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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  1. The Fuzzy Wotnot


    I'm only in my mid-thirtires, but I remember he first time I saw a pair of clustered DEC mini's swap a live Oracle DB instance between them without a blip and carry on running! Blew me away! Made up my mind to stick to the back-room stuff, it's way more fun than all that Windows GUI stuff that was taking off at the time, I knew Windows was never going to be as much fun as Unix systems!

    Cheers Ken!

  2. James 5


    ... the photo brought back memories of operating one of these at what was the SURRC at East Kilbride when I was a post grad. All those switches to play with......

  3. Mr Larrington
    Thumb Up

    Thanks Ken!

    As a VMS junkie of some twenty-five years standing I have to salute you for keeping me gainfully employed since ceasing to be a Penniless Student Oaf all those years aago.

  4. Ivan Slavkov

    May he rest in peace

    Obligatory PDP joke:

    Q: How do you recognise yourself as a dinosaur.

    A: When you know that big endian and little endian are not the only endians out there.

  5. Tim99 Silver badge

    In memoriam

    A sad day for those of us who cut our teeth on the PDP.

  6. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    RIP Ken & DEC

    We had PDP-11/34 computers when I started some 25 years ago, though they were replaced by PCs and Sun workstations by the 1990s. We had stuff hung off the CPU bus and still marvel as watching the huge HDD units working away, for all thier minimal storage by modern standards.

    VMS was rock solid from what I know, and its a real shame they did not do as well as they could have. Also a real shame how "HP" dropped the Alpha processor (as Itanium was going to rule, eh?) and generally dumbed down all they had acquired.

    1. Conrad Longmore

      Rock solid

      Rock solid is right. On the very rare occasions that our VAX 11/750 fell over, Digital used to be sent the system dump on half inch tape* so they could analyse the problem themselves. You don't get that level of support from Microsoft!

      Talking of Microsoft.. there is a great deal of VMS influence in the Windows NT architecture because MS hired developers from DEC to built an enterprise-class OS (for example Dave Cutler,

      So, although Ken Olsen is gone and his company is a distant memory, the work it did lives on in a variety of significant technologies across the IT field.

      * which of course were over 10 inches across which caused confusion with the uninitiated.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        DEC Alpha

        Did the ex-DEC developers not also port NT to the Alpha platform, before MS decided to go Intel only?

        1. Conrad Longmore
          Gates Halo


          Indeed. There's a whole hardware abstraction layer (HAL.. hahah) built into the NT architecture for this. Used to run on MIPS too, and MS are also porting Windows 7 to ARM, so again the HAL will be helpful in that.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        @conrad longmore

        "MS hired developers from DEC to built an enterprise-class OS "

        Shamed they failed miserably. Win2000 onwards were ok , but NT 3.11 and 3.5* were lame dogs and should never have been released. Compared to VMS and the unix opposition at the time they were frankly a joke. The only "enterprise" involved was that of the MS marketing departments creativity in trying to persuade companies that these hopeless OS's were Big Iron replacements.

        Dream on....

        1. John Gamble

          Re: @conrad longmore

          "Shamed they failed miserably."

          But they didn't. NT was replacing Windows 9x systems, and amongst programmers the sighs of relief were audible across the globe, despite the fact that it was regarded as a massive memory hog at the time.

          No, it didn't compare to VMS and Unix, but it wasn't meant to - the hardware the PC manufacturers had at its release (the 80486 chips were only out for less than a year before) were not in the same ballpark as the minicomputer chips, although that gap was narrowing.

      3. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Rock Solid

        I.B.M ==> HAL (2001)

        VMS ==> WNT .. a coincidence?

        1. asdf

          not quite

          Sorry Dave but I can't let you run that <cut to WNT blue screen or red ring of death on xbox>.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Alpha was dead before HP bought compaq.

      Compaq was already porting Tru64/VMS to "itanium". I was there.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    "rainbow ... an appallingly bad product "

    As obits go, that wasn't bad.

