Larry Berg And The Purple Open Passion Project

It all started with an 88-ton Arburg RP300 injection molding machine in the basement, and a bit of inattention. Larry Berg wanted a couple custom plastic plugs for his Garmin GPS, so he milled out a mold and ran a few. But he got distracted, and came back an hour later to find that his machine had made 400. Instead of throwing them away, he mailed them away for free, but then he found that people started throwing money at him to make more. People all over the world.

This is how the Purple Open Project turned into an global network of GPS geeks, selling molded alternatives to the oddball Garmin plugs for pledges to pay an unspecified amount, and ended up producing over 350,000 plugs over 16 years before he passed away in 2012. This is the story of a hacker’s hacker, who wanted to be able to connect his GPS to his computer and use it the way he wanted, and accidentally created an international business.

We Have the Tools

Arburg Injection Molding Press, close up view

Larry studied computer science in California, obtaining his Masters degree in the early 70s. He then worked for some years in the aerospace industry, programming big mainframes like Seymour Cray’s CDC 7700. He started his own successful computer company, Purple Computing. But after five years, and in the midst “sky rocketing growth”, he decided to get off the merry-go-round and chose a simpler life in the woods of southern Oregon in 1988.

Somehow Larry came to be in posession of the Arburg injection molding machine. According to Larry’s notes, it was a substantial and well-made piece of 1976 German craftsmanship — over 3 meters long, it could clamp 88 tons and inject 14.5 tons.

While the press worked fine in manual operation, the automatic mode wasn’t working well. Rather than paying $2,000 to service the machine, Larry, like a true hacker, took things into his own hands. As you did back in the day, he interfaced it to a Radio Shack Model 100 laptop, enhanced with one of his own Purple Computer disk drives. He used a bunch of relays to operate buttons on the press, and electrically sensed the switches and clamp position. Anyone remember the old Tigertronics serial to parallel and parallel to serial converters?

An Oddball Connector

Why did Larry start this project? Because of his Garmin GPS 45 handheld receiver.  Garmin used a non-standard, if not proprietary, connector on this and other models.  It was a four-pin circular connector carrying external power and a NMEA serial interface. If you wanted to power your receiver in the car, boat, or motorcycle, you needed one of these connectors. If you wanted to connect your receiver to your computer for mapping or logging, you needed one of these connectors.  People were making all kinds of hacks to connect to these receivers, including carving up XLR plugs and various industrial circular connectors.

The GPS 45 Receiver, Complete with all Accessories

Garmin didn’t sell the mating connectors, and their pre-made cables cost $30 and up. Because of all the varied installations, no single cable could really serve everyone’s needs. The cable length and mating connectors would likely be different from user to user and installation to installation.

I know that personally, because I was using a similar unit, the GPS III Plus, at the time.  I was frustrated moving it around between two cars, my house and my work office, and that’s how I stumbled upon Larry and the POP in the first place.  I still remember thinking to myself at the time, “I bet his neighbors really love the smell from his house on molding days”.

But then Larry accidentally made 400 Garmin plugs instead of five. Those 400 connectors went to people in 18 different countries.  Larry and his girlfriend, Ardel, grappled with all the ins and outs of international product fulfillment, and eventually learned how to ship everywhere in the world except Bora-Bora. But the project didn’t end there. Requests asking for Purple GPS connectors began pouring in from all over.

The Finished Product – a Purple GPS Connector Kit

Rather than turn these folks away, Larry decided to meet the demand, and established a “pledge” system. He asked you to send him a few bucks, kind of like a tip at a restaurant, or whatever you thought the plug was worth — after you receive the package and can inspect the quality yourself.

Before long, he was shipping over 1,000 connectors per month all over the world. But paying postage on each plug kit was absurd.  A loose network of stocking distributors sprung up, called “pfrancs” (POP Franchises), the term “phranchisee” being rejected as too long to type.  Eventually there were more than 60 pfrancs located in over 48 countries, keeping local stock on hand all over the globe.

To GPS 45 and Beyond

Not content to rest on his purple laurels, Larry continued to expand his GPS connector offerings.  While the original plug worked with over a dozen varieties of Garmin GPS receivers, newer models were coming along.  He made new molds for plugs that connected to the eMap and eTrex GPS receivers as well as the Rino radio. The pfranc network began offering other services, too, like custom cable assemblies priced to be hobbyist-friendly.  This wasn’t much of a stretch for Larry, having patented a similar data cable years earlier for Casio calculators called the PC-Link.

