back to article DEC founder Ken Olsen is dead

Ken Olsen, the founder of minicomputer and client/server company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) died on Sunday. He was 84 years-old. Olsen started out a maverick, pioneered and drove the minicomputer and supermini revolutions, and then became a dinosaur. But unlike many other senior DEC executives he remains a much-loved …


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DECwriter II

Isn't anyone going to mention the wonderful DEC Writer terminals? God I loved those things - they were so fast compared to teletypes.

Oh, showing my age again :-)


That noise

That noise from the DECWriter IV is something I had to work with for many years.. we had one in use a a system console and the noise was a sort of rudimentary mechanism to monitor what sort of things were going on (lots of noise = bad, no noise = very bad).

Kids today don't know what a hardcopy terminal is :)


VT05, baby!

Built one up out of scrap parts. 300 baud is lightning speed, compared to 110 on a Teletype!


Thanks for Memories, Ken

Buzzing Fanfold Paper Tape Reader/Punches,

Whirring DecTapes randomly seeking,

Screeching DecWriters banging out line graphs,

Clunk of the RK05 Disk Cartridge loading.

Booting Up RT-11 and then loading TSX11 for half a dozen users.

Rebuilding a real time physical testing systems on RSX11-C,

Watching the rig crush the device being tested.

I said 20psi not frigging 200psi dummy!!

Oops, sorry Mr DoD Customer

These were a few of our favourite things

I think I've still got a copy of RSX11-M on fanfold and a couple of DecTapes in the attic. One could say RT11 begat CP/M which begat MS-DOS and its all been downhill since. Cutler cut his teeth on RSX11 when he joined DEC.

Condolences to Ken Olsen's family.

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Practically a tune. I bet I'd still be able to recognise a VMS system crash from the console sound pattern.






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Aaah, Pathworks! (Or perhaps, ugh, Pathworks!)

The first PC network I set up used diskless workstations that booted from floppy disk images stored on VAX servers. The network stack was crammed into extended memory and they ran Windows 3.1. You can imagine how fast and reliable they were.

On the upside, files were more-or-less transparently shared between VMS and Windows.

Pathworks was part of some mad marketing scheme where everything was called "xxxworks". The only other one I can remember is the network card, which was called Etherworks.

The Rainbow wasn't DEC's only venture into PC-land. IIRC there was something called the Professional, which was a kind of PDP-11 PC that nobody wanted. Then there was the VAXStation, a desktop VAX that ran VMS and X-Windows - brilliant development workstations.



My introduction to computers at age 14 was FOCAL on a timeshared (!) PDP-8.

I later worked at DEC in the summers during graduate school, badge number 47349 (still have it).

It was a great place to work and good experience for a future EE.

The PDP-11 architecture lives on in the Freescale 68000/CPU-32

Real computers have lights and switches


My first real computer was a PDP10...

...not literally, but at my school in 1970ish, we had a 30baud connection to the timesharing PDP10 at Hatfield Polytechnic. Working in Basic and Fortran, I wrote my first real programs there, on a teletype. My favourite was a horse-racing simulator, with betting accounts and everything - the memory of the teletype printing out a horse-race commentary and me and five or six of my friends cheering on our horses will never leave me!

I lost interest when I went to Uni in 1973 and discovered I was expected to use batch-processing. Once you've sat at a "READY" prompt, typed in your program and watched it run, waiting for 24 hours for your output to return seemed pretty tedious. Then I found a PDP-8 hidden away in a physics lab. Happiness returned....

Thanks Ken.

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Like many others here, I grew up on DEC hardware.

My first computer experience was using the VMS Phone utility, sitting in Sussex, England and chatting with the admins at the company's head office in Houston, that was 1980 and the kids today think Instant Messengers are a modern invention! :-D

I loved VMS. I wrote a DCL library suite, which emulated Lotus 1-2-3 menus on a VT52 or VT100 terminal. I still feel sad, that we abandoned mini computers, we are moving back to a client-server environment with the Web, but the hardware isn't as optimised for multi-user experience as it used to be.

Supporting 80 or 100 users in a couple of KB of RAM and a couple of Megahertz processing power, the machines were optimised for multi-user access, this is something we lost in the 90s and is only slowly coming back.

BTW, I'm sitting here using Windows Terminal Server 2008R2 over an embedded Linux terminal. The more the world changes, the more it stays the same!

I still miss EDT and TDP editors, much better editors than vi or emacs.

I attended a VMS Admin course in Reading and whilst listening to the lecturer drone on, I wrote a short DCL script and submitted it as a recurring batch job. It scanned the user list and logged everybody who wasn't me off... It was a good laugh, until I accidentally logged myself out. When you log in, you appear in the user list as <LOGIN>, that was killed! :-D In the end, we had to go to the console and force reboot the VAX! :-D


Why are there so many songs about Rainbows?

