DEC's 40 years of innovation

DEC's 40 years of innovation

Summary: Digital Equipment Corporation changed the business, the technology and the experience of computing. In memory of founder Ken Olsen, who died recently, we present this tour of DEC's 40-year life

TOPICS: IT Employment

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  • Ken Olsen

    Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, died on 6 February, aged 84. In the 40 years between DEC's foundation and its purchase by Compaq, the company brought computing to millions of people through excellence in engineering and vision in design. It also created the first hacker culture — not in the security sense, but by letting people get the intimate access to technology that inspires creativity, lateral thinking and downright cleverness.

    This gallery shows just some of the highlights of the company's time at the heart of IT. A full description of how DEC changed the world would take an encyclopaedia, but we hope you enjoy this small selection of DEC's landmarks, presented in memory of Olsen.

    Photo credit: Computer History Museum

  • DEC Digital Laboratory Modules

    The Digital Equipment Corporation's first products were a range of pre-packaged logic circuits, the Digital Laboratory Modules. Each was similar in function to the sort of logic chips that computer designers used in the 1970s, but was made out of individual transistors, resistors and so on, and was consequently much larger.

    The user typically bought a rack and a range of modules, wiring them together to perform a specific digital logic function. Potentially, this could even be a simple computer, although most people created custom circuits for control or measuring of laboratory or production processes. A manual for the range is available here (PDF).

    Photo credit: Gift from HP to Computer History Museum

Topic: IT Employment

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Yeh I remember the DEC Alpha chip being released towards the end of my Comp. Sci. degree (haha that dates me). Half (well almost!) the chip die area was taken up with a massive clock transistor. Revolutionary for it's time and very exciting!
    Bob Wya
  • Plenty of Alpha's still about. I have a DS10L (1U server) myself still. Only for support purposes but I still support several other customers running Alphaservers!!!
  • I'd forgotten about the Alpha's enormous clock transistor! I remember thinking at the time that it was an heroic way to deal with clock skew - and then wondering what on earth the gate capacitance of such a monster would be like. DEC came up with a few clever skew schemes, especially for multiple chips, and Intel now employs some of the people who thought them up - I guess now that the mad dash for extra MHz has finished, it's a done deal. For now.

    As for Alphas in the wild: I hear a rumour that one place was sold a bunch of Alpha servers not so long ago as part of what was undoubtedly called 'a complete solution' for a particular engineering task. Said place is now suffering somewhat for having to keep the things going and fed with extra storage. As I told my informant - pictures, or we can't print the name. But it seems very plausible.
  • Yes, DEC & HP in the 70s vied with each other in the mini market. HP physically separated data from code in memory. DEC with RSTS created the base code for all subsequent command code, CP-M, MSDOS, the works.
  • Let's not forget Data General Corporation, and their Eagle MV/8000, the design and development of which was immotalised in The Soul Of A New Machine

    But certainly, I have extremely fond memories of the PDP-11 with RSTS-E at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University) in England when I first became interested in computers as a result of the school having been given an Olivetti Programma 101.
    And then the PDP-8 at Manchester University where we learned to programme in assembler.

    Damn, but I miss those days...
  • Soul Of A New Machine is a terrific book. Made me want to be a microcoder, but there's not much call for that these days...
  • The man did a great work, and making public the techno,a+.