Computer Chronicles Revisited 57 — QuoTrek, Spear Securities, Signal, Dow Jones Information Service, and the Telescan Analyzer

The major theme for this season of Computer Chronicles has been, “Why would anyone actually buy a personal computer?” This next episode from February 1986 looks at one reason–managing your investments. After all, if you have enough money to invest in the stock market, you probably had the disposable income to purchase expensive hardware and software to keep an eye on those investments.

Would You Trust a Computer with Your Money?

Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall opened the program with a short demonstration of Wizard of Wall Street, a stock market simulator from Synapse Software. Cheifet noted that while this was a game, more and more real investors were using their personal computers to manage their portfolios and conduct transactions from their homes. Would Kildall trust a computer to tell him how to invest his money? Kildall quipped he’d like to see the results of the advice first. He added that if we all followed the advice of a single computer program, it wouldn’t lead to a very interesting market. On a more serious note, he said there was a lot of value in online services, such as instant stock trading and historical stock information. He would even use a simulator like Wizard to learn more about the market and its terminology.

Lotus QuoTrek Let Users Invest from Home

Wendy Woods presented two reports in this episode, both of which featured investment products from Lotus Information Network. This first report profiled John Eckrich, a stay-at-home investor who used QuoTrek from Lotus. Woods said Eckrich wasn’t the typical example of a stock market investor. Instead of working in an office or on the stock exchange floor his toolkit consisted of the QuoTrek, a portable stock quote receiver, together with his personal computer.

Woods said Eckrich gave up his traditional brokerage practice when he realized that he could invest for himself at home, freed from the burden of clients and commuting, in exchange for a few other responsibilities. (There’s footage of Eckrich playing with his infant child as he worked on his Compaq Portable.)

Woods noted that Eckrich had not cut all communications to his full-service broker but he did most of his research at the computer, which gathered data from online services, tracked and updated the stocks in his portfolio, and charted the performance of selected stocks over time. About the only other things on his desk were a newspaper and the QuoTrek, which provided real-time stock quotes. The online services associated with the QuoTrek cost about $250 per month. In exchange, Eckrich had a real-time link to the trading floor.

Eckrich told Woods that he did have a few regrets. When you worked alone from home and didn’t have co-workers around, he said, some of the feedback was missing. That was why he still had a standard broker.

The “ATM Machine for the Brokerage Industry”

Charles Spear and John Frierson joined Cheifet and Kildall in the studio. Spear was the founder and CEO of Spear Financial Services, Inc., a discount brokerage in Los Angeles. John Frierson was president of Investek in San Francisco.

Kildall opened by asking Spear how computers were now helping small investors. Spear said the computer was the “ATM machine for the brokerage industry,” because it put in the hands of consumers a wealth of information that was never there before. And it gave such investors access to the market so they could do automated trades.

Spear then showed his company’s online service, Spear Securities. He explained you could use the software to access quotes, look at your portfolio (updated to the second), examine tax records, and make trades. Cheifet asked for a specific demonstration, say, to decide between investing in Apple or Lotus. Spear said his system included a database of about 3,300 companies, and users could compare about 50 different items in a variety of ways (e.g., company-by-company, industry groupings, et al.)

Spear then provided a live demo. The Spear Securities software worked with The Source online service. The database was provided by Media General’s Stockvue service. This enabled the user to see a stock analysis of Apple and Lotus. For example, you could see how the two stocks performed relative to one another over the past week.

Cheifet asked if you could see any “insider” transactions involving a stock. Spear said you could and provided a demonstration of that feature. The system showed the number of shares bought or sold by company insiders.

Spear then made a stock transaction using Spear Securities online. He noted this product supported a market that operated 24 hours a day. He said you could make a transaction at any time of day and it would still go through, as long as it was a New York Stock Exchange-listed stock.

Kildall turned to Frierson and asked how this technology affected the local broker. Frierson said the local brokers were threatened to some extent by the “electronic revolution,” because it put information in the hands of ordinary investors that was once the exclusive area of the broker’s expertise. Today, you found investors shopping to find the lowest transaction costs. And there were significant savings, often as high as 75 to 85 percent less than standard, full-commission brokerage fees.

