As a curator at the Computer History Museum, Alex Bochannek has encountered all sorts of gizmos that their owners have stashed in the garage for years before deciding that maybe their devices should be enshrined in the Mountain View museum.
"Usually what we have been offered are things that people have hung onto, usually a computer or some manuals," he says. But that was hardly the case when he got a call to meet with Chan Yeh at the Sunnyvale headquarters of the groundbreaking company Yeh launched in 1972.
"It looked like it was cast in amber," Bochannek says of the Ideographix offices. "It's a bit overwhelming. It's rare that someone has an entire company that is sort of stuck in time."
What Yeh has is an accidental shrine to a remarkable and little-known Silicon Valley story. In the '70s and '80s, Yeh and his team came up with a way to streamline the method for digitally typesetting and printing Chinese characters. They did big business in Asia for a decade and a half, before the PC revolution overtook their innovation.
Yeh has hardly changed a thing since.
Stroll through Ideographix and you'll find yourself back in the 1980s. There's the earth-tone offices, the lobby area walls decorated with colorful geometric designs, the 1988 San Jose phone book, complete with a listing for Apple (AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak that includes a landline and two mobile numbers.
"There are little sorts of cultural markers," Bochannek continues. "The fact that there are ashtrays everywhere and the fact that there is a typewriter in the reception area."
And in the back is the assembly area where 30 years ago crews built systems that allowed Chinese characters to be typed directly into computers, which displayed them as they'd look in print. In one corner is a Digital Equipment Vax 11/750 minicomputer that would have been new in the early 1980s. There are bins of parts and chassis waiting to be filled with electronic brains. It looks as if the production workers took a lunch break and are expected back any year now.
"He kind of likes to keep things," Yeh's son, Yong Yeh, 33, says with obvious understatement.
Sitting with Yeh, 78, in the conference room of his dormant company, it's apparent to me that in some ways he feels his accomplishment was overlooked. He built a company. Overcame a problem at the time. And now he's reached an age where he is taking stock.
"We were able to solve all the major obstacles," Yeh says. "The more I think about it, the more awesome it is."
And the more I talked to Yeh, the more I started wondering about how much of what's gone on in the valley has been buried under the brilliance of the big winners -- Google (GOOG), Apple, Facebook, Intel (INTC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Oracle (ORCL). They are all amazing companies that changed the way we live. But there are no doubt so many others, companies that burned brightly and briefly, changing the world before disappearing or providing the seeds of ideas that later would fully blossom.
Yeh, a Taiwanese immigrant, and his Ideographix crew created a new method for writing on computers in Chinese. No longer did computer users have to type in strings of numeric codes to represent each of thousands of Chinese characters. Instead, Ideographix came up with a specialized keyboard, display and software that allowed computer users to type Chinese characters directly into their machines without fooling with numeric codes.
Better still, the system meant that Chinese documents, books, newspapers and even utility bills could be typeset and printed using modern photographic methods. No longer did printers have to handset lead type for each page.
"The consequences of this is the tremendous productivity that comes with it," Yeh says.
Jobs that took hundreds of workers days to complete were being finished by a tenth of the workers in a faction of the time, Yeh says. He says he started selling custom systems for millions of dollars to government agencies in Taiwan and the Republic of China. Utility operations in Asia began purchasing the systems to prepare and print bills. Then newspapers and book publishers from China and Taiwan came calling for Ideographix's system.
Bochannek says it's hard to determine just how significant Ideographix's breakthrough was because the company's market was in Asia decades ago and very little has been written about the company since. But he has little doubt that Ideographix is of historical interest. China in the 1970s was in the process of opening itself up to the world while becoming a global economic titan in the process.
"It's a cultural story," Bochannek says. "It's a social-technical story. One of the most important countries on the world stage, 40 years ago. How did this guy who immigrated here seize that market?"
Yeh would say he seized it through hard work and brain power.
"Now should be the time to tell the world," he says.
And in saying so Yeh is no doubt speaking for an army of anonymous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.