    Rainbow wasn't an appallingly bad product, but it was ill timed; designed to support both Z80 and 8086 transparently, because at that time it wasn't clear whether the market for CP/M had been obliterated by the upstart MS-DOS. You can see why it might have seemed like a good idea at one stage, especially as to reduce costs the same enclosures and such were also used for a PDP11 (the Pro 320/350/380 family) and (if I remember rightly) for a PDP8 (DECmate III dedicated word processor).

    Ken, you left lots of good stuff to be remembered by. Thank you. Raise a (non-alcoholic?) glass in memory of Mr Olsen. And/or a grenade for Mr Palmer and his successors.

    1. JimC
      Thumb Up


      Yeah, I agree: it wasn't a bad product, but the timing was wrong/unlucky. At college I used them in preference to an IBM PC because of the integration to the college 11/750 which meant I could use Wordstar to edit my Cobol code... Still have a lot of affection for the kit. My first job was at a Sperry shop and when you saw the error output from their compiler you sure appreciated DECs... The Pathworks and integration inspired me, and I soon got int o Networking, and that's why I do what I do today... Thanks Mr Olsen, I never met you, but you changed my life.

    2. CABVolunteer

      Ah, the Rainbow!

      When working in the computing consultancy dept of a big multinational in the early '80s, we borrowed a Rainbox from DEC for evaluation. It was "OK" but nothing to get enthusiastic about... It was my first exposure to Microsoft application software - I discovered how to use a spreadsheet with MS Multiplan when my colleagues were promoting Visicalc to accounting depts around the world, then had to unlearn it when Lotus123 became the defacto standard.

      By the time even DEC realised it was missing the boat on "personal computers", my colleague who was our liaison with DEC asked me to evaluate their latest offering: a Pro380. All I can remember of it was the superb (over-)engineering - it was built just like one of the minicomputers with heavy-gauge yellow-chromated steel chassis and panels and (ball-bearing?) slides for every adapter card, floppy and HDD. In the days when IBM were about to launch the PS/2 made mostly from structural plastics held together with press-studs, the cost of production must have been enormous - we never bought one!

  8. GrahamT

    RIP Ken

    I'm sure I won't be the only pedant pointing out that the PDP 8 wasn't an 8 bit machine, it was 12 bit (count those switches) address and data . This gave it a huge 4096 words (6Kbytes) of memory. (I think there was an expansion option to take it up to a whopping 8192 words)

    The switches were necessary to load in the initial bootstrap code (RIM = Read In Mode?) which would then activate the teletype to read in the next stage - BIN from paper tape, which could then load the "high-level" interpretive language FOCAL. This was when computers really did pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

    DEC machines mapped out my start in computers.

    A PDP 8/S (S for serial bus) was the first computer I had real hands on experience with programming, then I learnt a lot about computer hardware fixing a broken PDP/8E (blown transistor in the programme counter register IIRC).

    Those bought up on modern hardware might be surprised to know that this wasn't a stack based machine, so recursion wasn't possible. The return address for a subroutine was stored in the first word of the subrutine, which always had to be left free. A return from subroutine was a jump indirect via this address. (this may not be 100% accurate - it was a long time ago)

    The only storage we had was paper tape, and a fast - 1000cps - reader.

    When PDP 11s came in, they were only for use by Postgrads, poor technicians like me weren't allowed to touch, though I did develop the A-D convertor to allow them to digitise "Scotty, Beam me up", which almost filled a RK05 diskpack (no MP3 in those days)

    Later I went on to Vaxes, and loved them, but by then I was building my own microprocessor based home computers and the future direction was clear, but I owe my career path from analogue hardware technician to software developer, to Ken Olsen and DEC computers.

    RIP Ken, RIP DEC.

    1. GrahamT

      And I forgot to mention...

      VT52 and VT100 terminal protocols that existed long after the terminals themselves, even being used for elementary graphics on early PCs under the ANSI.sys driver and for Unix/Linux terminal emulators.

      Not forgetting the DECnet Father Christmas worm, which was one of the first true network worms in the wild.

  9. BarryMc

    Those were the days

    I left school in the late 80's to write software for local government in VAX Basic, running on VMS5.5. It was such a good environment to cut my teeth on. Things just made sense, and were yet highly powerful. Happy memories of shelves full of bright orange manuals that would fold across the centre, thus turning themselves into book-holders.