With that cost savings, Frierson said, investors could purchase software and tap into databases that fit their own particular interests and needs. He added that investment software was probably the one area for home computer usage that really offered a genuine service. He said there were 40 million investors who as a group had a higher percentage of home computer ownership. And this was one area where it actually paid for them to use a computer.

Kildall asked if that savings factored in the cost of dialing up an online service and paying access charges. Frierson said he was. On average, an investor wouldn’t run-up more than $50 per month in such charges. They would make that money back many times over with the savings on commissions.

Wireless Data on Your FM Dial

Wendy Woods presented her second report on a Lotus Information Network product, this time Signal. She said this was a new kind of delivery system for time-sensitive investment data. Unlike most services that offered up-to-date stock and commodity data through the phone lines, Signal picked up this data from an FM-radio sub-band via a receiver plugged into a personal computer’s serial port. Up to 250 user-programmed issues could be constantly monitored and changes were then displayed on the PC’s screen.

Jim West, president of Lotus Information Network, told Woods that Signal was a continuous system so that updates came second-by-second as transactions occurred throughout the day. Even when the computer was off, the Signal receiver maintained the information in a background mode and continued tracking the user’s portfolio–even alerting the user if certain preset changes occurred.

Woods said Signal ran out of a computer facility in Burlingame, California, which gathered live quotes on 23,000 stocks from various exchanges. From this center, the information was then transmitted via satellite to 12 FM radio stations throughout the country. The proprietary technology then allowed individual users to download the data into their PC and use it with other Lotus products, such as Lotus 1-2-3 and Lotus Symphony.

Woods noted that Signal had only been out for a few months, and while Lotus refused to divulge sales figures, the company claimed it had sold “beyond their expectations.”

Would Computers Completely Replace Brokers?

Back in the studio, Kildall asked John Frierson about the Dow Jones News Service, which was one of the earliest ways to receive stock quotes online. Frierson said Dow Jones was one of “the pioneers” in this area along with The Source and Compuserve. These companies brought together information–at high expense to them–to develop databases that users could tap into. He added this was all a result of the “unbundling” that occurred in the brokerage industry about 10 years earlier. This was a transition from the old, high-commission structure to one where an investor could buy transaction services separately from information services.

Frierson then demonstrated the Dow Jones service. He explained this service didn’t just include stock and investment information but also tied-in other items such as world news and sports–even shopping and airline reservations. Kildall asked if Dow Jones was a good place for individual users to start. Frierson said it was given that it was relatively cheap to use a service like Dow Jones or a similar product like Spears Securities or Charles Schwab’s Equalizer. He noted that many online services included an hour or two of free access to Dow Jones.

Frierson showed one aspect of the Dow Jones service that allowed users to “tap into” what top brokers were saying about stocks. For example, you could pull up a number of analyst reports on Apple from the past several months. The user could then download individual reports.

Kildall pointed out that the value of a broker was that they assimilated a lot of this information for the investor. Frierson said there were two kinds of people. The first was someone who turned over their investment decisions to a professional. The second–which included a lot of computer users–were those people who liked to handle things themselves but until recently lacked the tools to manage their own investments. Now, those investors could access the same real-time data as any professional broker. Frierson said it was exciting in that a person could sit at home and be a part of the international financial community on an equal footing.

Cheifet asked Charles Spear just how much money an investor could save using these types of services and investing online. Spear said this approach to the business had a radically different economics to it than traditional brokerage. Basically, every PC was now a branch office. And since a brokerage like his didn’t require the same number of physical branches, their commissions tended to be 85 to 90 percent of those of a traditional kind of discount broker–and 25 to 30 percent of what you would pay a traditional full-service broker.

Spear added that while this system may threaten the way that brokerage services were delivered, if you had a broker who gave you advice and helped you make money, then you found the most valuable resource in the business.

Analyzing Stock Valuations

Richard Carlin of Telescan, Inc., joined Cheifet and Kildall for the final studio segment. John Frierson also remained at the table.

