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Datanetics history


Datanetics was founded by electronics engineer Richard K “Dick” Gerlach (US /ˈgɝlæk/, UK /ˈɡɜːlak/), and joined soon afterwards by Meryl Miller. According to the California Secretary of State records, Datanetics was registered on the 10th of November 1964. Meryl Miller maintains that the company was formed in 1967. The February 1974 Dun and Bradstreet report on Datanetics states:

Background: This company was formed new in 1964 under the name Crownover Engineering Corp. Name changed Jan 1966 to Dielectric Systems Corp. The name was further amended Jun 5 1970 to Sorrento Industries Inc. In 1969 acquired Datanetics Corporation. Effective Sep 30 1973 Datanetics Corporation was merged into Sorrento Industries Inc and the name of Sorrento Industries was amended to Datanetics Corporation.

It would seem likely that the 1964 date for Datanetics refers to the formation date of Crownover Engineering.

A separate Dielectric Systems Corporation was registered in 1970, that could have been a split-out from Sorrento.


The origins of Datanetics lie with the electronic division of NCR in Hawthorne, California and their CRAM (Card Random Access Memory). Datanetics founder Dick Gerlach was working for NCR at the time that CRAM was being developed.

NCR introduced the original CRAM in 1962. The data was stored on polymer cards coated with iron oxide just as with magnetic tape. When Datanetics co-founder Meryl Miller joined NCR in the 60s (after moving from Ohio to California), he became involved with the successor, the CRAM 2. The CRAM 2 provided several means to increase the data density over that of the original CRAM: double the number of cards per deck, higher bit density on the card surface, and a means to move the read-write head to use more of the card surface (Meryl’s design, for which he received his first patent). The CRAM 2 cards used a new recording material developed by Dr. Wilhelm of Thin Films Co. in Los Angeles that offered a greater data density than the existing iron oxide coating. Servo Labs Inc. in Van Nuys, California provided the actuator to move the read-write head.

Robert Cox, one of the owners of Servo Labs, approached Dick Gerlach with the idea of starting a new company to develop a display terminal using a floppy disk for memory and a keyboard for data input. Gerlach accepted the challenge, and Datanetics was born. Financial help for the new company was provided by the two owners of Servo Labs. The new high-density coating from the CRAM 2 was to be used for the disks.

Meryl Miller was the first person to be hired at Datanetics. Dick Gerlach was Meryl’s boss at NCR; shortly after Dick Gerlach departed from NCR, he offered Meryl Miller the opportunity to join him at Datanetics, which he accepted. In 1976, Meryl Miller was listed as the manager of engineering services at Datanetics in the Electronic Design Focus on Keyboards article of October that year.

Servo Labs Inc. themselves were founded in 1963, and closed in 1996.

Datanetics was initially located in the same building as Servo Labs. In late 1968 or early 1969 they relocated to premises at 2828 Spreckels Lane, Redondo Beach; Meryl discovered the following photo of the factory taken before Datanetics moved in:

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2828 Spreckels Lane, Redondo Beach, 1968
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The building in January 2018; ©2018 Google

Google Street View’s imagery from January 2018 shows that the building had barely changed externally since 1968. However, the most recent tenants of the property, who vacated it 2019, report that the building has since been demolished. A few angles of the building can be seen in Street View imagery from March 2019.


As part of the terminal project, Datanetics invented a way of building keyboards using flexible plastic sheets as the switching elements, based on the flexible cards from the CRAM. The display terminal project was not working out as intended, and Dick Gerlach decided to target the computer keyboard market. A prototype keyboard was shown at the Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) in Anaheim, California in November 1967, and in December 1967 they delivered their first prototype keyboard to RCA. This was followed in 1968 by a small order of 3–4 “TIPI” military keyboards to RCA, then (in 1968 or 1969) a significant quantity order of keyboards from Conrac intended for display terminals for airports.

All change

Dick Gerlach was only with the company for a few years; the board of directors replaced him as president with John Wyman in 1969 or 1970, although he became a board member following this. The display terminal project was cancelled outright by John Wyman with a directive to focus solely on the membrane keyboard technology that had been designed for it. This decision is noted by Meryl Miller as having been taken in December 1969. John Wyman had set up Wyman Associates in order to seek a firm willing to employ him as general manager, and he was picked by one in San Diego; this will have been Dielectric Systems, the parent company of Datanetics. No display terminals were ever sold, but the Series 100 display terminal was advertised in Datamation in August 1969, shortly before this project was terminated. The keyboard in the photograph is a cardboard mock-up constructed by Meryl Miller.

John Wyman brought the late Marshall James Styll (1926–2011) with him. Marshall Styll’s own résumé indicates that he joined Datanetics in 1970, originally as the director of manufacturing, before being promoted to vice president of operations and then executive vice president and finally president. It appears that Marshall Styll remained with the company until the end, while John Wyman resigned in late 1974 or early 1975.

In the late 1960s, Datanetics introduced what may be the world’s first full-travel membrane keyboards. For purposes of practicality, Datanetics branched out into more conventional (for the time) discrete switches in the early 1970; German engineer Mike Muller (1939–2018) was responsible for both of their discrete switch lines, although Meryl Miller was also involved with DC-50. Mike Muller joined the company after Dick Gerlach left, possibly around 1971, and was given the task of adapting the membrane switching concept to discrete switches, with DC-50 as the end result. It seems that the membrane keyboards fell out of favour, and full travel membrane would not start to regain favour until the start of the 1980s. Mike Muller was later persuaded to set up a separate company building keyboards for Apple Computer. These keyboards did not use Datanetics switches, while rival firm Advanced Business Technology made the ABT KeyPad with DC-50 switches.