I still have my working Rainbow 100A+. Got it through a special deal DEC made with my fiance/now-spouse's college. After we married, it got her through grad school, all with floppies and a TI-855 printer. The TI was LOUD at 2am when she'd fire up the final print pass. And had they just put in a real bus, it could have been a contender. They certainly had the know-how to make it so.

Later upgraded it to a 100B with a whopping 10MB harddrive through an owner loyalty sale. My kids have even played SCRAM on it.

I still remember TOPS-20 fondly, and the gnashing of some of my colleagues' teeth when DEC dropped Jupiter. From there on, it was VAX and VMS - golly, the microVAX really was an opportunity too, if they'd priced it as a loss leader - until '97, when it was simply time to move on.

RIP Mr. Olsen. A turkey in every trunk is just one more of your legacies. I raise my glass to you.

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Last Hurrahs of DEC

64bit NT on the Alpha. Long before AMD 64 or XP.

Their version of ARM that was acquired by Intel and became xscale family now mostly sold by Intel to Marvell, the main ARM phone competitor to Texas, Samsung and Qualcomm

Wolfpack that became NT Clustering.

In the end, too much proprietary legacy stuff, inability to focus quickly on shifts in Technology (VMS vs UNIX, PC vs Alpha.

Could have been there at the start of PCs and UNIX for the Masses, before IBM and Compaq.

But IBM doesn't do PCs any longer.

Windows has reached a crises point unless becomes leaner, cheaper, faster and better on x86 and ARM on win8, it's going to lose relevance.

Really the sale to Compaq was the old horse going to the Knacker's yard. Very sad.


RSTS - Another famous spelling mistake!

One of my earlier incarnations was involved in data handling and program development on a PDP-11 so it was inevitable that I would eventually hear about the spelling mistake that gave us RSTS (which was supposed to have been RTSS but somebody misstyped it and the new spelling stuck!) What I mostly remember of those days are those things that so many of us take as something really new in current computing but, if you dug into a RSTS/E system of the late 1970s or thereabouts, you could find something very similar. Even this current dive towards virtual systems and remote application working had comparable items within a standard PDP-11 installation.

However, what really makes it memorable is the length of time it actually took for something to kill it all off. The fact that PDP-11s were still chugging away out there doing duties from controlling to office duties years after some competitors had gone the way of the dodo is a real testament to its design. There aren't many systems that can compete that way! Even though it has been over 10 years now since I last touched a PDP, I still miss it on occasion!

Thanks for everything, Ken! BYE/Y


Here's a song about PDP10's and TECO part 1

You see, it all started about two incompatible monitor versions ago,

about two months ago on a Tuesday, when my friend and I SUPDUP'd over

to MIT-OZ to pick up some hackers to go out for a Chinese dinner. But

AI hackers don't live on MIT-OZ, they live on various assorted lispms

and such, and seeing as and how they never log in except via the file

server, they hadn't gotten around to doing filesystem garbage

collection for a long time.

We got over there, saw 600 pages free, 10000 pages in use on a 5 pack

PS:, and decided it would be a friendly gesture to run CHECKD for them

and try to reclaim some of that lost space. So we reloaded the system

with the floppies and the switch registers and other implements of

destruction, and answered "Y" to RUN CHECKD?

But when we got the system up and tried to release all the lost pages

there was a loud beeping and a big message flashed up on our screen



Well, we'd never heard of a version of ACJ that would let you go into

MDDT from ANONYMOUS but not run CHECKD, and so, with tears in our

eyes, we headed off over the Chaosnet looking for a filesystem with

enough free pages to write out the LOST-PAGES.BIN file. Didn't find


Until we got to XX-11, and at the other end of XX-11 was another MIT

Twenex, and in PS:<OPERATOR> on that MIT Twenex was another

LOST-PAGES.BIN file. And we decided that one big LOST-PAGES.BIN file

was better than two little LOST-PAGES.BIN file, and rather than page

that one in we thought we'd write ours out. So that's what we did.

Went back to OZ, found some hackers and went out for a Chinese dinner

that couldn't be beat, and didn't get up until the next morning when

we got a SEND from Ann Marie Finn. She said, "Kid, we found you

initials in SIXBIT in the right half of a POPJ at the end of a two

megaword core dump full of garbage, just wanted to know if you had any

information about it". And I said, "Yes ma'am Ann Marie, I cannot tell

a lie, I put that XUNAME into that halfword".