Kildall asked Carlin for a demonstration of his company’s product, Telescan Analyzer. Carlin explained the product allowed users to lookup historical stock information and display it on their computer screen. Basically, it displayed graphs of stock history. He showed a sample graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average dating back to 1973. He noted that the Dow had been flat for many years before suddenly taking off in 1982 and hitting all-time highs. However, the Analyzer could also adjust for inflation, and when doing so, the graph now showed the market was not really hitting all-time highs but just starting to turn around after a long period of decline in real terms.

Kildall clarified that Analyzer connected to another computer system through a modem. Carlin said yes, it connected to Telescan’s own database in Houston, Texas. The data was then transmitted to the local computer and displayed as the graph.

Cheifet asked if the Analyzer could look at insider trades. Carlin said you could. He pulled up a sample graph using data from Toys ‘R’ Us. The top two-thirds of the graph showed the historical stock price data. The bottom third showed the history of insider trading–net buying and selling by corporate officers–over that same period. Carlin claimed his service was the only one that provided such information in this way. He pointed out the Toys ‘R’ Us graph showed net buying at every major low point in the stock price, and net selling at every major high point. So by following the insiders, you could make money on that stock.

Cheifet asked about the valuation of a stock–whether it was over- or undervalued. Carlin said Analyzer could look at up to five fundamental values–dividends, earnings, cash flow, capital spending, and sales–and converted it into another graph. Carlin showed Kellogg’s as an example. Essentially, Carlin claimed a user could look at the final graph and understand whether that particular stock was overvalued or one to watch.

Cheifet asked for an example of an undervalued stock. Carlin displayed a graph of National Semiconductor. He said that Analyzer found this particular stock was undervalued right now.

Cheifet asked Frierson if there was any software that could function as an “expert system” and could actually tell an investor what stocks to buy. Frierson said the technology was there but we were still a few months away from seeing an actual consumer product along those lines. Frierson said such systems would allow the user to put interpretive skills–either their own or that of an expert–to help in the screening or selection process for picking stocks. Investing will always be an art rather than a science, he said, but with the new exposure to artificial intelligence in the next generation of software, it would enhance the home investor’s experience.

“Equal Time” for Gambling and Stocks?

I think George Morrow’s closing comments warrant a full recitation:

Isn’t it marvelous? A seat on the stock exchange right in our own den. And all through the magic of the microcomputer. Millions of us investing our IRA savings with a click of a switch. And what better timing? The third major bull market of the century. Think of the fortunes to be made! Think of the bankruptcies to come.

The last two times we succumbed to the lure of Wall Street it was very exciting–and profitable–until market bears came in and wiped it all out with the swipe of a paw. And this time we’re deeper in debt than ever before as consumers. There’s only two sure ways to profit in stocks: Buy carefully and hold on for years if necessary, or be the agent that conducts the trade.

Unfortunately, the rest of us lose most of the time, and a lot of it is very much like gambling. In fact, if I were head of the Gaming Commission in Nevada, I’d be demanding equal time on all these computers to bring our games of chance to your den as the brokerage houses are bring you theirs. After all, we’re both after the same thing–your money.

French Computer Expert Advises U.S. to Place “Bombs” in Software Exports

Stewart Cheifet presented this episode’s “Random Access,” which was recorded in February 1986.

  • The IRS was again plunging into the risky waters of computerization. This time, the agency was experimenting with online filing. H&R Block and five other tax preparers were authorized to file their clients’ 1040 forms electronically in three test markets: Raleigh-Durham, Cincinnati, and Phoenix. Cheifet said the online filing would only be available to taxpayers claiming a refund. W-2 forms and taxpayer signatures would still have to be sent by mail.
  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University were using 25 of the new IBM RT PCs as part of a campus network for several months. And the RT got good grades, Cheifet said. One of the RISC machine’s features was a 40-bit virtual memory chip that provided up to 1 trillion bytes of user memory.
  • Apple now said the “open Mac”–i.e., a Macintosh with internal expansion slots–would not be available in 1986 as promised. Cheifet said the open Mac was now projected for release in 1987.
  • Microsoft and Lotus agreed to work together on new applications that incorporated Microsoft’s Windows interface. Ashton-Tate and several other software companies said they were also developing new products to take advantage of Windows.
  • The U.S. Senate Finance Committee began hearings on a tax reform bill. A House version of the bill maintained research and development tax credits favored by the tech industry. But Cheifet said the industry was concerned about the tax credit’s fate in the Republican-controlled Senate.
  • French computer expert Thierry Breton urged the United States to put “soft bombs” into sophisticated software to prevent the Soviet Union from using such programs for military purposes. Breton said while it was easy to control the export of computer hardware, it was virtually impossible to control the export of software. The only defense was therefore a “soft bomb” that could blow up a program if it was used in an unintended way.
  • A New York-based company, Dataport, planned to build a 2.5-acre “data vault” underneath the bedrock of World Trade Center, which would store backup data for financial companies.
  • Supermarket shoppers in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, were carrying little plastic cards to facilitate market research into what people were buying. The computerized system recorded actual purchases, as opposed to an older system that relied on shoppers keeping diaries. Cheifet noted that the diaries were often inaccurate. For instance, only one-third of customers who said they purchased Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes actually bought them.

