2 of 10Image
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