    One day whilst the Sysadmin was on holiday, the MD asked me (was only a small company), "Would you have a problem if he didn't come back?". And that was the start of my career as a Sysadmin.

    Next job (mid-90's) was an aircraft maintenance company based at Stansted Airport. They had VAX's, a new application I'd never heard of called 'Pathworks', and a fair amount of desktop PC's running the new-fangled Windows 95 (using DecNET). Here, I learnt to deploy TCP/IP, to code HTML, and all about the Internet/email.

    98-99 and I was at EDS (hated it) supporting massive OVMS-based systems. Initially using a DEC product called TeMIP - I've yet to meet another person (including HP staff) that have heard of it.

    99-05 was my time at Made For Idiots - by this time, my OVMS usage was dwindling, and my Windows was increasing.

    05-present and I'm still a Sysadmin, working for a major UK baby/mother retailer. There's no OVMS at all in my life. Instead, it's all Windows & DB's. There are some odd, green screen IBM things. But, I can't for the life of me understand them. I do have some Itanium-based Windows servers, which I gather have some/part of their basis in the wonderful 'Alpha' CPU.

    My colleagues will testify that I now say (of Microsoft Clustering), "It was never this bad under VMS. It just worked."

    Ken, I never met you. Never knew you. But, I feel you help put me where I am today. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Every day I worked with your products was a good day. I owe you a beer.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good at their specialist area

    My career grew in parallel with VMS 3.x through to OpenVMS 7.3.

    A very stable & secure operating system, first with clustering that worked (AFAIK).

    Loved the consistency of command line for system management jobs.

    First with affordable 64 bit processors (Alpha).

    The email system was ALL-IN-1 (no other alternative spelling!), and the underlying messaging system was and probably still is better than any MS offering (regarding message tracing especially).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ahh ALL-IN-1...

      I remember there being a Notes Conf (VAX..., not Lotus...) that listed all the alternate spellings of ALL-IN-1 and what they actually were. And the flame-fest that broke out when you used the wrong one. I think "All-In-One" in this article might have been a disposable diaper.... But then, I was in engineering so we never used it anyway :-)

  11. deshepherd

    @In memoriam

    > A sad day for those of us who cut our teeth on the PDP.

    while not a PDP, I started off in that era when we had a Data General minicomputer at school and I used to be able to program in the initial bootstrap via the front panel switches from memory - and it wasn't just the "green screens" that you used to access them ... there were teletypes as well!

    I also rember, probably 20 years ago, listening to a radio program featuring DEC and Ken Olsen where one of the things I remember was Ken's (at least initial) insistence that his sales force were paid a standard salary and not commission on the basis that he wanted them to sell what was going to be best for the customer and not oversell to inflate the salespersons commission.

  12. Colin Miller

    Death of an era

    The PDP-11 is the machine that UNIX and C were originally written for.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      And don't just gloss over that ...

      There probably would have been Unix on some minicomputer, but the PDP was there first. Unix on the PDP/11 was followed by Unix on the VAX, then Sun machines (understand that I'm skipping things here a lot) then the PC and then with the licensing problems, Linux on a PC and now in my pocket. Well, not my pocket, but in the pocket of anyone who has an Android phone or any of the dozens of phones running Linux.

      Ken Olsen called Unix "snake oil" while I was working at DEC (on Ultrix) but Unix on the PDP11 is what put Unix in the hands of countless undergraduates (me included) and the line from there, to well, an Android phone is easy to draw.

      1. Keris

        Writing for PDP-11

        The PDP-11 was a joy to write assembler-level code (and MACRO-11 was only surpassed by MACRO-32 for the VAX). With an almost-orthogonal instruction set it would these days be a RISC machine -- unlike the VAX and the PC, the '11 had few instructions and a broad set of addressing modes and flexible registers to allow efficient implementation. Like:


        MOV @(PC)+, @(PC)+


        CLR @(PC)+


        DW 1

        ; rest of program, testing flag for zero/non-zero to see which entry point was used

        At the time it was probably the best thing on which to write Unix (and the C compiler).

