RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

Summary: Although DEC has faded into the history books, its influence has been pervasive.

TOPICS: CXO, Hardware

The first computer I ever touched was a PDP-8e, from Digital Equipment Corporation. It was connected to a teletype.

See also: Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

Programs were run from paper tape, a long strip of paper with holes punched into it, with one row of holes representing one byte of data.

The PDP-8 was a 12-bit computer. That meant it could handle unsigned integer numbers up to 4096. Incidentally, that's all the memory (core memory) that the PDP-8 had: 4096 words, or about 4K.

To boot the thing, you'd have to toggle in a series of instructions on the front panel. I did it so many times, that I remembered that sequence for years. Once booted, you could talk to it from the teletype, and even program it in a form of rudimentary BASIC.

Of course, the PDP-8 wasn't the only machine DEC produced at that time. It was also well known for its workhorse PDP-10 and PDP-11 machines.

By the time I got to college, my life revolved around the school's PDP-10. As an engineering student in Massachusetts, Digital loomed large. It'd be like being a student today at Stanford: Google and Apple are the big local companies. Back then, for those of us in Massachusetts, DEC was the big deal.

The PDP-10 was a timesharing machine. It supported probably 20 or 30 terminals from all over campus: printer-based DECwriters, glass teletype screen-based terminals, and the occasional dial-up user.

I learned to program Algol and Lisp on our DEC-10 and spent years doing various computer science research projects using that machine. It was the PDP-10 that taught me that time was relative. There was no such thing as mornings and evenings. It was all about the data center, getting terminal time, and programming.

My engineering school had a very close relationship with DEC. We graduated many engineers who worked there, and we held courses on the DEC campus and near Maynard, where DEC had its headquarters. DEC had converted an old mill and turned it into what was, for the time, the cutting edge of the computer industry.

Where the homes of Apple and Google and Facebook are merely buildings in Silicon Valley, DEC's home was iconic.

And DEC was iconic, as well. DEC was founded in the days when computers meant IBM. Big Blue. Understand that back before DEC was founded in the late 1950s, computers were essentially batch devices. IBM machines were generally programmed by punch cards and "jobs". You'd put in your cards, wait, and eventually you'd get a result.

Ken Olsen worked at MIT back then. He built a rudimentary computer for an Air Force project and -- although it was minimally functional compared to the IBM machines -- discovered it was immensely popular among the students. That's because Ken's old computer was interactive, while the IBM was batch.

Modern, digital natives could not possibly understand how world-changing interactive computers were. You would type something and the computer would actually respond. Rather than giving your card deck to an operator, interactive computing immediately established a relationship between user and the machine. When computers became interactive, they got soul.

Ken and his partner Harlan Anderson realized this new interactive thing was the wave of the future. When they formed DEC, it was distinguished from IBM in two key ways: the machines targeted a lower-end of the market and its machines were interactive.

This took the computer world by storm. By the mid-1970s or so, Digital was the second largest computer company, after IBM. Generations of computer scientists, students, programmers, and engineers gained their computer chops using Digital machines.

UNIX, the precursor to Linux, was originally developed on DEC machines, as were the concepts of a hierarchical file system and even processes. Jason Perlow also points out, "Microsoft Windows itself as we currently run it today (NT) is directly based on VMS kernel work done at DEC by Dave Cutler."

For more than 30 years, Ken Olsen ruled DEC. He saw it rise from nothing to a true competitor to IBM's juggernaut.

For 20 of those years, DEC built inspiring machines, world-changing machines. Unfortunately, somewhere in the mid-1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation lost its mojo.

This wasn't immediately apparent to most people. By this time, I was working for Pyramid Technology, a venture-funded startup that made minicomputers designed to compete against DEC's almost-ubiquitous VAX line of superminis. They were then the juggernaut and we came out with machines that were twice the performance at half the price.

But what neither Pyramid nor DEC realized was that the whole minicomputer category -- which DEC owned the way Apple today owns tablets -- was about to fade into obscurity.

