Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

Summary: The recent death of Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen is a reminder that it's tough to get to the top of the tech world but it's even tougher to stay there.

TOPICS: Hardware

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  • The recent death of Digital Equipment Corporation's founder Ken Olsen is a reminder that getting to the top of the tech world isn't easy but staying there is even harder. ZDNet UK's David Meyer takes a look back at 10 firms that were once leaders in the field but let technology pass them by.

    Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)
    DEC's PDP-8 may not look so small now, but its relatively compact size made it a bestseller in the mid-1960s — the company sold 50,000 of its 'minicomputer', which was a record-breaker at the time. DEC became the largest private employer in the state of Massachusetts.

    In the late 1970s, the company's VAX-11 32-bit minicomputer served as a rival to IBM's mainframes. However, a decade later saw the rise of the 32-bit microcomputer, and Digital's products lost their cachet. Its 1998 merger with Compaq was the biggest in the history of the IT industry. Four years later, Compaq itself merged with HP, leaving the DEC/Digital brand as little more than a memory.

  • Sperry was founded in 1910 as a manufacturer of navigational equipment. It later diversified into military aircraft components, including the ball turret guns used on World War II bombers. After the war, it turned its attention to computers.

    The company bought typewriter-maker Remington Rand, which had previously picked up the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC) — founded by the Eniac inventors — in 1955. What was by then known as Sperry Rand went on develop EMCC's successful Universal Automatic Computer (Univac) series of mainframes and peripherals — including the Sperry Univac 1100/80 Computer, pictured above — which remained an industry mainstay for decades.

    In 1986, Sperry Corporation merged with its competitor Burroughs Corporation to become Unisys, which now provides services rather than making machines. Non-computing divisions of Sperry, which produced such diverse items as electric razors and manure spreaders, were sold off. The only former Sperry division to retain that name is Sperry Marine, which — in a neat piece of symmetry — makes navigation equipment.

    Photo credit: Erick M Griffin

  • CDC was formed in 1957 as a spin-off of Sperry. It started off by selling memory systems, but in 1958 the now-legendary Seymour Cray signed up. The company released what could be described as the first minicomputer — the 160A — in 1960, but its attention soon turned to producing the fastest computers available.

    The CDC 6600 (pictured) came out in 1964, trouncing the competition. It was at least 10 times faster than any rival computer, with a standard mathematical operations rate of 500 kiloflops. The 6600 inspired a series of retaliatory tactics from IBM — the ACS-1, which never made it to production, and the non-existent Model 92 — that may have failed, but nonetheless hit sales of CDC's machine through an early campaign of 'fear, uncertainty and doubt' (FUD).

    Although Cray left in 1972, CDC continued to dominate the world of supercomputing during the first half of that decade. After the first Cray-1 was installed in 1976, CDC's lead in the field slipped. The company tried to move into other markets, gaining considerable success from sales of high-performance hard drives. However, it pulled out of hard drives in 1988, and what was left of CDC ended up being merged into BT's Global Services unit soon after.

    Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson

Topic: Hardware

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  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Digitals' problem wasn't so much letting technology pass by. It was the world's largest UNIX producer at one point. It was the first to produce a commercial 64-bit processor (remember Alpha?) and still OpenVMS clusters beat UNIX and Windows clustering... 25 years later. Two big mistakes.... no spotting the PC revolution, and no marketing!
  • What about CompuServe?

    Before the Internet took off, CompuServe was the place to be for microcomputer enthusiasts. It was head and shoulders above AOL. I'm not sure what happened, but I guess it just got killed off by the Internet.
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

      @nfordtchrpub CompuServe is still around. But ever since AOL bought them, it went down hill.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Surprised AOL and Compaq are not on the list. I'd only vaguely heard of Acorn...might have thought they were the people helping pimps buy houses if you'd asked.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    I must have missed Yahoo. It surely is a dead company walking. Maybe next year it will be on your list.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    if the purpose of this blog is to point out companies that are no longer here, than I do not see a problem, otherwise there are a few more companies that should be on the list:


    I know for a fact that AOl and Yahoo are still here, though these are shells of what they once were, in no way on top. I haven't heard anything about for a couple of years back when they were trying to be in direct competition with Google. Web of Trust lists as an untrusted site, but I don't know how realistic that is, considering WoT is opinion based, (and in IE9 lists igoogle as untrustworthy).

    Most of these were mentioned above, but just wanted to re-list them together and try and get a handle on whether or not the blog lists dead companies or once greats
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Memories! Wang, Ashton-Tate...
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen


      I still use WordStar for DOS or a work-alike Z.EXE that came with XTree on my tri-core AMD computer every day.
  • Unisys

    What gave you the idea that Unisys no longer sells hardware? My paycheck is still generated on a Unisys mainframe. Their Clearpath Libra series supports both the Burroughs MCP and the Sperry OS 2200.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    I was beginning to wonder when a Wang would pop up.

    The Tandy name is still alive and well, in Australia where it is the name used for RadioShack stores.
    • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

      But in reality, Tandy were taken-over by Dick Smith Electronics some years ago and Dick Smith is really the major name. However, in their early days, Tandy were very important to the development of home computing in Australia.
      • To be more precise

        @ptorning, tandy was owned by Woolworths Limited, which also owns Dick Smith Electronics, but only rebranded the Tandy stores under Dick Smith Electronics a few years ago.
        Tim Cook
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    As a past employee of Digital, I found that many of my peers had moved on to Sun Microsystems, a more recent company missing from this article. Although many have found a place in Oracle, some of the key innovators from Sun have recently left, fueling the new and upcoming technology companies of tomorrow.

    Case in point..., as Sun Microsystems combined its real estate holdings with Oracle, they left Menlo Park, CA, just recently acquired by Facebook. The same was true of many of Digital's campuses in the greater Boston area.
  • RE: Technology giants: How the mighty have fallen

    Every tech company will eventually fall, in fact, all companies eventually do for one reason or another. Just like people and nations, companies have a life cycle. Today's hot company will be tomorrow's corpse. Tech has a shorter life cycle than any other sector. Personally, I can't wait until Apple folds.