After talking back and forth with Ann for about 45 messages we arrived

at the truth of the matter and Ann said that we had to go rebuild the

bittable and we also had to come down and talk to her in room

NE43-501. Now friends, there was only one of two things that Ann

could of done with us down at room 501, and the first one was that she

could have hired us on the spot for actually knowing enough about

Twenex to screw it up that badly, which wasn't very likely and we

didn't expect it, and the other was that she could have bawled us out

and told us never to be seen hacking filesystems again, which was what

we expected. But when we got to room 501 we discovered that there was

a third possibility that we hadn't even counted upon, and we was both

immediately de-wheeled. CD%DIR'ed. And I said "Ann, I don't think I

can rebuild the bittable with this here FILES-ONLY bit set." And she

said "XOFF, kid, get into this UDP packet" and that's what we did and

rode up to the square bracket asciz slash scene of the crime slash

close square bracket.

Now friends, I want to tell you about the ninth floor of building NE43

where this happened. They got three KL10s, 24 LISPMs, and about 32

VAXen running 4.2 unix. But when we got to the square bracket asciz

slash scene of the crime slash close square bracket there was five

twenex hackers past and present, this being the biggest lossage yet by

an RMS clone and everybody wanted to get in their suggestion for a new

system daemon that would have kept it from ever having happened in the

first place. And they was using up all kinds of debugging equipment

that they had lying around on V3A SWSKIT tapes. They were doing DSs,

MONRDs, and RSTRSHs, and they made 27000 pages of core dumps and photo

files on an RP06 with comments and -READ-.-THIS- files to be used as

evidence against us.

After the ordeal, Ann took us back downstairs and left us with the CLU

hackers. She said "Kid, I'm gonna leave you with the CLU hackers. I

want your jsys manual and your ROLM DTI". I said "Ann, I can

understand your wanting my jsys manual so I won't remind the CLU

hackers of grody things like operating systems, but what do you want

my DTI for?" and she said "Kid, we don't want any VTS errors". I said

"Ann, did you think I was going to try to crash the system for

littering?" Ann said that she was making sure, and friends, Ann was,

'cause she cleared all my left-hand privs bits so I couldn't logout.

And she disabled the TREPLACE command so I couldn't crock in an

XCT [0] instruction, cause an illegal instruction interrupt to MEXEC,

and sneak into MDDT. Yeah, Ann was making sure, and it was about four

or five hours later that Chiappa (remember Chiappa? This song's never

even mentioned Chiappa) Chiappa came by and with a few gratuitous

insults to the CLU hackers bailed us out of there, and we went out and

had another Chinese dinner that couldn't be beat, and didn't get up

until the next morning when we all had to go to LCS Computational

Resources staff meeting.

We walked in, sat down. Ann came in with the RP06 disk pack with the

27000 pages with the comments and the -READ-.-THIS- files and a two

liter coffee mug, sat down. Esther Felix comes in says "All rise", we

stood up, Ann stood up with the 27000 page RP06 pack, and Dave Clark

comes in with an IBM PC. He sits down, we sit down, Ann looks at the

IBM PC. Then at the 27000 page RP06 pack, then at the IBM PC, then at

the 27000 page RP06 pack, and began to cry, because Ann had come to

the realization that it was a typical case of 36%8==4 and that there

was no way to display those last four bits, and that Dave wasn't gonna

look at the 27000 pages of core dumps and photo files on the RP06 pack

with the comments and -READ-.-THIS- files explaining what each one was

to be used as evidence against us.

And we were permanently assigned to the batch dregs queue and had to

rebuild the bittable (in the batch dregs queue). But that's not what

I came here to talk about. I came here to talk about DEC.


They got a building up there in Marlboro where you walk in and get

averted, diverted, inverted, reverted, and perverted. I went up there

one day to pick up a new copy of the tools tape. Drove down to Philly

for a Greatful Dead concert the night before, so I looked and felt my

best when I went in that morning. 'Cause I wanted to look like a real

live twenex hacker from MIT. I wanted to feel like, I wanted to be a

real live twenex hacker from MIT. I walked in and I was hung down,

brung down, hung up, and spaced out. The receptionist hands be a

piece of paper saying "Kid, the EDIT-20 maintainers are polling user

opinions today and would like you to stop by room 604 while you're


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Like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and William Borroughs. Wonderful.

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Wonderful? ... More like plagerism ...

Try a cross between Arlo Guthrie & sra ...

Cite source, children, cite source ... it's the only way ...

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Plagiarism ...

Just past 4am here ... Brain not fully re-booted :-)

Rumor has it I can splel, just not before coffee!


Here is Alices song (PDP 10's part 2

I walked in there and I said "Droids, I want to lose. I mean, I want

to lose. I want to see line editors on CRTs and nulls in my files.

