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The Tinkerer

Jim Busby’s love for discovery has created two successful companies.

Jim Busby and son Jimmy at the headquarters of CentraLite, the newest success story to arise from Jim’s love for tinkering.

Jim Busby and son Jimmy at the headquarters of CentraLite, the newest success story to arise from Jim’s love for tinkering.

If Jim Busby were to write a book, it might be called “How to tinker your way onto the New York Stock Exchange.”

While the tale of how Busby started his former company, QMS, in his bedroom with a $10,000 loan has become the stuff of legend in the Alabama business world, the most informative part of the story occurs long before QMS was listed on the NASDAQ and the NYSE with annual revenues of $300 million.

At the heart of the QMS story is a kid who liked to solder and build radios out of spare parts. As Busby worked toward an engineering degree from the University of Alabama in the 1970s, his tinkering evolved from taking apart home appliances to building computers out of parts purchased from military surplus companies.

Keep in mind this was years before anybody had ever heard of Steve Jobs, years before an Apple was anything but a piece of fruit.

“I built two or three computers. This was in ’73 or ’74. I made up my own language, a machine language, learned how that worked,” Busby says, sitting in front of a wall of windows at CentraLite, a new company he started with his oldest son, Jimmy. Coincidentally, CentraLite also was born out of Busby’s tinkering, but more on that later.

“It was fun to build a computer, watch it work, watch it execute the instructions I had made up in my head. I just did it for the satisfaction, seeing it add numbers together. I did it for fun, and that’s how I learned how to build computers,” Busby says. “That was most of what QMS did, build its own computers, although they were tiny little computers. Very fast, very small computers.”

By 1976, Busby was an engineer at Scott Paper Co. with a young family. He noticed that the company’s warehouse was in a constant state of chaos as forklift drivers raced around trying to find the giant rolls of paper needed to fulfill an outgoing order.

“You needed a label that had big, giant letters as to what the order number was for that roll, but then you needed a bunch of smaller letters that could show what kind of paper it was and things like that. You needed all different sizes of letters on the same label. There was no such printer that was capable of doing that,” Busby says. “I had the idea of making a printer do what you wanted it to, giving it a brain.”

Around the same time, he encountered an early dot-matrix printer. It was among the equipment he and a partner purchased for a failed business venture involving record keeping for gas stations. But like all early printers, it was basically limited to printing small letters on a page, like a typewriter.

“If you printed all the dots, you got a black piece of paper. No dots, you got nothing at all. It’s kind of like sculpting something. All you have to do is figure out where to put the dots.”

The problem was, none of the early computers allowed the user to control where the dots went. IBM ruled the computer world at the time and made sure its computers only worked with IBM printers, thanks to proprietary computer codes and cables.

“The computer had all these weird, strange encoded ways of talking to the printer and it was mysterious. Nobody could figure out how it worked. And that’s what drove QMS, because I figured out how it worked,” Busby says.

Pulling out his home tinkering equipment, including a few oscilloscopes, which can measure electronic signals passed through cables, Busby cracked IBM’s proprietary computer codes by eavesdropping on the communications between the computer and the printer.

“I got some test equipment, some oscilloscopes, and started looking at the data that was going down the cable. I’d tell the printer to print ABCDEFG and look and see ‘What did it send?’” Busby says. “Once you had that, you could say, what is it going to take for this little circuit board to pretend to be an IBM.”

What it took was a new computer programming language Busby made up called Magnum, and a new, tiny computer installed inside the printer to act as a translator between the computer and the printer.

“So you would send all this data to the printer in the Magnum language and the printer wouldn’t do anything. It would just accumulate all this data. Then when you had the full description of the page, you would say ‘go,’ you would send it a command that would say ‘that’s all my data, you go print.’ And the computer would figure out where to put all the dots on the paper using some clever little algorithms that I got a patent on,” Busby says.

“Basically, we took a stupid printer and gave it a brain.”

Armed with the ability to print anything he wanted on a piece of paper, Busby decided to quit his job at the paper company and start QMS. Scott Paper was his first customer. The company bought four of his modified printers to bring order to its paper warehouse.

Before long, Busby’s printers were printing labels for General Motors, DuPont chemical and other Fortune 500 companies. When bar codes came in, QMS was the only game in town and the company’s fortunes went sky high.

“A lot of people think I invented barcodes. I certainly did not invent barcodes. But I did invent a really nice way to print barcodes… One of our first customers was Winn-Dixie,” Busby says.

Over time, he learned he didn’t like managing a major corporation. He liked building one. So he sold QMS. 

And then the tinkering bug came out again. Using part of his QMS fortune, Busby decided to build a giant house in Mobile. As the house was going up, he realized that it was so big he needed a way to turn off all the lights downstairs from his second story bedroom so he wouldn’t have to march all over flipping switches at bedtime.

He created a giant panel that could control every outlet in the house and had the electricians wire it up before the walls were closed in. It was another Eureka moment.

Within months, he had created a new company, CentraLite, specializing in controlling an entire house from a single panel, or from a smart phone. Annual revenues are over $5 million, and the company has grown 300 percent per year for the last several years. With his oldest son, Jimmy, at the helm as CEO, Busby says he hopes the company makes a public offering sometime in the next year.

While CentraLite’s 150 employees work downstairs, Busby Sr. continues to tinker in his lab, surrounded by the familiar soldering irons, oscilloscopes and hand drawn circuit paths — and the bear and bull sculpture presented when QMS made the NYSE in 1987.

Ben Raines is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Fairhope.

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