Ken Olsen and minicomputers #pchistory

Ken_OlsenExcerpt from The PC Pioneers

On this day in 1926 Ken Olsen was born

The first minicomputer was designed in 1961 at the Lincoln Laboratory by Charles Molnar and Wes Clark.  This was the Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) designed for the US National Institutes of Health to work specifically with the analogue inputs and outputs from a host of bio-med laboratory experiments.

The tabletop computer, priced at over $43,000, was not inexpensive but compared with what else was available at the time this was a very significant development.  The first LINC was available in early 1962 and around fifty of these were built, many by DEC as the subcontractor.  The LINC had been placed securely in the public domain by MIT but this notion was not to last.

By then Ken Olsen had become disenchanted and quit before LINC’s completion.  He left the MIT team and with Charles Molnar and Harlan Anderson founded Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and used the work on the TX range to create a saleable product.

The American Research and Development Corporation gave DEC its initial venture capital funding of $70k and for this seedcorn investment was eventually to realise $450m; nice work if you can get it!

PDP-1Much of the early running in minicomputing was to be made by DEC.  Ben Gurley joined from the Lincoln Laboratory in 1957.  He laid down the design in just three and a half months for its first computer, the PDP-1 (Program-Data-Processor) that was based heavily upon the TX-O and TX-2 experience.

Gordon Bell, famous later for his Law of Computer Classes, was recruited from MIT’s Speech Computation Laboratory.  Bell designed the input/output (I/O) for the PDP-1 launched in 1960.

DEC appeared to deliberately choose a name that avoided the use of the ‘emotive’ term computer.  The PDP-1’s stated goals were simple – a fast and relatively inexpensive system.  Though at a price of over $100,000 with just 4,000 bytes of memory the word relative sounds something of a stretch, yet compared to the seven-figure sums of its predecessors this was probably justified.  They sold only fifty units but it set DEC on its way in evolving the market in mini-computing.

Olsen outlined and then countered the established wisdom of the time,

‘Computers are serious, you shouldn’t treat them lightly.  You shouldn’t have fun with them.  They shouldn’t be exciting.  They should be formal and distant with red tape involved.  That was the atmosphere at the time.
…we believed computers should be fun.  They were exciting.  They could do so many things.  The opportunities were just without bounds.  This was a great motivation in building a computer.’

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