Write 36 bit ascii that can't be read except with the monitor

filtering it. I mean LOSE, LOSE, LOSE!" And I started jumping up and

down yelling "LOSE, LOSE", and Kevin Paetzold came in wearing his

moose ear hat and started jumping up and down with me yelling "LOSE,

LOSE", and a DEC sales rep came over, put an arm around my shoulder,

and said "How'd you like me to show you a *real* editor that has

macros and things like that? We have one, it's called TV...."

Didn't feel too good about it.

Proceeded on down the hall getting more diversions and perversions.

Man, I was in there for two hours, three hours, four hours, I was in

there for a long time, and they was doing all kinds of mean nasty ugly

things, and I was just having a tough time there. They was diverting

and inverting every single part of me and they was leaving no bit


Finally I got to the very last office (I'd been in all the rest), the

very last desk, after that whole big thing there, and I walk over and

say "what do you want?" and the man says "Kid, we only got one

question: have you ever been dewheeled?"

So I proceeded to tell him the story of the 10600 page five pack PS:

with full orchestration and five part harmony and other phenomena and

he stopped me right there and said "Kid, did you ever get hauled on

the carpet for it?"

So I proceeded to tell him about the 27000 page RP06 pack with the

comments and the -READ-.-THIS- files and he stopped me right there and

said "Kid, I want you to go sit over there on that bench marked Large

Systems SIG. NOW, KID!"

I, I walked over to the bench there... See, the LCG group is where

they put you if they think you may not be compatible with the rest of

DEC's product line.

There was all kinds of mean nasty ugly people there on the bench...

Chaosnet designers... Lisp hackers... TECO hackers. TECO hackers

right there on the bench with me! And the meanest one of them, the

hairiest TECO hacker of them all was coming over to me. And he was

mean and nasty and horrible and undocumented and all kinds of stuff.

And he sat down next to me and said:




And I said "I didn't get nothing, I had to rebuild the bittable in

queue six" and he said:




And I said "Littering". And they all moved away from me on the bench

there, with the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty ugly stuff

until I said "and making undocumented gratuitous changes to the

default EMACS key bindings". And they all came back, shook my hand,

and we had a great time on the bench talking about Chaosnet hacking

and Lisp interpreters written in TECO, and everything was fine. And

we were eating Peking ravs and smoking all kinds of things until the

guy from DDC came over, had some paper in his hand, said:






and he talked for forty-five minutes and nobody understood a word

that he said or why we were doing this but we had fun filling out the

forms in triplicate and speculating on why we were filling out SPRs on

unsupported products.

I filled out the special form with the four-level macro defining

macros. Typed it in there just like it was and everything was fine.

And I put down my keyboard, and I switched buffers, and there ... in

the other buffer... centered in the other buffer... away from

everything else in the buffer... in parentheses, capital letters, in

reverse video, read the following words:

"Kid, have you taken the ``VMS for TOPS-20 managers'' course yet?"

I walked over to the man and I said "Mister, you got a lot of damned

gall asking me if I've taken the ``VMS for TOPS-20 managers'' course

yet. I mean... I mean... I mean, I'm sitting here on the bench, I'm

sitting here on the LCG SIG bench, 'cause you want to know if I'm

braindamaged enough trade my PDP-10 for partial credit on a system

that doesn't even handle filename completion after being a litterbug."

He looked at me and said "Kid, the front office don't like your kind,

so we're going to put you on our VAX/VMS mailing list." And friends,

somewhere down in the NE43 receiving room is a large trash barrel with

a big sign on it that says "VAX/VMS documents".

And the only reason I'm singing you the song now is that someday

you may know somebody in a similar situation... or you may be in a

similar situation. And if you're in a situation like that there's

only one thing you can do, and that's call up the Digital Educational

Services office nearest you and sing "You can hack anything you want

with TECO and DDT" and hang up.

You know, if one person, just one person, does it, they may think he's

really dangerous and they won't take his machine.

And if two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both ITS

hackers and they won't touch either of them.

And if three people do it! Can you imagine three people calling up,

singin' a bar of "Alice's PDP-10" and hanging up? They may think it's

an re-implementation of the Chaosnet protocol.

And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said FIFTY people a day,

calling up, singin' a bar of "Alice's PDP-10" and hanging up?

Friends, they may think it's a MOVEMENT, and that's what it is: THE

36-BIT ANTI-LOSSAGE MOVEMENT! And all you gotta do to join is to sing

it the next time it comes up to the head of the GOLST.

With feelin'.

You can hack anything you want, with TECO and DDT.

You can hack anything you want, with just TECO and DDT.