Telescan Co-Founder Appeared on Chronicles as Company Teetered on Verge of Bankruptcy

Stewart Cheifet introduced Richard Carlin as the president and CEO of Telescan, Inc. But Carlin’s position was actually quite tenuous when he appeared on the show. Indeed, in the few weeks between the taping and broadcast of this episode, Telescan nearly collapsed into bankruptcy.

Most of what we know about Telescan’s history comes from a 1997 opinion from the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, Hoggett v. Brown. Hoggett and Brown were Carlin’s partners in Telescan. But that partnership would descend into over a decade of litigation.

Carlin met Derek Hoggett in 1978. At the time, Carlin was completing a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Houston and would start a fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York City. He also dabbled in stocks. Hoggett was a stockbroker, and the two men became friends and started trading stocks together.

Four years later, in 1982, Carlin approached Hoggett with a program he’d written to retrieve and analyze stock information. This would eventually become Telescan Analyzer. Carlin thought his software might be a viable product but he lacked the time or money to make it happen. Hoggett agreed to help him out.

Hoggett formed Telescan, Inc., and financed it with a loan from one of his other companies. Initially, Carlin and Hoggett each owned 50 percent of the company. But Hoggett largely footed the bill, selling his condo and using his other businesses to keep Telescan afloat during 1983 and early 1984.

Carlin’s product still was not ready by March 1984. At this point, an intermediary introduced Hoggett and Carlin to David Brown, who was an experienced investor in the tech industry. Brown took out a $500,000 line of credit. The three men then formed a limited partnership called Telescan, Ltd. Brown contributed the $500,000 line of credit as a limited partner. Telescan, Inc., the company co-owned by Hoggett and Carlin, was the general partner. Hoggett served as president and chief operating officer with Carlin remaining in charge of product development.

Telescan quickly burned through the $500,000 line of credit. And there was still no product in early 1985. Brown then helped Hoggett and Carlin obtain a new loan of $750,000. Brown pledged his stock in another company as collateral. Most of this new loan went to pay back the original $500,000 line of credit.

Although Carlin managed to finally ship Telescan Analyzer by the end of 1985, the company still had cash flow problems. Brown and Hoggett continued to loan the company money just to meet payroll and basic expenses. Brown had also soured on Hoggett’s management of Telescan. In December 1985, he and Carlin voted to remove Hoggett as president of the company. Presumably, this is when Carlin assumed the titles of president and CEO.

As 1985 ended, Telescan’s long distance carrier threatened to disconnect its service. That would mean what customers Telescan did have would no longer be able to remotely access the company’s database, effectively rendering Analyzer worthless. Brown consulted his attorney, who advised him to either cut his losses, put Telescan in bankruptcy, or use a merger to attract additional capital.

On February 3, 1986–the same week as this Chronicles episode first aired–Hoggett sent a letter to Carlin and Brown proposing that Telescan file for bankruptcy. Brown and Carlin, however, decided to go with the merger option. Brown formed a new company on February 6, DB Technology, Inc. With Carlin’s approval, DB Technology then signed an agreement to acquire Telescan, Inc. Hoggett would not receive any stock in the new company, although he would be eligible for a limited payout from any profits earned by the new DB Technology over the next three years.