But eventually the demand for these products fell off. The GPS receiver manufacturers eventually moved on to more standard interfaces. I just spot-checked a few Garmin receivers, and they all used either micro- or mini-USB or wireless.  Furthermore, with the growth of GPS-capable smartphones, I suspect the need for standalone GPS receivers has declined except for specialized applications.

A Hacker’s Life

I don’t think the slowdown in Garmin sales bothered Larry at all. He was just in it to help out, after all. And he had invested $0.07 for every plug sold into a fund, and was planning to get all of the “pfrancs” together in 2017 to watch the eclipse. It’s a shame that never would come to pass.

But it’s not like the pfrancs were Larry’s only passion. You would not expect less from the kind of guy who refurbishes an automatic industrial injection molder in his basement for laughs. Indeed, it looks like he was also into home-made jet engines, ultralight airplanes, and eventually a scratch-built jet-engine helicopter, from which he naturally took a video when he first flew over to his neighbor’s house.

Most astonishing, at least for visitors to Larry’s house, was his deck. It had a beautiful view overlooking the river, but would also descend 25 m down the hill to the riverbank, on rails. Apparently, sometimes without warning.

I really enjoyed reading through Larry’s old build logs and website.  He was a unique and truly interesting fellow. Here’s what he said about this whole project back in 1996, typos and all:

“…is this cool? One guy, me, and his girl, Ardel ( who thinks i’m crazy but works for us anyway ), and the internet, are creating trusting working relationships between people who are creating a new way to transport physical things from my molding machine to you, fast, easy, and almost free.”

I think we can all agree — it is cool.

[Editor’s note: None of this research would have been possible without the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine, which makes forgotten websites available today. Consider donating, or at least tell your friends. We use it all the time here at Hackaday to help fight link-rot and the loss of hard-gained hacker knowledge that goes along with it.]

25 thoughts on “Larry Berg And The Purple Open Passion Project

  1. Wow, I’d never thought I would hear this story again. I was one of the people who asked-for and received one of the 1st 400 plugs he’d made for the GPS 45. I guess we were all following some sort of GPS 45 online forum, or “board” or whatever we called them back in the day.
    The item duly arrived a week later, at no cost to me whatsoever. What a nice guy!
    The fact that this effort later became a bigger project or organization was unknown to me, but very welcome. I think this one act has informed my belief in offering-up one’s skills and capabilities for the sake of all who wish to learn and experiment.

    Thank you Larry!

    1. Haha ! Same for me, and I still have the two connectors I’ve made for my first Garmin, a GPS 12 : one with a home made switching supply for my car (12V is too high voltage for the Garmin 12) and the other to connect it to my computer. Reading the story, I suddently remembered that I found the info on line and quicly ordered two pieces. I guess it was on a usenet newsfeed. Anyway thank you for sharing the story !

    2. I didn’t realize that he’d passed – Thank you indeed! I purchased a couple of plugs for my Garmin GPSIII+ so I could use it in flight and wound up using the III+ as a GPS data source for all kinds of other things. I think I still have one of the unused kits somewhere.

  2. I wasn’t in the original 400, but I did get a pair later on from a fellow in Wisconsin. I could probably dig up the email is I had to. I used one to make a cable for my GPS12, but I think I have the other one unused. :)

    I’m pretty sure that I heard about them at gpsinformation.net as that was the go to place for info on GPS back in the day.

  3. For every Linus Torvalds, there are 10 or more Larry Bergs. The beauty of the Internet is the democratization of technology diffusion. I was vaguely aware of Larry back then but wasn’t aware of the impact he had. Great story. More like this please!

    And to the point of a previous post, where is that IM machine today? :)

  4. A friend of mine made “pigtails” with a special connector, by soldering pins onto to the leads of a cable, then putting the pins trough some clingwrap into a jig, and then clamp a mold around it and fill it with epoxi resin.

    He did some with hot glue in the beginning, but as demand grew, the epoxi solution became faster.

    i think he made like 10 or 20 jigs on a 2×4, so he could make them fairly quick
    He charges material cost and postage for them, but people always pay more.

  5. I had read that Larry was diabetic and died from complications from that. He had a cool youtube channel featuring him flying his mosquito helicopter and getting to know an older lady in Oregon who used to fly with her husband all over the place. Once day he went to visit her and she had passed away. His youtube channel is: larrycanfly He even put a turbine on his little helicopter, but later took it off. I was so mesmerized by his youtube channel and he still gets comments today from people who don’t know he has since passed away. The business he started is still running at: http://www.pfranc.be/new/en/home.htm and I think had several business locations around the world. I miss seeing his videos.