What DEC missed -- what Ken Olsen missed -- was the rise of the PC. Somehow, DEC just didn't get that the PC was the new face of computing. The minicomputer market was failing and DEC didn't -- and never would -- have a viable product offering.

But DEC didn't go quietly into the night. If you have a mobile phone, the odds are you have some DEC technology in it. One of Digital's greatest strength was in processor design. Before the company's eventual end, DEC designed the Alpha line of processors. Some of the Alpha technology is now in the ARM architecture used in phones everywhere.

Ken Olsen retired from Digital Equipment in 1992. DEC was eventually sold to Compaq, which was acquired by HP. Although DEC has faded into the history books, its influence has been pervasive.

If you use a computer or a mobile phone, you're experiencing something that -- somewhere in the past -- was influenced by Digital Equipment or something that ran on DEC computers. Whether it's the processor architecture in your cell phone, the copy of Linux that runs in your Tivo, the folder system that lives on your computer desktop, or even the Internet itself (one of the first four Arpanet nodes ran on a PDP-10), DEC has touched us all.

Ken Olsen -- someone most of you have never heard of, who founded a company many of you have never heard of -- passed away this weekend at the age of 84.

He was a true pioneer of the modern world.

The First TOPS-10

By Albert Corda, Richard Holmes and David Kinder To the tune of: The First Noel

The first TOPS-10 From Maynard, they say, Lasted twenty-three seconds And then went away. It went away so fast That it zeroed its core. And the series one monitor Was no more.

TOPS-10, TOPS-10, TOPS-10, TOPS-10, Born is the rival of IBM.

Topics: CXO, Hardware


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Old joke: What's the difference between a DEC Alpha and a bowling ball?

    A bowling ball has more software. :D

    RIP Ken.
    • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing


      The Soul of a New Machine is now in heaven
  • I used to repair PDP-8 systems.

    Back in those days, you carefully unsoldered the bad component, clean up the pad holes, and soldered in the new component. The tested the repaired board. Unlike today where the whole board is tossed and a new one installed. Back then, you learned how to properly troubleshoot a problem, instead of part swapping.

    As to loading the BBL code by hand using the toggle switches, I can probably still load that by memory...LOL!!! It amazing to think that the original C language and first Unix operating systems were started on those early PDP computers.

    Ken was a visionary in his time.
    linux for me
  • Thanks

    Thanks for the reminiscence. I started out on PDP-11s and I too remember that boot sequence. Minis were pervasive around Route 128, but they disappeared almost overnight. Too bad DEC couldn't make the transition. It was sure fun while it lasted. Remember TECO?
    • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

      @MC_z Oh yeah! I wrote my thesis using TECO, and it was SO much better than using a typewriter. Of course, I think I had to put a caret before each capital letter (it's been a long time, could have been a different notation, but notation was required).
      David Gewirtz
      • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

        @David Gewirtz
        It was an escape character that preceded every command (it wasn't a meta-character--it was a real character embedded in the file). This meant that you couldn't dump a macro to the screen because terminals of the day interpreted escape sequences as terminal commands. No telling where you'd end up. The macros were so compact that if you looked away from the screen you were completely lost.

        Escape sequences were a fun thing of their own. My group had a very nosy manager who spent his time driving around the system reading other people's files. I found an escape sequence than would drive his monitor into a diagnostic loop with lots of beeps and flashing. I buried that deep in the file system inside a file named "Resume". It took him several times of trying to view that file before light dawned on Marblehead.
      • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

        @David Gewirtz
        Remember DSR (DEC Standard Runoff)? One of the first hypertext markup languages. One of my DEC buddies wrote a TECO macro that solved the "4 queen problem", something that challenges current computer science students using C. I worked on PDP-10s and DECSystem 20s until they were no more and then worked on VMS systems and networks and, later, Digital UNIX.
  • Thanks

    I learned UNIX and administration thereof on an Alpha and will ever be grateful to the DEC employees who spent long hours on the phone with me troubleshooting during that first year (1994).