Telescan’s shareholders formally approved the merger on March 4, 1986, with Hoggett the only dissenting vote. The next day, Hogett sued Brown, Carlin, and various other parties associated with the deal. The defendants then filed their own counterclaims against Hoggett.

Three years later, in 1989, a trial ended in a victory for the defense. But the 14th District ordered a new trial after holding the judge improperly excluded certain expert testimony. The second trial produced a jury verdict for Hoggett and an award of $2.6 million in damages. The judge overruled the jury, however, and held that Hoggett could only recover on three promissory notes reflecting loans he made to Telescan in 1985. He was not entitled to any damages for the alleged breach of contract or other allegations that he made against the defendants.

This time, the 14th District upheld the trial court’s decision. By this point more than 11 years had passed since Hoggett’s ouster and the DB Technology merger. In the interim, DB Technology sold its assets to another company, Max Ret, Inc., in 1989. Max Ret then changed its name to Telescan. Carlin remained as Telescan’s chief technology officer until 2000. Since then he’s continued to work as a software developer, most recently with Sensia Global.

In 2001, Telescan, Inc., merged with ZiaSun Technologies, Inc., and formed a new company called INVESTools Inc. (It was really more of a ZiaSun acquisition, as its shareholders received 75 percent of the new company.) Five years later, in 2007, InvesTOOLS merged with Thinkorswim, Inc., and kept the latter’s name. TD Ameritrade Holdings, Inc., then acquired Thinkorswim in 2009 for $606 million. In 2020, Charles Schwab acquired TD Ameritrade.

Graduate Student’s Wireless Race Tracking Idea Launched Decades of Stock Quote Services

If you think that story was complicated, let’s now look at Lotus Information Network Corporation (LINC) and its QuoTrek and Signal products. Although these products–or at least their brand names–had a long lifespan, only a short part of it came during Lotus’ ownership. In fact, you can learn a lot of about the history of the tech industry by examining the following chain of events.

This story began in the late 1960s, when Anthony Fascenda and Rollin Ache first met while both were engineering undergraduates at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Fascenda later attended graduate school at Penn State, where he wrote his master’s thesis on Formula 1 racing–specifically, how to design an automatic timing system for races using tiny radio transmitters mounted in the cars combined with embedded antennae around the race track.

Fascenda never finished his master’s degree–his employer sent him to work in San Francisco and he was still one class short–but in 1977 he decided to start a company with Ache and a former boss, Daniel Gregg. That company was called Dataspeed, Inc. The original plan was to develop and sell “hand-held timing units” for spectators to use at car races, according to a 1984 article by Neill Borowski in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dataspeed eventually attracted the attention of a New Jersey-based investment group led by David B. Lockton. a former corporate lawyer who had raised $30 million back in 1967 to build the Ontario Motor Speedway in Los Angeles. Lockton joined Dataspeed in 1981 as its CEO and quickly pivoted Fascenda’s technology from racetrack timing to providing real-time stock quotes.

Dataspeed went public in January 1983. A few months earlier, the first news reports appeared about Datapseed’s plans. A November 1982 article in the San Francisco Examiner said Dataspeed signed an agreement with National Public Radio to create a “new telecommunications services” that would transmit “tock quotes, weather reports, sports scores and news headlines” over FM radio to a special device that would be available by the end of 1983.

The actual device–the QuoTrek–did not arrive until March 5, 1984, when it debuted in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune. By that point the ambitions had been scaled back to simply providing stock quotes. The original QuoTrek was an 11-ounce handheld device with a 2-inch LCD screen and a full keyboard (it resembled a calculator rather than a QWERTY layout). The user could program up to 40 stocks into memory.

The key to the QuoTrek was the fact that FM radio stations at the time had two additional sub-frequencies. In 1983, the Federal Communications Commission said FM carriers could use these subfrequencies to transmit “computerized data.” In effect, QuoTrek’s stock quote information piggybacked on the regular FM radio signal.

Dataspeed initially launched QuoTrek in three markets: Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, with New York City following later in 1984. The Tribune noted the effective range of the FM signal was about 40 to 50 miles. By November 1984, Dataspeed reported it was operating in 11 cities.