Around 1971, Datanetics relocated a second time: following his arrival, John Wyman moved the business to 18065 Euclid Street, Fountain Valley, California. Here they would remain until at least 1977. By 1980, they had moved just around the corner to slightly larger facilities at 10840 Talbert Avenue.

Keyboards for Apple

Following Apple’s success with the PCB-only Apple 1 computer, they immediately began planning the replacement Apple II. This would be sold as a complete unit with an integrated keyboard. Apple 1 owners were required to source a suitable keyboard for their computers, which could be any available ASCII keyboard. Various keyboards can be seen connected to Apple 1 computers, including an Alps SCB reed keyboard (SCB1A163 or a similar model), Micro Switch SW Series Hall effect, a Texas Instruments Silent 700 keyboard with Clare-Pendar Series S840 mechanical switches, and brand new Datanetics DC-50–based keyboards.

Mike Willegal reports on his Early Apple Keyboards page that the “Datanetics keyboard was probably pressed into service with an Apple 1 more frequently than any other kind. In fact there is evidence that Steve Jobs of Apple recommended this keyboard.” The reason for Steve’s preference is not known; the one characteristic that set the Datanetics DC-50–based keyboards apart from their contemporaries is that DC-50 is a lightly tactile switch, while the other types seen connected to the Apple 1 are all linear.

The end result is that when Apple came to select a keyboard vendor for the Apple II, Steve Jobs paid a visit to Datanetics. Sales manager Darell West was not going to be available to take the appointment, so it was delegated to Meryl Miller. (In Mike Muller’s account of the event, both in writing in his AQAL interview, it was he who Jobs spoke with; Mike also claimed in the interview that Jobs came to him to request keyboards for the Apple 1, which he made.) Jobs brought with him a paint chip for a specific shade of dark green, that Datanetics would come to refer to as “Apple green”; when advised that using a non-standard colour would increase the cost and lead time for the keycaps, Steve was not swayed. Steve’s prospective order size was such that vice president Marshall Styll considered Apple to be a waste of time, yet the order was fulfilled regardless, with a custom-ordered keycap resin. As a result, Datanetics became Apple’s sole keyboard supplier for a few years. This arrangement was not to last, because Steve Jobs subsequently approached Mike Muller with the request of forming a dedicated keyboard manufacturer for Apple. Mike Muller and two other Datanetics staff members left Datanetics to form The Keyboard Company, that was incorporated in 1979.

Final years

In its final years, the company was acquired by ITT. The acquisition by ITT was signed on the 3rd of January 1979 and completed in June of that year. ITT created a wholly-owned subsidiary and merged into Datanetics, with ITT becoming the sole shareholder of Datanetics. Datanetics was thereafter styled “ITT Datanetics Corporation” although the name of the business did not change.

By 1979, Marshall Styll was the president of the company, while Mike Muller was vice president. Robert E Wilcox was promoted to vice president and director of operations of ITT Datanetics Corp around September 1980, as reported under Executive Corner, Computerworld, 15th September 1980. In 1976 the engineering manager at Digitran was one Bob Wilcox, likely to be the same person. The appointment of Bob Wilcox may have followed Mike Muller’s departure from the company.

Datanetics continued under ITT’s control for a while, before ITT decided to merge it into its existing ITT Schadow subsidiary in Minnesota. This merger is covered in an unidentified newspaper clipping collected by Meryl Miller:

ITT Datanetics to close, merge with Minnesota unit

International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. said Monday its Fountain Valley-based ITT Datanetics subsidiary will be closed and merged into its ITT Shadow unit in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Thirty-one employees at ITT Datanetics were laid off Aug. 7, and the remaining 149 employees of the 14-year-old electronics assembly company will be laid off within a few months, said J.L. von Harz, vice president and general manager of ITT Components Group of North America.

Datanetics, which became part of ITT in 1979, designs and manufactures key switches and keyboards for calculators, business machines and computers.

The company’s business has slowed in the past six months because of inventory reductions by customers and high interest rates, said a company source, who asked not to be identified.

“The move is designed to produce efficiency in the two companies’ product lines,” von Harz said.

ITT Shadow manufacturers push-button, key, locker and rotary switches for consumer and industrial equipment manufacturers.

As part of the merger, ITT will de-emphasize keyboards that were part of the ITT Datanetics product line, von Harz said.

The Fountain Valley facility will remain open to complete work on existing contracts.

ITT Datanetics will pay employees severance pay and all accrued fringe benefits and will continue to provide medical insurance for an unspecified period of time, according to von Harz.

The company is also assisting employees in finding other jobs, either with ITT or other companies, he said.

Datanetics grew from 13 employees in 1967 to 321 before the first layoffs more than a year ago, a company source said.

The Fountain Valley plant (assumed to still be the Talbert Avenue address, by this time owned by ITT Datanetics Corp) is listed in Joint Hearing on Plant Closing (1983) as having closed in December 1981, affecting 220 workers. The final SI-COMPLETE (completed Statement of Information filed with the California Secretary of State) record for Datanetics is from December 1982.

DC-50 and DC-60 switches remained in production, with advertisements in Electronic Engineers Master catalogue from 1983 to 1989 listing them under the ITT Schadow name; even DC-50 sample switches preserved by Meryl Miller bore ITT Schadow branding. Other product lines were sold off to other companies. In January 1982, TEC Incorporated announced that it was purchasing DC-70 from Datanetics, as reported in the Arizona Republic newspaper on the 22nd and 29th of January that year. At some point prior to the middle of February 1982, “certain Datanetics keyboard product lines” were acquired by Ardent Key Tech Corp. Nothing more is known than that single sentence posted to Computerworld, February 15, 1982. ITT appear to have only kept the discrete switches.


See also