RIP Ken Olsen: pioneer of interactive computing

Although DEC has faded into the history books, its influence has been pervasive.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

Editorial standards