The actual QuoTrek devices were manufactured in the Philippines by Regency Electronics, Inc., which purchased a 20 percent share of Dataspeed for $9.6 million in August 1983. The QuoTrek was not cheap. The device cost $399 upfront and required a monthly subscription for the FM radio service, which started at $37.50 per month plus other potential surcharges.

Dataspeed publicly stated it needed to sell at least 10,000 QuoTrek units to break even. By September 1984 there were only about 2,000 terminals in use, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. At that point the newspaper said the company’s future was “cloudy,” with analysts doubting whether an “esoteric” product like the QuoTrek would attract enough users.

Indeed, by early 1985, Dataspeed’s debts were mounting. In April 1985, management said the company would go out of business within in a month unless it found a buyer. Shortly thereafter, Lotus Development Corporation signed a letter of intent to purchase Dataspeed. The deal became final that June. A Lotus executive told the Boston Globe that under the agreement, Lotus basically paid “40 cents on the dollar” to take on Dataspeed’s debts. Lockton departed as CEO shortly thereafter although Jim West, the executive seen in Wendy Woods’ report, remained in his role as president for some time after the deal closed.

Lotus retired the Dataspeed name and reorganized its new subsidiary as Lotus Information Network Corporation (LINC). Lotus also took over the manufacturing of the QuoTrek, as the Dataspeed acquisition terminated the original agreement with Regency Electronics. LINC also started production of Signal–which had been developed by Dataspeed under the name Modio–to allow users to download stock information directly into a PC. As referenced in Wendy Woods’ report, Lotus also signed a deal with Equitorial Communications to package Signal via satellite, which in theory meant the user didn’t require a local FM signal to receive stock quotes. (Equitorial ran into financial problems later in 1986, so I don’t know if this service was fully implemented.)

Dataspeed was not Lotus’ only acquisition in this time period. The company had been on a significant buying binge in 1985 and 1986, as they were in something of an “arms race” with rival Ashton-Tate to see who could diversify their portfolios the fastest. In June 1986, Lotus co-founder and CEO Mitchell Kapor abruptly resigned. At the time, Kapor was considered the major champion of the Dataspeed acquisition. His successor, Jim Manzi, nevertheless reiterated Lotus’ commitment to QuoTrek and Signal as products, noting they reflected a “three-to-five year investment.”

Well, that investment turned out to be a little over three years. In December 1989, Lotus sold the entire LINC division to Financial News Network, Inc., (FNN), a subsidiary of Infotechnology, Inc., which also owned United Press International. FNN was a cable financial and business news channel launched in 1981. After the sale, FNN merged LINC’s businesses, which still included QuoTrek and Signal, into one of its own divisions, Data Broadcasting Corporation.

Ten months later, however, the shit hit the fan for FNN. The company disclosed it was in a major financial crisis and struggling to meet its operating expenses. The company’s board fired the CEO and brought in Alan J. Hirscfield and Allan R. Tessler as interim co-CEOs. In reality, they were tasked with shepherding FNN through bankruptcy and finding a buyer.

In May 1991, a federal bankruptcy judge approved Hirschfield and Tessler’s plan to sell most of FNN’s assets, including the cable network, to rival CNBC for $154.3 million. (FNN actually had more viewers than CNBC at the time, so the latter largely adopted the former’s programming and style.) Hirschfield and Tessler, however, thought the Data Broadcasting division was still viable. So in June 1992, they used the shell of FNN to relaunch the company under the Data Broadcasting name.

In fact, Signal and QuoTrek continued to be improved under the new Data Broadcasting Corporation, although they remained niche products. A November 1995 report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram noted that the latest QuoTrek device now cost $295 and required a minimum subscription of $90 per month. Meanwhile, Signal was now being sold as the $450 SignalCard, which plugged into a laptop and required a $160 per month subscription (not including transaction charges). At the time, there were only 13,000 Signal users and 9,000 QuoTrek users nationally.