        Indeed, its architecture is still reflected in C and C++, in the ways to increment a variable:

        INC (++x)

        ADD #1,x (x+=1)

        MOV x,R0; ADD #1,R0; MOV R0,x (x=x+1)

        1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          What I liked

          was that the Program Counter was basically register 8, and that many of the jump, load immediate and return instructions were just special cases of other load and store instructions that you would use on other registers.

          At one time, I used to be able to dis-assemble PDP-11 machine code without the book. It really was just such a regular instruction set that it was easy.

          It used to be interesting to see just how C mapped into PDP-11 machine code. Often, like the case Keris quotes, a simple instruction like i++; would map into a single instruction.

          Another innovation in reasonably priced computers that I believe was championed (although not invented) by DEC was the segmented address space that was implemented in such a way as to make it non-intrusive to the program writer, but also would allow different processes to have their own virtual address space independent from the physical memory addressing. It was this feature more than anything else that allowed multi-user computers to be created that allowed a user to screw up their own program without affecting the OS or other user's programs.

        2. Anonymous Coward

          A ground breaking design

          And I/O was memory mapped, completely different from the way we designed things in traditional mainframes. We bought 2 for a special project and concealed them in our trad blue boxes, much to the customer's annoyance. It was, I have to say, very difficult getting them passed by our QC people since they were so cost reduced compared to our normal stuff.

          But they worked and were lovely to play with.

          I join those mourning Mr Olsen as one of the real fathers of modern computing.

  13. John Miles 1

    PDP-8, 11 and Vax

    Just for the record the PDP-8 used 12 bit words (and also had a sort of 24bit floating point capability with an optional expensive hardware accelerator). You could run real scientific programs in 4k, 8k or 12k words of memory.

    Though DEC saw their biggest success with Vax and whilst it was an impressive architecture it came a bit late to the market. It was also encumbered by VMS which struck me as unnecessarily complex (being based on RSX/11) in contrast to the much more cleanly architected Vax Unix that DEC could have picked up from UC Berkeley a year or two later, but instead vacilated over for years.

  14. Dazed and Confused

    The last of the great founding fathers?

    RIP, it is a sad loss.

    Once engineers set yo and ran computer companies and they engineered great products.

    Now they've all gone and we are left with bean counters and marketters who view engineers with disdain even if they can't live without them, quite.

    I severed my time on Ken's products. I programmed PDP11-23s, I even wrote some VAX assembler. I learned my Unix on Ultrix 1.0 on a VAX 11/780.

    With Ken Olsen passing away a whole age of the computer industry passes too.

    1. RightPaddock

      last of the great founding fathers - not quite

      @Dazed and Confused - Gordon Bell (76) & Gordon Moore (82) are still alive and kicking.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    I may not have much experience with the meaty hardware, except epic tales I read about the DEC PDPs. My first foray into PC computing as a youngster was when my parents for me a DECpc LPV+ 433sx for homework.

    It was a great machine, slimline factor wasn't as bulky as most PCs, was more business-like than a peecee world packard bell special, and surprisingly quick for a 33mhz 486 SX. Came with WFW 3.11, but managed to shoehorn Win95, a soundcard, a double speed CD-ROM and 12 whole megabytes of RAM in! Thems the days :)

    RIP Ken Olsen.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    One of Ken Olsen's less perceptive quotes ...

    Someone has to make a reference to 'Snake Oil' - but I'll leave it to other to complete the quotation attributed to Ken Olsen.

    1. Martin 37

      Snake Oil

      Ken was lambasted in the trade press and by the competition for being misquoted. Unix was the up and coming thing; making its way out of academia into commercial use. Ken is stated to have preferred the undoubted reliability of the home-grown VMS and was reported as saying Unix is so much snake oil.

      The full quote was that Unix of itself was so much snake-oil, by which he meant it was not a silver bullet to all problems of cost, performance, application availability. To that, I think he was right.

      but his blind spot of not seeing the need for a computer in every home was a real blind spot.

  17. JaitcH

    I still have callouses on my fingers from keying in the bootstrap!

    Two things stand out about both the PDP8 and 11, of which I have an 8 in storage somewhere, was that they were built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse and defective components could even be changed by a technician.

