Tom West, who created Data General's Eclipse 32-bit mini and was immortalised in Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Soul Of A New Machine, has died. Credited with helping to save Data General (DG) after DEC announced its VAX supermini in 1976, Joseph Thomas West III was born on 22 November 1939 and died at his home on 19 …
What a shame. I worked for DG for 9 glorious years from the mid 80s to the mid 90s. Fantastic time, great engineering but always up against it. Too small but with world beating ideas. The Maverick is a case in point. I was part of the AViiON launch at Moscone Center, San Francisco, 1989 as European product launch engineer. In the hall it was undoubtedly the fastest thing going, thrashing DEC, Sun, Apollo, IBM, all comers in fact. But DG wouldn't (or couldn't) pay the license fee Silicon Graphics wanted for SGL. Without that software, none of the big CAD vendors, (the main drivers for workstations then), would port to it. Therefore it died. Pity. It was really fast. The motherboard designer was damn near a genius - hadn't graduated from anywhere, 20 years old, and taking a year out to work on this project. Great times.
RIP - Tom, you were an inspiration.
The world and me in particular is richer for having Tom West.
Thank you and enjoy learning the Harp.
Immortalised in literature
I remember that book -inspirational. I don't think I'd have ended up in computing without reading it. No matter what happened to DG, the book of the project will be remembered forever as a documentary of what that time was like; Tom West remembered in print.
Tom West,a personal hero. R.I.P.
Read the book in my early teens, inspired my learning of all things computing. Always loved the AD they never used. Can't recall it word perfect. "They say the entry of IBM into the market will legitimise it. The bastards say welcome."
RIP Tom West, The MV/8000 saved my job and earned me a lot of overtime during my years with DG.
I worked with DG Eclipse machines early in the 80s, my first real pro computer gig. Can you believe I was translating FORTRAN II legacy programs into the new 16 bit environment? Nobody in our office quite got the hang of their fancy Array Processor accessory.
I still remember one thing most vividly from the "Soul of a New Machine" book. He said he liked hiring Comp Sci grads straight out of school, because they didn't know what was impossible yet. Now that I'm an old veteran with 35 years of experience, I've tried to keep that attitude that nothing is impossible. If for no other reason, I really owe Tom West for that one idea.
I read Kidder's book when it was first published in the early 80's, and as a "skunkworks" kind of engineer, I can relate to what West did. It is interesting how many breakthrough products have been designed and developed by people working "outside of the box" - the definition of "skunk works". He (West) has my eternal respect and prayers.
Good job Tom.
I read the book as a teenager and it inspired me to write machine code. I got another copy of the book a year ago and gave it to my son. I still routinely label the communal dev folder as SKUNKWORKS even after all these years, and we're still not done with 32-bit. R.I.P and may there always be a command line.
My first real machine was an MV/8000
AOS/VS was a kinda cool OS
Anyone know where I can find a system copy to crank up in an emulator?
200+ students on a machine with 8mb of ram and 512mb of disk
*sigh* the good/bad old days :)
Kidder's book, The Soul of a New Machine, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and rightly so. Reportedly, the day it came out, many (most?) DG employees called in sick to stay home and read it.
The CS Family Of Mini Computers From DG Were The Very First Interactive Machines I Worked With In The Early 80s.
Good Memory Lane.
Thanks so much for the nice write-up. Anyone who has stories about Tom they'd like to share publicly are welcome to come over to a [free and spam free] site we've set up over on 1000memories, to keep it all from being locked in facebook-land.
Thanks for writing this, Chris.
Tom's daughter Jessamyn
Ahead of his time with the 'net
Sent to me:-
I wanted to comment a little on your piece re: Tom West. It seems you missed an important part of the timeline in coming to the conclusion that he missed the network desktop.
As described in this metafilter comment I made:
Tom saw the promise of the internet quite a bit more than most, and built a team ('thiinline') to try to capitalize on that. We built the highest-density 1U purpose-built web server, the first intended-for-the-home 'home server' with 802.11b wireless, and various odds and ends, including the first web tablet and an internet-connected teddy bear.
In the end it turned out that (a) we were actually ahead of our time, and (b) despite what you said in the article, Tom's power over funding was not particularly magical, and when faced with technophobes like Ron Skates, Tom's magic wasn't enough sometimes; arguably DG was already in decline, but we didn't get the staff or the funding to execute on the idea and had to constantly fight the bureaucracy.
Hope that helps.
An Inspiration and Serial Inventor
Hi Chris – nice piece.
I was fortunate enough to work directly for Tom for about 15 years, and participate in the amazing flow of new technology initiatives he drove. I thought you’d be interested in a couple of missing pieces to the story.
After MV/8000 and the publication of the book, Tom was exiled to Japan for a while. After every trip, he came back bursting with new ideas based on the technologies he got access to there. The immediate impact was the development of the DG/One, the industry’s first modern form-factor laptop, in 1984 – which DG subsequently failed to capitalize on despite a significant lead on the industry.
More important, was his early recognition at the time that commodity discs would rapidly displace proprietary drives, that commodity microprocessors would rapidly displace proprietary CPUs, and that commodity OS’s would capture all the apps. This drove the development of DG’s Unix workstations and multiprocessor servers, a stellar Unix implementation for commercial apps (DG/UX), and the disk array that became CLARiiON. All of this was done while DG experienced a big dropoff in its MV revenues, the company embarked on annual layoffs, the founders were removed and the bean counters took over.
In the early 90’s he saw Wintel as the next discontinuity - commodity motherboards and Windows. Tom’s focus here was to adopt Wintel, and innovate at the high end with a scalable NUMA architecture. By ’94 he saw the Internet as the next wave to catch, and started a project (Thinline) that anticipated rackmount server farms, wireless tablets (think iPad), and home wireless access points (think Apple’s AirPort).
You quoted a correspondent saying that there were a lot of Tom Wests in the Massachusetts minicomputer ecosystem. A lot of smart inventive engineers, yes – but there was only one Tom West. And the world is somehow diminished by his demise.
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