As the Internet boom took hold in the late 1990s, Data Broadcasting co-launched the financial news website in a joint venture with CBS. In January 1999, MarketWatch went public. The initial speculation drove up the stock price for both Marketwatch and Data Broadcasting. But within a week, investors realized that MarketWatch was overvalued. As a result, the Salt Lake Tribune noted on January 21, 1999, Data Broadcasting’s stock lost 58 percent of its value over a 10-day period. In September 1999, Data Broadcasting reported a $4.2 million loss despite record revenues, largely due to the collapse of’s stock.

With its own stock in the toilet, Hirschfield and Tessler decided they’d had enough. Pearson plc acquired a majority stake in Data Broadcasting and merged it with another of its subsidiaries, Interactive Data Corporation (IDC). Data Broadcasting was technically the surviving entity but took on the IDC name. In 2004, IDC relaunched QuoTrek and Signal as digital services for Blackberry and other mobile devices. (It appears the last physical Signal and QuoTrek devices were sold around 1998.)

In May 2010, Pearson sold its majority stake in IDC to two private equity firms for $3.4 billion. Five years later, in October 2015, those firms sold IDC to Intercontinental Exchange–the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange–for $5.2 billion.

Signal, now known as ICE’s eSignal, continues to provide streaming, real-time market data to iOS and Android users for $192 per month. ICE retired the QuoTrek name in 2017 and merged its remaining services into eSignal.

Spear Lost Control of Company as Annuities Proved More Lucrative Than Discount Brokerage

Our third and final tale of corporate intrigue features Charles M. Spear and his eponymous Spear Financial Services. Spear started out as a lawyer in Ohio. In the late 1960s, he took a legal job with a Chicago bank but later transitioned into stocks and bonds. He moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and started Spear Financial Services two years later.

According to a 1989 Los Angeles Times profile, Spear took his nascent company public through a reverse merger–basically, he bought an existing-but-worthless public company and gave it his name–and raised $3 million in capital. Initially, Spear focused exclusively on providing brokerage services to investors with personal computers. He was among the first to do so but the market grew slowly, forcing him to offer “traditional discount broker” services according to the Times.

As Spear discussed in his Chronicles appearance, one of his innovations was offering home investors the ability to trade stocks 24 hours a day. But as the Times explained, “Such off-exchange ’third-market’ trading [was] mainly reserved for large institutional investors.” The New York Stock Exchange eventually “forced Spear to abandon his service, and Spear acknowledged that it drew few customers anyway.”

In 1988, Spear purchased James Mitchell & Co., by assuming $2.2 million in debt. Mitchell’s business was selling annuities and other insurance-based investment products. Under the deal, James Mitchell himself would acquire additional Spear stock based on performance. Spear told the Times in 1989 that Mitchell “likely will end up owning a bigger stake in [Spear Financial Services] than he does.”

That is apparently what happened. In December 1992, Spear resigned from his own company. By this point, Mitchell’s annuity business accounted for more than two-thirds of Spear Financial Services’ total revenue. James Mitchell took over the company, sold off the brokerage businesses, and continued his annuity business under the name of the JMC Group. (There’s a bunch of stuff that happened to JMC Group since 1992, but it’s not especially interesting and this post has gone on long enough.)

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of February 4, 1986. Based on the in-studio product demonstrations, the program likely taped on January 11, 1986.
  • Despite the name, The IBM RT PC was not part of its Intel-based Personal Computer line but rather a workstation based on the Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architecture. According to the Crummy Computers Wiki, a typical RT/PC configuration cost about $20,000. The machines were never a big seller for IBM, which produced them between 1986 and 1991.
  • Apple released its first “open architecture” Mac–the Macintosh II–in March 1987, a little over a year after this Chronicles episode aired.
  • Thierry Breton is currently France’s member of the European Commission, where he serves as Commissioner for Internal Market. He previously served as France’s finance minister during the presidency of Jacques Chirac.
  • Paul D. Catalano founded Dataport in 1986. He previously ran two other data storage companies based in New Jersey. Catalano told the New York Times in November 1985 that approximately 50 companies were interested in using his World Trade Center data vault when it became operational in 1986. But I could not find any information on whether the vault ever opened. Catalano died in 1991 from cancer and Dataport ceased operations in 1993, according to New York State records.
  • Synapse Software, the company behind Wizard of Wall Street, has its own fascinating history, which I’ll address in the next post.