    You could actually 'scope' an IC pin and watch a flip-flop change state - try that on those big, black blobs nowadays. A great technical teacjing computer.

    Another big thing was interconnectivity! You could buy PC boards that would provide interfacing for almost anything - the PDP series were used by credit card companies in the early days for telephone line input at which they excelled.

    Phillips, amongst others, produced a chipset for both the 8 and 11 that ran DEC software - none of the Apple crap in those days.

    Talking about the California fruits, DEC had one hell of an App library that saved many a programmers neck.

    Thanks, Ken, in spite of my callouses!

  18. M. Poolman

    Good 'ol days

    I too cut my teeth on a PDP 8. It was the size of three wardrobes, had two mag tapes, a hard disk and hi-res graphics (A total of 600 spots on a B&W CRT). Booting consisted of entering (40 odd ?) binary numbers on a toggle panel (loads of really cool flashing lights) to be able to read a paper tape, then load a paper tape to get instructions off the mag tape, finally load a mag tape, and after an inordinate amount of clicking and whirring you were able to start using the teletype. All long term storage was on paper or mag tape. The disk only held a few k and that was used for the focal interpreter.

    It really did look quite impressive when both mag tapes, the teletype and all those flashing lights were going 19 to the dozen.

    But you tell the young people today, ...

    1. M. Poolman

      And another thing

      Some years later I found myself at University and learned C & Unix on DEC Ultrix personal workstations, so I suppose I owe quite a lot to Ken Olsen and ilk.

      Raise a glass to his memory !

  19. AndyLeslie

    KO was a brilliant, if flawed, genius

    When I joined DEC in 1983, I was amazed to find a company culture like no other. Based on real family values, trust and such mottos as "do the right thing" and "it's easier to do and apologise than ask permission first". The engineers and innovators ran DEC at it's most successful and KO was indeed the "Ultimate Entrepeneur".

    I was recruited to support the Rainbow because it ran CP/M and Wordstar and no-one at DEC knew anything about them. Of course it ran MS-DOS as well, but that was just the start of the confusion.

    One of my customers was Douglas Adams, pre-Apple-obsession!

    Even when the DEC "family" was over 100,000 strong, many people all over the world loved working for his company, which was innovation-led and often took the customer by the nose and prodded them into using a technique or process or machine that they'd never have thought they wanted and proving that they needed it all along.

    Sadly, it all fell apart in the late 1980's. I remember being in the Littleton, Mass. facility and hearing that the stock price, which had touched on 180, was plunging as the fiscal reality of UNIX becoming the panacea of the industry and DECnet (a truly advanced networking stack in it's time) gave way to TCP/IP. KO had indeed led the company from birth into a decline from which there was no recovery.

    He backed DEC technologies against the world, preferring VAX/VMS to UNIX abd even refusing the opportunity to buy the rights to UNIX when Bell Labs wanted to sell it. What a different world THAT would have been.

    The innovations I saw at DEC still reverberate today: WAN, ethernet LAN, email, social networking (VAX Notes), clustering (VMS clusters were and are the best in class) Volume Shadowing (mirroring), database technologies such as two-phase commit, matrix management and so much more. Even the dreaded "Phase Review process" for development of hardware and software products foreshadowed Six Sigma in many ways.

    I met KO, didn't know him well, liked him immensely.

    RIP, another giant is gone.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      VAX Notes

      Was the dog's 2.13s.

      Many a fond memory of my time in DEC, thanks Ken.

      1. Clive Summerfield
        Thumb Up

        @VAX Notes

        The EuroForum notes conferences are not forgotten. Though I thought it was 2.12 not 2.13?

        VAX Notes was the best social networking product written to date. Compared to the gibbering racket of Web2.0 social networking or the nightmare flame wars of usenet, VAX Notes had a signal to noise ratio that will never be bettered.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          My memory went long before VAX Notes did.

        2. Ned Leprosy Silver badge

          Re: VAX Notes

          Blimey, EuroForum is a blast from the past: I still remember how much of my daily schedule that thing accounted for! I never did find the correct timesheet code for it though. :D I wonder if my archives are still readable after all this time...?

