A Wizard whispers in your ear: "The password of Sheffield Library Packet Switching Service is ABC1234XYZ." That would be a conversation thirty years ago, on the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD. The Dungeon was actually a minicomputer at the University of Essex. I won't tell you the name of the wizard, because he's a big noise in the …
st00pid f4rkling bean counters :(
you know what the biggest thing is that i see everyone posting comments on this thread is??
they all forget about the bean counters! why else would DEC have not gone ahead with their plans contrary to the fact that they would have another machine that would have "suppressed" their sales on their "main machine" at that time???
and let's not overlook IBM's huge failing where their "experts" figured that there would only be several hundred PCs desired when, in fact, what they did was to promote "compatible" machines which the market took to heart and ran with which also resulted in numerous other computer manufacturers loosing their marketshares... and it all comes down to the basics of bean counters and poor mismanagement :(
imagine where we'd be today if the same growth curve had been evident in the sixties... heck, just look at the space industry for a similar and very familiar failure :( :( :( ;(
GE had an extensive line of general purpose and special purpose computers
And they were particularly important in the Finance industry.
There used to be a hardware emulation here, running on some other kind of mainframe, that ran the passbook savings account process
It's not that they weren't interested in General Purpose computing: they were just scared of IBM, which, to be fair, as well as being large, was a very tough company, and fought dirty.
Exactly the same situation here! Loved using the PRIME. While you are waiting for your program to compile used to hit the Imperial or some other MUD for a few hours.
Our computer department bought a number of Atari STs about this time which was great because it was really easy to set up the F keys as macros and thus we created the first MMORPG bots. Just hit F1 50 times and go for a cig to find you had gained a level and a wad of cash. ;-)
So the little TI/99 toy computer was really a world beating computer that had a ton of development behind it. A proper 16 bit CPU when all around were squeezing their 8-bit CPUs. Facinating, I mean it.
I loved VMS, spent my time at uni living on the VAX.
But I'm too young to get to play on a live one. I nearly cried when DEC went under.
ICL, VMS, etc.
Yes, ICL had some great kit. George IV running on a 1900-series was way ahead of its time, which is why so many installations of the replacement 2900s spent their entire life running 1900 emulators!
As to what killed VMS, I think it was the same thing that is causing Solaris so many problems today. It was designed by really clever engineers who knew exactly what an OS needed to do, and they filled it with all sorts of nice features (like $getdvi!). Unfortunately that made it slow. Just as I remember being astonished by how much faster VMS 2.0 on a 780 was compared to compiling Fortran on an ICL 1906S, the first Sun workstations flew compared to VMS 4.7, because SunOS 3.x did so much less than VMS.
Now Solaris has been filled with many of the nice features from VMS (always amuses me when something 'new' is added, and I think "Hmm, VMS had that 20 years ago") and now Linux is eating its lunch because people think "ohh, Debian is soooo much faster". Of course it is, it does sooooo much less, but if it's doing all you ned it to, so what? Robustness and features are important to some parts of the market, which is where VMS had (has) a good hold, but not everyone's willing to pay the price up front, even if they learn to their sorrow later that they should have done :)
No doubt in 20 years we'll be reminiscing about how good Linux was, and why it's so sad that it's being superseded by the latest 128-bit mobile phones running some Chinese quantum-effect fuzzy logic OS or somesuch. And some of us will still have Solaris systems running in the basement, just for fun...
wish I could have been there from the beginnings to experience it. My oldest times were 386/DOS/win3.1 stuff in the mid 90s.
Maybe XP will one day be spoken of in such fond terms. it kind of is now...
VAX and Unix
I've worked on a number of VAX machines, and even re-homed a few of them as they became surplus to requirements. While DEC may have intended them to run VMS, I only ever saw them running Unix, because quite frankly anyone who *likes* DCL and macro assembler is sick in the head. The whole architecture was a blind alley though - the most CISC ever, just a couple of years before the RISC revolution. What DEC definitely got right was the build quality. My MicroVAX is built like a tank, and I only upgraded the hard drives to get more capacity.
Oh yeah, and the twat who wrote the first comment may want to read Wikipedia himself, or better still a book like the one written by Maurice Bach, where he'll learn about the history of Unix, which was effectively a company at one point - Unix System Laboratories.
@JonB and others
Yes, it's amazing how emotional we all get about these. Anyone remember alpha, beta and dsl from the Cambridge University Engineering Department?
As the "twat" who wrote the first comment, I said "isn't" a company, not "wasn't ".
"They bought the biggest iron they could afford, and installed giant mainframes (with roughly the power of a modern iPhone)"
In those days you had to rent someone else's computer, but you could run whatever software you liked on it. Now you have an iPhone in your pocket, but you need Steve Jobs' permission to so much as install an app.
A 70's mainframe was MUCH less powerful than an iphone!
