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History of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was a major American company in the computer industry and a pioneering force in the fields of computer systems and software. This influential company dominated the minicomputer era of the tech industry from the 1960s through the 1980s with the PDP and VAX series computers, and played a significant role in the famed Route 128 technology corridor just outside Boston, along with companies like Data General and Wang. DEC was founded in 1957 by Ken Olson and Harlan Anderson, two engineers who had previously worked on very early machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they had built small circuit modules for laboratory use. Two years later, in 1959, this small and still relatively new company, located in a woolen mill in Maynard, Massachusetts, decided to take on the challenge of building a specific kind of computer that would allow for interactive computing. The DEC’s landmark first computer, the Programmed Data Processor-1, (PDP-1) marked a dramatic shift in the philosophy of computer design, as it was the first commercial computer that focused on the development of interaction with the human user. In contrast to the previously built computer, the PDP-1 was specifically created with the user in mind. A wide variety of hired engineers, researchers, students, and hackers from a range of companies and organizations brought DEC’s vision of the PDP-1 to life. DEC assigned the project to their best engineer and former colleague from MIT, Benjamin Gurley, a highly acclaimed designer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where Gurley worked on the TX-0 and TX-2 computers created during the 1950s.

The work on PDP-1 began in earnest in the summer of 1959. Gurley, along with fellow engineers and colleagues Olsen, Anderson, Dick Best, and Bob Savell, envisioned together and completed the entire system in just three-and-a-half months. Gurney himself is largely credited with PDP-1′s completion by making liberal use of DEC’s existing system building block product line—laboratory modules. Approximately half of the modules used in the PDP-1 were made from scratch by Gurney.

PDP-1 was designed to operate with many types of input-output devices, such as typewriter, paper tape, cathode ray tube, light pen, and magnetic tape. The beauty and sophistication of these input-output devices was that they required no internal machine changes in order to operate and function. PDP-1′s single address, single instruction, and stored program computer contained many other important features. It supported fully parallel processing, was highly versatile and extremely easy to install, operate, and maintain. Preventive maintenance, which previous computers lacked, was provided for by built-in marginal checking circuits. The PDP-1′s punched paper tape as its primary storage medium inspired the creation of text-editing programs such as Expensive Typewriter and TECO.

In the early 1990s, the company began to decline, as minicomputers were squeezed by powerful Unix, RISC servers and PCs. The company tried to regain prominence as a chipmaker with the Alpha processor in the 90s, but despite Alpha’s technical prowess, the processor was never a big seller. The technology wound up as part of Intel’s Itanium chip, through partnerships between Intel, Compaq, and HP. Nevertheless, DEC’s influence and contributions to the computer industry are not forgotten. DEC’s rapid growth (without acquisitions) at its peak made it the second largest computer company in the world after I.B.M. It became the first true venture capital, reflecting the initial $70,000 investment of American Research and Development Corporation which grew to a value of $400,000,000. This company brought to the commercial world many of the computer features that had been pioneered in the military work at MIT, such as man machine interaction, video screens, time sharing and communications in real time.

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