$U in and begin to hack.

Twiddle bits in a core dump and write it back.

You can hack anything you want, with TECO and DDT.

(But be careful typing <RET>)

Just with TECO and DDT!


Brings back memories

Ah, I haven't seen $U in a loooooong time. Does anyone else remember what it means?

Anonymous Coward

One of the greats

Ken will be sorely missed by many of us. I still recall with a mixture of nostalgia and mirth his famous company-wide emails, systematically undermining his own middle managers in order to show the rank and file that he was on their side. "Tigers at the top, tigers at the bottom, and layer after layer of marshmallow in between", as he put it. Many of the middle managers were deadwood in the classic sense, joining the company as it expanded explosively and following their own agendas to the detriment of the original spirit. So we went in ten years from a company that lived, breathed, and understood computers and software to one many of whose senior employees were interested only in money and deals. I once heard a DEC manager tell us, with unbelievable arrogance, that it was our job to "understand banking better than our banking customers". (Unfortunately for him, his banking customers turned out to understand computing better than he did... admittedly not a big challenge).

Good article, but no one who didn't work for DEC could get all the nuances right. For instance this is completely wrong: "Although DEC liked giving smaller businesses their own computers it did not like giving individual users their own computers or even see the need to do so". The very first DEC machines, from the PDP-1 on, were essentially pioneering PCs. They were nothing if not personal, although - like PCs - they could be shared. Moreover, from about 1985 on DEC produced a flood of small computers (MicroVAXes and VAXstations) specifically designed and optimised for single users. I still miss my personal VAXstation from 1987-93, which in many ways was almost identical to the PC at which I am writing this - although it also had the advantage of running the same VMS operating system as big VAXclusters. The insight that DEC had, and which people today are just beginning to glimpse, was that it will always be far more efficient, foolproof, and secure to centralise many functions on large servers or clusters. (Indeed, that is the central idea of the "cloud").

DEC was undone firstly by the gradual degradation of employee quality, secondly by the spread of the PC, and thirdly by Unix and everything that went with it. The PC turned out to be an extremely clever Trojan Horse, in that customers flocked to buy them because they were so cheap and simple. (As one DEC engineer said dismissively, "The reason DOS is so fast is that it doesn't have the overhead of an operating system"). When millions of PCs had been sold and corporations were full of them, the PHB customers finally began to realise there were a few things lacking. Like proper databases, metadata, communications, reliability, security... Microsoft has spent the past 20 years gradually putting a few of those things into Windows, and in the process has made it as good in many ways as VMS was in 1990. (Unfortunately the decision to cling to the traditional Windows GUI has militated against quality, as it is just too insanely complicated).

Ken Olsen was a great engineer and a terrific businessman - in the sense of someone who thinks up a solution to a widespread problem and offers it at a sensible price. He wasn't a salesman, and never really saw the point of marketing. In the early days, DEC "sales engineers" were just that - engineers who happened to spend most of their time helping customers choose the right equipment to solve their specific problems. (What IBM called systems engineers). The hardest part of the job was telling customers that they could only have half of their order right away, as the factory was flat out and couldn't make the computers fast enough.


Wise words as always, Tom

You should come here more often, preferably not on occasions like this.

How will we mark Palmer's passing?


Other PDP's

Wasn't Unix first written in assembler for the PDP-7, not the PDP-11?

At the U of A in Edmonton, Canada, the department had a PDP-9 (18 bit words), with a storage tube vector display attached. I did a project for that combo, with another student.

The first version of my Draco compiler, before it was even called Draco, was written for the department's PDP-11's. I first started on a PDP-11/60, but had trouble with it, since some operations treating it as a pure stack machine didn't work! I was allowed to move over to the PDP-11/45 and my code worked fine on it. That was the start of a long sequence of compiler writing, etc.

We mostly ran Unix on the 11's (U of A has Unix license #5 (3?)), but I remember a fellow booting up one of the DEC OS's so we could run the first version of Zork. I eventually wrote some nasty support code that allowed it to run directly under Unix - luckily the trap instructions used for system calls could be trapped under Unix.

Great fun back then - thanks Ken!

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I had a Rainbow

We messed about with a PDP-11 at collage but I never really understood why it was better than the P.E.T. At poly I discovered the excellent the VAX VMS system, truly great, better than Unix.

In the 1990's I picked up a DEC Rainbow at a computer junk sale. It worked but it did nothing, totally useless. However I did meet an underground computer hobbyist whose club was working in secret towards the dethroning of the IBM PC and setting the DEC Rainbow to it's rightful place on the throne. His Rainbow had a huge hard drive and massive additional RAM. I left him to it.

