Joy of electronics sticks with woman, sparking invention
She condenses hardware of defunct C64 into a joystick
January 25, 2005
YAMHILL -- Jeri Ellsworth's innate curiosity about technology has been a constant throughout her life.
As a child, Ellsworth wasn't so much interested in playing with her electronic toys as she was in dissecting them.
"I think she spent more time tearing them apart than she did playing with them," said her father, Jerry, as much bewildered as he is proud of his daughter.
After years of tinkering away on the innards of old computers and home appliances, her inquisitiveness finally is paying off.
Last year, Jeri, 30, developed a video game system from the relatively primitive circuitry of a Commodore 64 personal computer for a New York toy manufacturer.
Ellsworth's invention, which bears the name of the original system, is a hand-held joystick containing all the workings of the Commodore 64 that plugs into the television.
Ellsworth's updated version of the C64 runs 30 games -- primarily sports, racing, and shooting -- exclusive to the old personal computer.
An initial run-up to the holiday season saw the toy sell all 250,000 units produced for Mammoth Toys. In the process, it also catapulted Ellsworth's career and made her a cult-like celebrity among fans of the original Commodore 64.
"When I started playing with it (Commodore 64) I thought it was a fun project and I would get some pats on the back," Jeri said.
At the time, making a joystick game system was the farthest thing from Jeri's mind. Her only goal was to condense the Commodore's hardware into a single chip.
But Jeri hadn't been paying attention to the wave of interest in retro video games, something that analysts say has been building into an increasing chunk of the $10 billion gaming industry.
Within weeks of showing off her accomplishment to friends in the technology industry, she got a call from Mammoth Toys asking her to develop the game system.
When news of Jeri's work hit the New York Times, techies from around the world began flooding her father's Dallas phone number (Jeri's number is unlisted) with requests to meet, collaborate with -- even date -- his daughter.
Though Jeri said she hasn't gotten rich yet, she now has development deals with a couple of electronic toy companies and spends two weeks per month in Silicon Valley doing consulting work.
Not bad for someone who dropped out of high school at age 17. Ellsworth's academic story is the classic case of a square peg in a round hole.
"School is kind of set up to teach the average kind of person, and if anyone falls out of that average, either they have to bend or they get lost in the whole system. I didn't bend very easily," Ellsworth recalled.
Her dad, Jerry, wasn't exactly supportive of his daughter's decision, but tells a similar story of her discontent.
"They (schools) like more followers. They didn't like people striking out on their own. She's a striker," he said.
After making a little money building racecars at Jerry's service station, Ellsworth decided in 1995 to open a chain of computer stores called Computers Made Easy.
For the next five years, Ellsworth worked tirelessly to keep the stores operating, at one point even living out of her office because she no longer could afford an apartment.
By 2000, the drain of running multiple businesses became too much. At about the same time, she ran across the old Commodore 64 she used to play with amid a pile of old electronics she had stowed away.
The original Commodore 64 came onto the market in 1982 as a personal computer that could run a limited selection of programs. Ten years later, the last Commodore 64 was produced, and by 1994 the company was out of business.
Though Jeri's father bought the Commodore 64 for her brother, she remembers being fascinated by it, and it ended up becoming hers.
"I started feeling nostalgic about my old Commodore and I got online to see if anyone was doing anything with them, and I found there were, like, hundreds of people that tinker with them," Ellsworth said.
That encounter piqued her interest in the Commodore 64 again, and within months Jeri had boiled down the relic's entire circuitry into a single chip.
Years of fiddling with electronics and reading technology engineering manuals were all the education she needed.
Riding the success of Jeri's work, Mammoth has contracted her to develop another joystick game system, a kids' television toy, and another she's not allowed to talk about.
She said that another unnamed company has recently signed her up to design a hand-held education unit for children.
"I always wanted to own a computer store and I did, and I always wanted to work for Commodore, and in a way, I am. All these weird little dreams I had as a kid came true," Jeri said.
mmonagha@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6744
|OTHER ARTICLES FROM: Tuesday, February 21