    DEC may have been on the wrong side of the PC revolution but they were a high class organization. I miss them.
    John L. Ries
  • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

    Shoot, how about that TSD? Or the ubiquitous RL01 and then, wow, the RL02! What was that, 20 megs on a removable platter? And the best was TSX and then TSX+, though not a Dec company, that software sure wailed on the PDP hardware, didn't it?
  • Imagin procreating by "batch job"!

    Take your "seed" to a window, fill out a request and leave it in a basket. Come back several days later to find out if you are a parent (yet).
    No wonder "interactive" was so popular!
    Thanks for the trip through memory lane!
  • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

    Every once in awhile I wax nostalgic and run Unix version 7 on a PDP-11 emulator (on my Sun workstation at home), reminding me of the days when I ran one of those (along with plenty else to do). Right about now, I'm thinking that if I jailbreak my iPhone, I might just try to compile the PDP-11 emulator for it...although compiling hercules and running MVS on an iPhone would also be pretty twisted...
  • One of the Founding Fathers

    Like Steve and Dave and Bill, Ken was a CEO that provided his philosophical and personal stamp on the industry as a whole. You run into Digits or DECcies all across the industry who carried on the DEC ideals long after the company was gone. My mentor worked at DEC for 35 years and helped many people like myself understand the goals of empowerment and grassroots innovation. This was the first major divergence from the IBM and BUNCH modes of centralized glass-house computing, and it set the stage for much of what today we take for granted in terms of end-user and consumer uses for computing.
    terry flores
  • I have, right next to me, one of DEC's last offerings

    It is 15 year old DEC 5500 and still works fabulously. Designed for dual CPU, this one has a single 400MHz Pentium II with 128 MB of RAM. I have another like it at home so maybe I will try a dual CPU configuration with one of these. It runs Win 2K with a 4 channel asynchronous frame grabber that displays real time video from any NTSC base band source.

    I bought them both new an uBid for about $50 each after Compaq bought and scrapped all of DEC's branding. After 15 years, only the built in NIC failed and was replaced. It has to have one of the most solid yet easy to service chassis that I have ever seen.

    Perhaps one of DEC's failings was that actually built a very solid product which made them less attractive as OEMs slashed each others' throats on zero margin sales. BTW, I used a microVAX long before I had access to PCs.

    A lot of pioneers are leaving the planet. Too bad not many are stepping up to take their place.
  • How fast things change

    Back when I started on a VAX/VMS who would have predicted their rapid disappearance. IT is a fast moving monster.

    DEC were great, if imperfect, systems. Ken's contribution to IT is rightly acknowledged and celebrated.
    Richard Flude
    • How fast things have changed indeed

      Recalling days when top execs were often admired as opposed to being merely tolerated (or worse). How far weve come...
      • Agreed

        @klumper <br>Sorry to say, executives and "shareholder activists" (plus the shareholders who support them) bear most of the blame for this. If the only things senior executives are allowed to think about are maximizing stock price and extracting as much money from as many fools as possible, the providers of the money and the producers of the goods aren't likely to be sympathetic.
        John L. Ries
  • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

    I to remeber the Vms systems. Anyone rember the Rainbo DEC's PC? I worked on many of them inhouse as inhouse field service.
    Train Man
    • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

      @Train Man
      I remember the Rainbow (the not-quite-a-PC PC). At about the same time they introduced a couple of other 'small' PCs. One was based (if I remember correctly) on a PDP-8 and the other was a PDP-11. The ad showed a person on a backyard deck with this enormous keyboard on his lap. Must have about killed the poor guy modeling it.
      • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

        Rainbow 100 - CP/M
        DEC Professional - RSX11M+
        DECmate - WPS-8 (word processing) (I sold 300 of these to one customer and won a trip to Hawaii)
  • RE: RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

    Over the weekend I watched a video about DEC's PC Challenge in 1982. I've watched this video many times before but felt compelled again to see it. I'm in awe at this news... RIP Mr. Olsen. You were a giant in your time.