"They bought the biggest iron they could afford, and installed giant mainframes (with roughly the power of a modern iPhone) in big, cyber-scifi offices."
Much less power than an iphone! Anything that can do video is way more powerful than a 70's mainframe. A Vax could just manage audio, but not video.
I don't have figures for an iphone, but a Nokia 9300 is worth 17 Crays.
I used to know a programmer, sorry developer as they are known now, who used to work for Prime, writing low-level code on Prime OS right up until around 94. Bit if of a nutter, but one of the last of the big-iron, geek programmers.
Red Lorry, yellow Lawrie
"The Dungeon was actually a minicomputer at the University of Essex. I won't tell you the name of the wizard, because he's a big noise in the computer business these days"
Lorry is a big name in the computer business? Does that mean he's given up his dreams of Amway greatness?
"in the early 1980s, almost nobody knew what a computer actually was"
"the world really hadn't got a clue what computers were for before 1975. By 1980, everybody had caught on."
... which is it?
The technical issues, managment issues, and the accidents of history of the PDP-11, VAX-11, and Alpha make for unbeatable reading. Probably the most valuable paper is this:
What Have We Learned from the PDP-11 - What We Have Learned from VAX and Alpha, by Gorden Bell and W. D. Strecker. It makes very interesting reading, and pulls no punches.
A favorite quote (one I used to show to my computer architecture class to emphasis the critical nature of the issue):
By the mid-1980’s, there was a general consensus in DEC that for a given amount of CPU logic in a given technology, a RISC processor could achieve (at least) twice the performance of a CISC processor.
Great stuff, Guy!
Back in the late 1980's I used Compunet. Another user on that system, John Marchant, who went by the name of Gnome, had uploaded the extremely fascinating story of his life with old computers including the Elliot 803 and Molecular 18 Mini-computer before he ended up using Commodore 8-bit computers like the PET. I kept a copy of his story and in 2004 managed to contact him. He gave permission for me to upload his story to my own web site but then his email address stopped working so I lost contact. If anyone out there knows if he is still around then please contact me.
His story is here:
Google "Interdata Computers" for more info, Interdata was acquired by Perkin-Elmer.
IIRC, Tektronix's 4081 graphics computing systems used Interdata CPUs; Cannot remember what OS was on that beast however.
Ah, the TMS9900
What a great chip.
As far as I know, I am the only person in the United Kingdom still writing code for it. Hence my handle!
I really loved the article!
The term "Half a Dollar" for a half-crown is much MUCH older than the seventies and has nothing to do with its worth.
Imagine, if you will, in the days before the Normandy Landings, the masses of American servicemen (widely reported as "overpaid, oversexed and over here") wandering around the pubs clutching strange coins. Oddly enough, a half-crown is much the same size as a half dollar coin. What do you think the Yanks called them? And given the proximity of the servicemen of good old Blighty, how long do you think it was before the term "jumped the populations" as it were?
I have no documented proof of this, but common sense prevails and I can't think of another reason why my Grandfather, who had never been to America in his life but had served in both world wars, never called a half-crown anything but "half a dollar", especially since he never had a good word for anything American.
People vs Hardware
The reason the Compaq wanted to buy DEC had a lot less to do with DECs technology, and a lot more to do with their small army of Field Service Engineers - back then company's like Compaq (and later HP) figured that the real growth opportunities were in Services, rather than Hardware. They all wanted to be the next IBM.
Now they seem intent of shedding as many people as they can get away with
> which was better, Unix or VMS?
No one single OS was all things to all people. The trick was knowing when to deploy which tool. Horses for courses & all that.
It's still true today, regardless of the fanbois rants.
It was a DEC-10 at Essex.
It was more a mainframe than a mini. -- the biggest and best DEC made.
Any minute now, people will start ranting their old PPNs in octal. 36 bits and hex are not a match made in heaven.
RSTS/E was the most elegant OS I've ever used. VMS was a close second. Amiga OS always appealed to me as its command-line was basically VMS. The PDP-11/70 that I used in college had a whopping 32K of RAM. The day before a programming assignment was due we would have 30 or more people logged in at once, and it ran like we had the machine to ourselves. The VAX I used a couple years later, with 16MB of RAM, would start coughing with 20 users. The University's workhorse was an IBM 4341. It was a pain in the tuckus to use, and complained loudly when too many people needed it at once. Finally around 1987 they bought a 4381 to run administration stuff so we peons (I mean students) could use the whole 4341 for programming projects.
Sure, my Mac with OS-X is pretty, but I feel I could get a lot more done on that PDP. I'm sure it is just my perception. I have many more things going on on the Mac that I could not even dream of when I was using the DEC, but I don't feel nearly as productive trying to program these days.
Oh, it was Windows NT that ran on the Alpha. Of course finding Windows applications that were compiled for it was tricky.
