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The Vulcan DBMS for CP/M micros was originally developed in 8080 assembly language by a contractor working for Jet Propulsion Lab, based on an earlier JPL mainframe program. This code went on to be the basis for Ashton-Tate's highly successful dBASE products for CP/M and MS-DOS, as well as being the basis for FoxPro. dBASE (eventually acquired by Borland) and FoxPro (eventually acquired by Microsoft) were dominant database programs throughout the early rise of the PC platform, and likely were the technology driving many of the small business PC purchases in the late 1980s.

I'm surprised that a "hobby project" at JPL went on to be the foundation for such a huge microcomputer software enterprise. Was there some specific feature(s) in Vulcan that made it "great" compared to other early DBMS programs for micros? If not, then can some consistent lead developer(s) be identified that made it "great" in its future iterations?

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    I'd say, as so often, it was a combination of 'available' and 'could be used' to not start from scratch. On is always better to build a successful product from an already working base than inventing the whee first, isn't it?
    – Raffzahn
    Jun 4, 2021 at 15:58
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    Of course, Lotus and Excel were also driving forces in small business PC usage.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 4, 2021 at 16:46
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    AFAIK Dave Fulton developed FoxBase as a dBase workalike, but it wasn’t based on the same code. Jun 4, 2021 at 16:51
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    @Jon back in those days, more like VisiCalc and Lotus ;-). Jun 4, 2021 at 16:52
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    @StephenKitt - fair enough, hard to remember just when I started using Excel. Although my father still uses 1-2-3 amazingly enough. The available was from government-funded software not being copyrighted (at the time), which also explains the many circuit simulators derived from the original Pspice code.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 4, 2021 at 16:57

2 Answers 2

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Try and find the book "Programmers at work" by Susan Lammers, subtitled "interviews with 19 programmers who shaped the software industry" (slight hyperbole), written in 1986. Apart from the value of the interviews themselves, it is fascinating to read them 35 years on to see how much has changed.

One of the interviews is with C. Wayne Ratcliff, who "In 1978, began writing the Vulcan program, which he marketed by himself from 1979 to 1980. In late 1980 he entered into a marketing agreement with Ashton-Tate and renamed the Vulcan product dBASE H." It looks like Vulcan was a success because it was a good product and didn't have much competition at the time.

RATCLIFF: In October 1979, I went to market and put my first ad for Vulcan in BYTE magazine, and I ran a quarter-page ad for four or five months thereafter. I got much more response than I could handle.
INTERVIEWER: So your response was immediately positive. Who were your competitors at that time?
RATCLIFF: FMS 80, and later Condor and Selector. During the year and nine months that I was writing the code for Vulcan, my floppy disk drive broke down twice. Each time, it took three months to get it up and running again, so I lost six months. I kept thinking, if I had come out six months earlier, I would have been the very first.
INTERVIEWER: So, suddenly you had a product that was penetrating the market. Did this success take you by surprise?
RATCLIFF: I got completely overstressed. I did everything myself. When an order came in, I typed out the order, filled out the invoice, packaged the program, made a fresh copy of the disk - the whole nine yards. I placed all the ads myself, and also I kept working on the program. I'd come home from my job, work again until midnight, go to sleep exhausted, get up the next day, and repeat the process. Vulcan was at the point where I needed to make a lot of advances to it. Over the months I really ran out of steam. In the summer of 1980, I decided to quit advertising Vulcan and let it drop off to nothing. I would continue to support all the people who had purchased it, but I wasn't going to aggressively go out to find any new buyers.

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    This seems to confirm Ratcliff being an important figure in the software industry, at least in the mind of the author. I'd still like to determine whether he actually advanced the technical "state of the art". This passage makes it sound like his struggles with business logistics motivated the move to Ashton-Tate. That might have freed him to build on whatever technical achievements he may or may not have been contributing to the field of DBMS.
    – Brian H
    Jun 5, 2021 at 14:27
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    Fascinating! I started with dBase on the PC ~ 1984. Just requested the book through local library (they don't have it, but another library in Maryland does, so I should get it in a week or two). Jun 6, 2021 at 2:31
  • @BrianH when there’s no “art” on a platform, then any semi-decent product advances the state of the art.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 21, 2023 at 0:48
  • @BrianH more importantly, nothing in your question, or this answer, mentions “state of the art”. Thus, your comment is moving the goalposts.
    – RonJohn
    Feb 21, 2023 at 0:50
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For some reason, this just popped up in my feed.

All of these programs date back RETRIEVE by Tymshare. That was on the SDS 940. JPL had been using Tymshare machines but then bought three UNIVAC 1108s. Fred Thompson and Jack Hatfield ported RETRIEVE to these machines where it became JPLDIS. Jeb Long later took over for Hatfield.

Wang also made an almost identical version known as RECALL for the Wang 2200's.

Ratliff enters the picture when he worked at JPL as a contractor. He had been using JPLDIS but then decided to port it to his own machine, an IMSAI, which became Vulcan.

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    It seems to me that Ratliff embraced and extended the killer feature of the earlier versions, which was its "script-ability". Thus it became a legit domain specific language for DB applications that was simple and fast enough for micros (after Ratliff's assembly re-write?).
    – Brian H
    Mar 24, 2022 at 22:19
  • RETRIEVE did have scripting as well, almost identical to dBASE. Mar 25, 2022 at 13:32
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    You might want to note that you wrote the RETRIEVE Wikipedia article you cited.
    – scruss
    Feb 20, 2023 at 15:55

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