One evening in 1972 I was hanging out in the computer science department at UC Berkeley with a couple of equally socially backward friends waiting for our batch programs to run, and to kill some time we dropped in on a nearby physics lab that was analyzing photographs of particle tracks from one of the various accelerators that littered the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. Analyzing these tracks was real scut work – the overworked grad student had to measure angles between tracks, length of tracks, and apply a number of calculations to them to determine if they were of interest. To our surprise, this lab had something we had never seen before – a computer-assisted screening device that scanned the photos and in a matter of seconds determined it had any formations that were of interest. It had a big light table, a fancy scanner, whirring arms and levers and gears, and off in the corner, the computer, “a PDP from Digital Equipment.” It was a 19” rack mount box with an impressive array of lights and switches on the front. As a programmer of the immense 1 MFLOP CDC 6400 in the Rad Lab computer center, I was properly dismissive…

This was a snapshot of the dawn of the personal computer era, almost a decade before IBM Introduced the PC and blew it wide open. The PDP (Programmable Data Processor) systems from MIT Professor Ken Olsen were the beginning of the fundamental change in the relationship between man and computer, putting a person in the computing loop instead of keeping them standing outside the temple.

Much, probably too much, has been written about the demise of Digital Equipment and its acquisition by Compaq and subsequent absorption into HP. Sadly, memories are getting faint about the impact of Digital in its heyday as the first of the upstart “minicomputer” companies to begin to challenge IBM, and of Ken Olsen’s vision of the computer as an interactive partner. In addition to designing computers designed for application to smaller and more local tasks than the then extant data center machines, Olsen and Digital innovated or popularized many fundamental aspects of the relationship between humans and machines, including:

  • Time shared OS and multiuser computers – Digital was not the first, but a powerful advocate
  • Personal computers – The early PDPs, taken in the context of contemporaneous technology, could be considered the first truly personal computers.
  • GUI software – Digital among others, produced software that used the first generation of character terminals as GUIs for program interaction.
  • Networking – DecNet was a precursor of Ethernet, to which Digital contributed substantial IP.

At a peak run rate of almost $16 billion, Digital went from a shared rented loft to one of the major forces in the computer industry, driven by the vision of an iconoclastic engineer from MIT. Ken Olson died this Sunday at the age of 84.