I understand that you can run VMS on standard PC hardware now. That could be a very useful thing to do since the operating system lends itself to backend processing of data the way that Windows simply cannot.


VMS + 1 = WNT

PDP, CDC, Cray - those were the days when computers had a certain art and elegance to them. Ken Olsen was a true pioneer and innovator. Thank you Ken for giving me my career.



"Win2000 onwards were ok , but NT 3.11 and 3.5* were lame dogs and should never have been released. "

A pedant writes - you seem to be mixing up your history of NT and WFW. And to be honest I'm disappointed in the other readers that I had to emerge from lurking just to point this out. Clearly they are very grief stricken.

NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51, 4. We got all of them to work pretty much ok.

I think the last one we even tested on a Multia, which was intended to be Digital's Alpha workstation to replace all the PC desktops, but with deployment tools and the like. I think application compatibility and the cost of the machines gave them a big hurdle to overcome.

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Under the bonnet Windows NT was a purpose-built computer operating system which led to Win2K, while Win 3.x was a kludge of a GUI propped up on n over-developed set of extensions to a quick and dirty disc operating system.

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"A pedant writes - you seem to be mixing up your history of NT and WFW. And to be honest I'm disappointed in the other readers that I had to emerge from lurking just to point this out. Clearly they are very grief stricken."

I'm not mixing anything up mate. The company I worked for used the early versions of NT - ie the versions that still used the old Win 3.1x GUI. Both 3.1x and 3.5x were slow, bloated, unreliable dogs. NT 4 was better but not by much. It really wasn't until W2K that MS finally released what might be called a serious server OS rather than a desktop on steroids.

c 1


NT 3.1/3.51/4 were all pretty good. I deployed many many of them and had uptimes measure in years.

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"NT 3.1/3.51/4 were all pretty good. I deployed many many of them and had uptimes measure in years."

Yeah , riiiight. IIRC correctly they needed rebooting at least once a week otherwise they'd grind to a halt so sorry if I just call BS on your comment.

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3.5.1 32 bit

My favourite party trick used to be executing Office 97 and other compatible Win32 apps on NT 3.5.1 (with the 3.1 interface, not newshell) :)


Not war?

A minor quibble for the author - the original PDP was the PDP-1, which had 18 bit words and a silvery-aluminum faceplate. And I'm not sure any VT-xxx could be described as a 'green screen', but my memory might be wrong about that.

The remarkable SIMH emulator runs extremely well on PC hardware, and gives you a variety of PDP and Vax 'hardware' for free. There are also free licenses available for a variety of OSs, including the latest VMS.

Sad news.


The vision of individuals

Interesting how the Really Good IT companies so often have a single visionary individual in charge, usually a geek of some variety. Corporate committees stuffed with bean counters and professional liars (aka "marketers") invariably lay badly addled eggs in comparison.


My First Encounter With DEC Equipment Let Me Realize That:

1. Such a thing as a standard character set actually existed.

2. Such a thing as a standard display code actually existed.

These are not small matters, especially in a university setting where professor A's program had to run on Professor B's equipment. EBCDIC is still hanging on for dear life, but Back Then it seemed *every* computer manufacturer had their own character set and every monitor had their own cursor codes. Being able to insist on ASCII text and ANSI displays, as DEC became more and more prominent in the field, was a relief.

The PDP's had a nice collection of languages to run, many provided by other Universities (Rose-Hulman's LISP was a favorite, as I recall, and of course there was an interpreted and a compiled BASIC); and of course the many different editors with their many different fans (Stopgap which led to Son of Stopgap a.k.a. SOS, which led to one fellow student creating Grandson of Stopgap a.k.a. GOS, which in turn led to my roommate creating TGOS, which was GOS in TECO. Yeah, sanity was optional sometimes.)

So... thanks, Mr. Olsen.



"His legacy lives on at HP, which bought Compaq, which bought DEC, and at Xiotech, where Steve Sicola's ISE team started at DEC."

I wish that was true. HPaq has done nothing but p*** all over the remains of DEC. It's just sad.

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Don't forget the PDP-14 programmable logic ontroller. I did a lot of work on PDP-11s and Vaxen mostly RSX-11D and 11M, Macro-11 and Coral-66, including interfacing with PDP-14s. I well remember doing documentation on the Vax using vi and nroff. Happy days!


Time to mention DECtalk

Hands up everyone who's heard Steven Hawking's text-to-speech synthesiser?

Hands up anyone who's recently been underwhelmed by the text to speech in Google/Android?

DECtalk still sets the standard, 25 years later.

No idea who owns it now.