George 4; also PDP-11
Well, in 1968 I designed the MMU on the 1904A (and fixed a bug in the 1906A hardware along the way) - and then it was 2 years before George 4 was finished... (and if you know my name, would rather you didn't publish it against the nickname that I'm using here).
As for the question about what the spec of the PDP-11s included, there were DECtapes (small, rugged spools of mag tape, even students could use them reliably - the unit was just another panel in the cabinet). There was a 64K fixed disc, then RK large diameter single platter removables (pretty good). Paper tape, of course (fanfold). Teletype, and also the DECwriter (console like a Teletype, but dot matrix).
Anyone rember PIP
The universal "Periperal Interface Processor" on early DEC operating systems.
pip \c \r DD1:FROM DD2:TO would copy from one directory to another
pip \d \r DD1:FROM DD2:TO would delete the entire contents of both directories
I actually saw someone get this mixed up and delete 6 months worth of programming!
DEC - some historical observations
Lets get some background here :-
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) ran several core product lines through the 1960s to the mid-1980s when it re-focused initially on VMS and later Tru64/Digital Unix on VAX and Alpha hardware. Setting aside the early PDP and 'FlipChip' hardware products the DEC products that have had the longest lasting influence would seem to be to be :-
PDP-8 family (the classic early mini-computer of the late 1960s and early 1970s)
PDP-11 (including LSI-11) families which is perhaps THE prototypical mini of the 1970s with applications ranging from real-time process control to significantly large multi-user systems (11/70 at the top-end) which fulfilled that market which today we would recognize as 'midrange'.
PDP-6/PDP-10 : which were DEC's range of 36-bit large-scale multi-user timesharing systems from the mid-1960s through to 1982-3 when the 'Jupiter' follow-on to the KL-10 was finally canceled in favour of the 'Venus' product that was eventually to ship as the VAX-8600 (This was a betrayal by Digital that many members of the 'Large Computer Group' (LCG) community have still to forgive!).
It is a little recalled fact that the DECsystem-10 and DECSYSTEM-20 range was (world-wide) the most widely used timesharing system in the higher education sector in the 1970s and it wasn't until quite late in the 1980s that the number of HE seats was overtaken by 32-bit systems (mainly VAX/VMS). In the UK as well as the University of Essex, DEC-10s or later DEC-20s, were to be found in at least the following institutions: Leeds Uni (KI-10 Serial 695), York Uni, Hatfield Poly, Trent Poly, York Uni, The Open University, RGIT Aberdeen, Glasgow CoT, Dundee Uni, Birmingham Uni and doubtless many others that I can no longer recall. Equally it is probably not realised that there were a significant number deployed in industry too - to my knowledge there were several time sharing bureau and similar (Compushare, ADP, On-Line Systems etc) based on the family and in several places in UK industry - ICI for example ran a large SMP DECsystem-10 and several DECSYSTEM-20s.
The purchase of Digital by Compaq in the late 1990s seems to have brought to a close an era of this strand of innovation - it was always clear to those of us around at the time that the midrange systems was never going to be a major focus for Compaq and it was people, services and knowledge that Compaq bought. Once HP had later swallowed Compaq it was all over - who knows now what the future will hold for HP/EDS and the questionable Itanium hardware base?
(no icon for Ken Olsen and not a mention of 'Snake oil' anywhere!)
Mine's the one with part of a KI-10 console sticking out of the pocket [ 30 / 30 : DEPOSIT THIS ]
deCastro left DEC, the story goes, not because Olsen didn't want a 16-bit minicomputer, but because Olsen didn't want *his* 16-bit mini. deCastro's team's design was passed over for the design that was to become the PDP-11.
The story continues that deCastro took the failed design, allegedly a 16-bit extension of the PDP-8 architecture, and went off to start DG, the design becoming the first NOVA. The story's probably not completely true, but there was a lot of bad feeling between Olsen and deCastro.
Though I worked at DG doing communications hardware, I always preferred the PDP-11 architecture.
//tombstone for dead minicomputer market
Prime Computer Ads
There's some Prime Computer adverts that you can see on one of the Doctor Who DVD's.
Also on YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJeu3LCo-6A
To all the people reminscing about VMS...
It's still alive and well and supported by HP. We're up to version 8.3 now. We have a cluster of four 64 bit Alpha servers with four years uptime (I believe the uptime on the one we have in Australia is closer to six years). Solid as rock and it still has a surprisingly large installed base I think you'll find.
Not only, but also...
"... the most CISC ever..."
Actually the VAXen were microprogrammed beasts and at the core you had a RISC processor. You could, at one time, buy some software from DEC to roll your own microcode. So instead of having all these macros in RISC assembler to perform common operations they just appeared as part of the micro-coded instruction set.
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