    I didn’t know Larry – I was just a viewer who always really liked his channel and his ingenuity.

  6. What would be nice to extend the life of older GPS receivers, digital cameras and more is to commission a new run of 4 gig SDSC cards, as were made for a couple of years prior to the introduction of SDHC.

    4 gig SDSC works by keeping the same number of blocks as a 2 gig but doubling their size. OpenStreetMap data for the USA converted for Garmin can just be squeezed into 4 gig, but has to be split into two sections for older receivers that can only go up to 2 gig, but will work with a 4 gig SDSC.

    These days it’s extremely hard to find any 4 gig SDSC, but easy to find people selling 4 gig SDHC claiming they’re SDSC, compounded by searches on sites like eBay “helping” by “correcting” your “obviously mis-typed” SDSC to SDHC.

    1. fake flash drive capacities used to be quite common, using a loopback device. there might be a way to reprogram the controller on a larger flash drive to emulate the smaller, though i may not fully understand the issue.

  7. Yay! I got one of those purple garmin connectors, way back is 2000 or so. Fantastic!
    I recently found my old Garmin, and just before I chucked assuming it was useless junk in this day of smartphones and Chinese gps modules, it I discovered there was a thriving market for them on eBay.
    Anyone know why someone would pay almost £50 for a 20-year old GPS receiver?!

    1. Thanks for the heads up, I will flog mine off. Maybe the silly money is because of the craze for Geocaching?

      I remember back in the day cobbling together a connector myself, maybe from a 4-pole DIN connector.

  8. Never thought I’d hear about those plugs again. Thanks for sharing your dive through its history.
    I ordered a set of black plugs in 2003 – so I guess I used a pfranc in Germany.
    Didn’t know all this background information though and found the plugs while searching for cheaper options than the original Garmin cables.
    Build one with a female DB9 connector with an integrated barrel connector in its housing. Looked like a normal DB9 plug but when one looked closer there was a ~3mm hole in the housing ready to receive 10-30V for the GPS unit.

  9. serious wayback…. Same with the others, that was long since stashed in the archive neurons…. Amazing to hear about it again, I got a connector to use with my 12XL before selective availability i believe.

  10. Thank you for this article. Just dug through one of my junk bins and found my old GPS12 with the pfranc connector and serial cable attached. I remember stumbling across the pfranc stuff in 2000-2001ish, honestly thought it was too good to be true. Was surprised when the two little connectors showed up a few days later. I miss that internet.

  11. I bought two of these connectors for my Garmin GPS45 in 2002 and am still using one on my GPSMap76. Mine came from Doug Miller in Berlin, OH but he gave credit to Larry Berg and pfranc. I still have Doug’s original e-mail from 2002 confirming my pledge of $10 for two connectors (I was so thrilled that I think that I sent more). I still have the second/spare connector in its original tiny manila envelope.

    My father is into homebuilt planes and I remember seeing stories about Larry’s jet engine but I never connected that to Purple Computing and pfranc. Small world.

  12. I too had one of those sent to me in a small envelope back then! Garmin charged a fortune for those adapters for the original hand held GPS units. I found out the hard way that those screens don’t survive in the glove box of your car in an Iowa winter! I pulled it out to use it one day and discovered an all black screen. Just like the adapter cords; Garmin charged a small fortune for a replacement screen.

    Those early GPS units were years prior to the versions that had actual road maps. They pointed out where you were but you still needed a real map to figure out the roads and possible dead ends.

  13. I bought a few of these connectors from Larry back in the 2000s, as well. I still have my Garmin GPS40, but there were some batteries, that leaked one day, and I cleaned up the mess, but not well enough, the alkaline ate right through the inter case, and even though the circuit board looks okay, the GPS will not function. The 40 suffered from the 1998 rollover and would be been out for the recent rollover, if the batteries hadn’t killed it! I still have the cable that I made from the Pfranc around here somewhere!

  14. I remember buying a couple of black ones in 2002, one of them was used to power my eTrex on the handlebars on my Harley on a trip from Birmingham UK to Barcelona in 2003 for the 100th anniversary Harley celebration. Three middle aged couples on three Harleys !. We navigated all the “N” roads succesfully, only going up a one way street the wrong way once ! I’m sure we would have been lost a few more times without Larry’s plug ! Thanks Larry.

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