I met himn a few years ago in the Computer History museum in Mountain View. Ken Olsen and Slug Russel were demoing the newly restored PDP-1 and the Spacewar program (amongst others, they also had the music playing program running.

I asked some technical questions on how the flipflops and registers were constrcuted and Ken just opened a side panel and yanked out a board to show how the individual components wer emounted and proceeded to draw the actual schematic of a memory cell and explain how they used multi level signalling to represent ones and zeros.

Interesting Guy.

May he find peace in silicon heaven.

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Oracle RAC

Oracle Parallel Server on Unix/Linux was a joke until they bought DEC cluster technology from Compaq


I was a MicroVAX man

My memories of DEC's products:

- VMS was rock-solid, and made MS-DOS look like a toy in the early nineties.

- The reliable, well-documented compilers for Fortran, C and Ada, and the way in which it was easy to write programs that mixed languages.

- The excitement of receiving several large cardboard boxes full of tapes and manuals each time a new version of VMS was released.

- TK50 tape drives that sounded like a dentist's drill.

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Ken Olsen quote

I guess the obvious '640kbytes' quote was "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home" but he also said something along the lines of "They say we make general purpose computers but everyone who buys one knows damn well what they're going to do with it".

I had a MicroVAX at home which when I shut it down for the final time had been running for 267 days. Try getting a Windoze machine to stay up that long.

Part of their "engineer salesman" philosophy was to give away books about the hardware, the software, the architecture etc. They were so detailed and comprehensive you could learn all you needed to get started from those before the machine was delivered. I still have a box of them amongst the clutter in my spare room but there's so much history there (not to mention the classic 80s styles of equipment and people in the pictures) that my children will have to clear them out when I've gone.


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I thought HP partly bought them for the Alpha architecture and the VAX/VMS as very much the crown jewels of the company.

I think the period of roughly 50s-70s seems to have been something of a golden age of paternalistic large companies (specifically IBM, HP and DEC). Sadly this also bought something of an introspective parochial mind set which made them slow to adapt to the realisation that some things from "outside" would break down the walls of their walled gardens (Unix, MS DOS, Ethernet for example).


September the 14th, 1987.

Having walked from Weybridge station in the rain some two months earlier, for a job interview with a man I came to realise years later to be a genius, I entered BAe Weybridge, to work on Aircraft systems. It was all Vaxen, 11/780s, 11/785s and a massive 8700! I remember it like it was yesterday. The first thing I did was write a prime number program to work out the last prime number below 100,000.

I worked with VMS for another decade, eventually rewriting a bespoke event capturer because Oracle wasn't fast enough.

Long live Eve, Macro32, Lisp, and Vax TPU.

RIP Mate.

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When stuff "just worked" long before Apple thought of it

I spent much of my career working on DEC kit.

With few exceptions, the stuff was beautifully made, beautifully documented (what's that nowdays!) and just worked, and worked.

We had a client that switched off the air conditioning to their datacentre on a Friday (it was too cold while someone was working!), and forgot to turn it back on when they left. Come monday morning, light bulbs had blown, and the old Wang word processor machine had died - but all the Vaxes were continuing to hum along.

Also had a client event in Australia in a coastal holiday town, where we had shipped a prototype Alpha to show off. It was shipped badly and dropped - and needed a new power supply and minor supporting board. Overnight they arranged a new supply and a techo to arrive and fix it - he had never seen one before in the flesh, but had it up and running in 10 minutes and our client demo went off without a hitch - incredible service!

I also remember the greatness of Vax Clustering - it just worked.

I'm sure the nostalgia hides some of the flaws - but it was a company with a great engineering backbone.

Who remembers leafing through the Vax Systems & Options Catalogue?

RIP Ken.


Bit level history of early PDPs

Sent to me by Geoffrey G. Rochat:-

--------------The original DEC computer, the PDP-1, was an 18-bit machine, not a 12-bit machine. This error has shown up in a lot of Ken Olsen obituaries over the last couple of days because nobody checks the facts. The PDP-1 begat the PDP-4, then the PDP-7, PDP-9 and finally the PDP-15, and they were all 18-bitters. A few years after the PDP-1 came out DEC launched the PDP-5, and it was a 12-bit machine. The PDP-5 begat the PDP-8, and the PDP-8 series, which was wildly popular in its day, launched what we know of as the minicomputer revolution, before being supplanted by the 16-bit PDP-11. But the PDP-5 and PDP-8 were preceeded by several 18-bit DEC machines, and they trace their heritage back to the TX-0 computer that Ken Olsen worked on at Lincoln Labs as a graduate student. Anybody who wants to verify the chronology is invited to look at Al Kossow's Bitsavers site,, where may be found scans of a vast array of retrocomputing documents.


