The minicomputer returns to a Web site near you

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has launched a site to pay homage to a much-loved old friend, DEC's PDP, in all its guises

In their day, the Digital Equipment Company PDP series of mini-computers ruled the world ruled the world. Now they have found another purpose, as toys for ex-Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Allen so loves the PDP series, which made its debut in the 1960s, that he has set up a Web site to complement his own personal and historic collection of systems.

Allen explained that he believes it is important that antiquated electronics kit is preserved for the future.

Advances in the IT field "arrive in such swift succession", writes Allen in a foreword to the site, "that even the software and hardware of a few seasons ago are considered obsolete.

"The decades-old computers and software in this collection, therefore, are truly worthy of our preservation and study — both for the cutting-edge innovations of their day as well as for their historical significance."

PDPs certainly represented the cutting edge of innovation in their time. The PDP-1 first saw the light of day in 1960. Designed by DEC founder Ken Olsen and Harlan Andersen, it was the world's first minicomputer — which simply meant that it was smaller than the average room.

By the time Allen and Bill Gates used a DEC system to build Microsoft's first product, a Basic compiler, the PDP line had reached number 11, with the faster, better VAX waiting in the wings to replace it.

People who worked PDP systems are still inclined to get misty eyed about them. They were the IT industry's workhorses, featuring in everything from embedded systems in defence computers to air-conditioning systems, in telephone exchanges and, above all, in scientific research of every type from tracking human genes to trying to find cures for cancer.

DEC is long gone, having been taken over by Compaq which was in turn taken over by HP, but the name lives on in the memories of the surprisingly large numbers of people currently working in the IT business who will claim that they cut their technological teeth on a PDP.