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

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TOPICS: IT Employment
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  • DEC PDP-8

    One of the first computers widespread enough to spawn its own culture of acolytes, the PDP-8 was launched in 1965 and sold over 50,000 systems before the last model appeared in 1979.

    In so doing, it launched the concept of the minicomputer. The term was coined by then DEC UK head John Leng, who sent a sales report saying, "Here is the latest minicomputer activity in the land of miniskirts as I drive around in my Mini Minor".

    It also launched the illegal clone, as the computer was copied wholesale behind the Iron Curtain. A full list of the hardware and software firsts would fill a book; indeed, the design of the PDP-8 has been used to teach computer architecture for decades.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

  • DEC PDP-11

    The PDP-11 is widely regarded as one of the key computers of the 20th century. Introduced in 1970 and available in a bewildering number of models and configurations, variants were in production until 1990.

    Most of the pioneering work on Unix and the C language was done on PDP-11s, so the heritage of the design continues through Linux into the most modern mobile phones. The hardware also pioneered the practical application of many modern concepts, including orthogonal instruction sets, memory-mapped peripherals, and a bewildering array of options and ill-considered cost reductions.

    Like almost all of DEC's minicomputers, the design ended its days in a variety of custom processors that used modern techniques to reduce a filing cabinet of silicon to a single chip.

    Photo credit: Rupert Goodwins

  • DEC VT-52

    For many programmers in the 70s and early 80s, the face of the computer was the DEC VT-52.

    Its antique looks today belie its startling modernity at the time, which include such innovations as lower-case characters and text that could be scrolled up and down the screen. This was possible because the VT-52 was a smart terminal, containing a rudimentary computer of its own: it meant that crude WYSIWYG text editing became possible, and computerised typesetting began the slow march to dominance.

    One variant, the VT78, had a complete single-chip PDP-8 built in with word-processing software and was thus a very early stand-alone office information appliance.

    The VT-52 was followed by the even more iconic VT-100 and the positively elegant VT-220 — terminal types that live on in modern operating systems as modes in terminal emulators, and in the hearts of programmers as the early Bentleys of the interactive age.

    Photo credit: ClickRick/Wikimedia Commons

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!!!
    leemason
  • 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.
    rupert.goodwins@...
  • 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.
    daveheasmannew
  • 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...
    hgrainger
  • 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...
    rupert.goodwins@...
  • The man did a great work, and making public the techno,a+.
    anonymous