Thanks Geoffrey,



Genius, gentleman and probably much maligned

My wife was a "digit" in Wellington, NZ in the 1980s and had the privilege of meeting Mr Olsen when he made a visit "downunder". Her impression of his was he was very personable and quite down to earth.

Ken Olsen is often maligned for his opposing the "personal computer". However, as we have seen with Citrix, web based computing and "cloud" computing, he was really quite visionary. If you look at what is evolving in the IT landscape it seems that you do not need a "personal computer" with storage, locally installed applications and everything else that goes with it. Your apps can live in the cloud. Your data is secured "out there" and you are a consumer of services.

Maybe Thomas Watson was correct too in foreseeing maybe a market for 5 mainframes. Could we see a day when globally there are a few concentrated, but very powerful data centres, accessible from devices with very little horsepower of their own?

Just think about it.

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Nice to see old DEC folks commenting ... Ken was unique.

On a personal note, I was one of Ken's "black sheep", and some-time member of DEC's flying squad. I worked between Stanford & Berkeley, on the BSD (later Ultrix) side of things ... He tried to convince me that if I properly applied myself and ignored the atrocity known as UNIX[tm], I'd probably actually get somewhere in life ...

Ken and I often had lunch in the early and mid '80s, when he was visiting SillyConValley. Later, he occasionally over-nighted at my place in the Johnson Park neighborhood of Palo Alto, sometimes showing surprising skill with the Bridgeport CNC in my garage ... In roughly 1990, I remember Steve Jobs doing a double-take as he walked past, when he realized who was sitting on my front porch, arguing hardware & OS architecture with me :-)

I still have a small cluster of vaxen running BSD down in my machine room ... and a near-showroom perfect Rainbow that had been bound for the scrap-heap last year up here in the office, connected downstairs via vampire-tap ethernet. The PDP-11 based Heath H11A that my father and I built in 1978 still works. DEC kit is still one of the best overall teaching platforms ever built, IMO.

RIP, buddy. You will be missed. Your last year-end update will be framed and placed in the same glass case as my nanosecond, my coffee & Guinness stained, signed & dated first edition K&R, my wet-ink EWD, my MCS-4 family collection, my raw-silicon Trillium "computer on a chip" stuff, and other bits of personally important memorabilia.


Sad day indeed

Like so many other commentators here I remember my first VAX. I was an undergrad who'd been playing with the Uni's ICL kit, and was asked if I'd like to try their new computer. Turned out to be a VAX 11/780 which they were still learning about, they wanted some "real" users but didn't want a postgrad losing all his PhD work! That led to work with VAXen, realtime PDP's, and the rest. Eventually after 10 years I went to the dark side and joined Sun but, even 20 years on, Solaris still isn't as good an OS as VMS was. In the light of our recent acquisition by Oracle I can sympathise even more with the ex-DEC folks. They were great people to work with, especially in the field service and training organizations. The less said about DEC marketing the better, though. Who was it said that buying a computer from DEC was like getting a divorce; you had to prove you really wanted it?

In the days of "commodity computing" I doubt we'll see the likes of Ken again, snake oil or not. I must go home and see if my PDP-11/73 will still boot. Ah, nostalgia...



Ken, you made my day for a few years, organising the buying of PDP-11s across faculties in a university, not always sure what the source of the funds was but getting good deals from the salesman, helping out the service engineer when he didn't have the needed spare and it was too far to go and get it (we would cannibalise a machine not doing something urgent that day or the next), not always pleasing my boss as a result (he thought that the DEC machines took work away from his dinosaur mainframe)...


I cut my teeth...

...on the PDP-11, then progressed to the VAX. I still have fond memories of VAX's assembler language and have the occasional delusion of teaching it to the kids, such is my fond nostalgia.

I was devastated at the news that Compaq bought Digital and now to hear that Olsen has passed...? Will definitely raise a glass in his honour tonight. I have great memories of fantastic engineering, all of which have now, as someone else pointed out, been subsumed by marketing crap and vapourware Powerpoint presentations.

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This post has no title.

I cut my teeth on PDP-8i's, PDP-11's and uVaxen. Very very happy and exciting times - and the systems back then were a lot more stable than the pathetic offerings from Microsloth we suffer today.

Thanks to Ken and all at DEC - nothing but happy memories.

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I met KO in Boston a quarter of a century ago, it was an honour then and his death marks the passing of a great man. Those of us who built careers in the DEC space, remember what made his company and its products great, we remember the peerless engineering and mourn DECs destruction at the hands of the visionless bean counters and PHBs.

"DEC Engineering" is tautology

"Microsoft Engineering" is an oxymoron.

nuff said

Philip Lewis

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