At one time, the Route 128 (now I-95) corridor was just as synonymous with the growth and development of technology as the Silicon Valley is today. The region was a major player in what was known as the “Massachusetts Miracle.” This period — occurring over the course of the 1980s — largely reversed the state’s devastating economic fortunes, sending the unemployment rate from 12 percent to 3 percent and giving the Bay State one of the largest percentage increases in personal income in the nation.
The Merrimack Valley played an important role in this technological revolution. Two companies in particular — Apollo Computer and Wang Laboratories — served as major employers in the region for the better part of the ’80s. The next decade, however, was not nearly as kind to Massachusetts’ tech businesses, with major competition ending the “Miracle” before the new millennium.
Founded in Chelmsford in 1980 by William Poduska, Apollo stood toe-to-toe with Sun Microsystems and Symbolics as a leading manufacturer of workstation computers throughout the decade. Largely used by scientists, these workstations were responsible for generating 100 million in quarterly sales for Apollo during 1986.
By 1989, 100,000 of the company’s computers were active around the country. But Apollo had already begun to struggle, the result of poor business dealings and a decline in demand for its products. Apollo was purchased by Hewlett-Packard for $476 million in 1989 and spent the rest of the next decade closing down.
If you happened to catch the Super Bowls in 1978 and 1985, you may recall a pair of ads for this once-burgeoning New England tech company that went after computing giant IBM. The ’78 ad pitted Wang’s David against IBM’s Goliath, while the ’85 ad created a Wang helicopter ready to blow an IBM executive right out of the office (as a first step in the “We’re Gunning for IBM” campaign, the likes of which will probably never be seen again in advertising).
An Wang, known affectionately as “The Doctor” by many of his employees, really did believe that his company — situated in Cambridge and then Tewksbury before permanently relocating to Lowell in 1976 — had a shot to overtake its New York competitor, even going so far as to draw up a projection that had Wang overtaking IBM in the ’90s. This never came to fruition, as the word processing market collapsed in the wake of new multipurpose personal computers, and the company never quite managed to recover after filing for bankruptcy in 1992, two years after Wang’s death.