so many things. I guess to me it was just fun to hear all the quaint discussions about bytes as opposed to gigabytes. It just took me back 25 to 30 years, to when I was covering this stuff for the first time.

Stephen Cass: In one early episode, a skeptical journalist from a publication called Wall Street Quarterly visits the characters’ company. Was that character based in any way on your experiences?

Paul Carroll: [laughs] It was. I had told them enough stories, I guess, about my interactions with folks that they decided that they needed a journalist. They said, when they told me about this, that there basically was good news and bad news. The good news is that there was a character based on me in the show. They actually had, before they came up with the name, referred to him as Paul Carroll all the way through. They said the bad news is, he’s a jerk. They said not to worry too much, because the same thing had happened with the father of one of the chief writers. They decided to put him in the show, and then decided he was dramatically more interesting as a jerk, so they said not to take it personally.

Stephen Cass: That’s hilarious. So some of the online discussion about this show has involved commentators rolling their eyes at the characters’ belief that creating a slightly better PC clone is somehow an act of great significance. But I see parallels between the grand rhetoric accompanying the clone, and that of many modern entrepreneurs who are building another social media app, or a sharing economy app. Do you think that’s a fair parallel?

Paul Carroll: Oh, I do. There’s always been a bent toward evangelism in the technology world, and those folks who were working on all this back in the early to mid 80s, absolutely thought they were going to change the world. So I don’t think it’s fair to ding the show for having these people be so excited about what they were doing, because technology is really cool stuff, and people who were at the leading edge of it really are out there trying to, as Steve Jobs put it, put a dent in the universe.

Stephen Cass: Do you think that modern technology entrepreneurs can take any lessons from this period in history?

Paul Carroll: That’s an interesting question. I think that they can. I mean, there’s a line about history where it doesn’t so much repeat itself, but it does rhyme with things that came before, and you can certainly see patterns. You know, everybody was so convinced that the mainframe was going to be the most important thing that IBM in those days actually predicted out, as though the mainframe was going to be the only thing there, and did things like have a word-processing system that ran on a mainframe, as hard as that might be to believe at this remove. But you can see that every 10 years or so, a new type of computing device comes along. So if you’re in the mainframe business, you need to expect mini computers, and then PCs, and then handheld devices, and who knows exactly what is going to happen from here. But yes, I think people can see some of the patterns, and can see that you can’t get too cocky, because no matter what kind of position you’re in, somebody’s going to come along and supercede you at some point.

Stephen Cass: Well, Paul, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Paul Carroll:  You bet. It’s a fun show, and it’s fun to get to talk about it.

Stephen Cass: We’ve been talking today with Paul Carroll about the real technological history that forms the background to the TV show “Halt and Catch Fire.” For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Stephen Cass.

This interview was recorded Thursday, 11 September 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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