          I wish I'd experienced DEC under Olson's caretaking: everyone had very fond memories of the company under his stewardship, which was in direct contrast to Palmer's reign. Still, Olsen will be remembered far longer than his successors, and quite rightly; a larger than life figure in every way.

  20. JohnG

    Ethernet, Pathworks

    It is worth remembering DEC's cooperation with Xerox and Intel in giving us Ethernet.

    Pathworks was for networking PCs with VMS servers. Based on LAN Manager, it was rather late to market but to my knowledge, was the first that allowed DOS/Windows and Apple machines to share the same VMS file shares and printers.

  21. Admiral Grace Hopper

    The Joy Of VAX

    I only had glancing contact with DEC's products when I was tasked with making them talk to ICL's VME boxes a long time back in the way back when. Similarly to ICL's products they seemed to have been constructed to make the programer's and and the engineer's lives easier in a way that seemed to pass other manufacturers by when I came into contact with their systems, so I can understand the affection in which these boxen are held.

    With him passes another piece of the computer industry when it was led by techies rather than business brains, a sad day.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  22. Anonymous Coward

    RIP: So long and thanks for the memory

    I grew up on PDPs,VAXen from the age of 16

    I was cobbling some networking demos with the 'new' VAXmates when I met Ken. I was ~20, took me by surprise as he marched right up, shook my hand started talking away about new faster processors etc to come, can't remember much of it as I was just a bit surprised. I was told I was lucky but at the time never really thought I what was doing would make such a impression.

    Nice bloke.. willing to talk to anyone. RIP sir.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    the old days have just died

    I worked for DEC through the 80's at the V7 building behind Huntley and Palmer's in Reading, and at DEC Park.

    pdp 8, 11 and VAX, Rainbow, Pro 350/380 various PSUs and VTs all at component level.

    Definitely an engineers company, loved it :)

    Thanks Ken

  24. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Brings back memories

    We also used several PDP11s at the university. My master's project involved running thermal simulations on a VAX, until I realized my then new PC (80386 at 25MHz with Cyrix math co-processor) outperformed it.

  25. Stuart 22
    Thumb Up


    Essex Uni was one of the first (the first?) to get it hands on a DEC-10 in 1970. What an eye-opener. It replaced an ICL 1909 and introduced a roomful of teletypes to replace the card punches!

    Online computing became de-facto for me from that moment. When I eventually became a business planner at ICL I was given another (batch) 1900 to do the modelling. I quietly slipped out and bought a TRS-80 on expenses, lashed a 132pp lineprinter to it and produced reports that looked like they had been done on a mainframe. Got mentioned in despatches by the speed I could turn round work.

    I kept the secret from them. So thanks Ken for changing my computer life.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Although it was known as a PDP-10

      they were labelled as DEC System 10 (and the followup, DEC system 20) running TOPS-10 and TOPS-20 as the OS. Real DEC sysprogs called them things like KI and KL systems, after their processor types.

      IIRC, they were a bit quirky, having a 36 bit word length, but introduced the concept of a cluster with a fast interconnect. They had a thing called the CI bus, which was like an extended MASBUS that allowed you to connect systems together, as well as to Hierarchical Storage Controllers (HSC's) which provided shared disk between the systems.

      This was adapted to become the BI bus for VAXen, which paved the way for VAXCluster.

  26. Kubla Cant


    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.

  27. Titus Aduxass
    Thumb Up

    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 :-)

    1. Conrad Longmore

      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 :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up


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






    2. Peter Simpson 1

      VT05, baby!

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

      1. RightPaddock

        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.

  28. KA1AXY

    RIP Ken

    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

  29. Martin

    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.

  30. big_D Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    RIP Ken

    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

  31. DelM

    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.

  32. Chika

    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

  33. Mage Silver badge

    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.

  34. oldcodger

    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


    1. Matt Bradley
      Thumb Up


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

      1. jake Silver badge

        Wonderful? ... More like plagerism ...

        Try a cross between Arlo Guthrie & sra ...

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

        1. jake Silver badge

          Plagiarism ...

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

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

  35. oldcodger

    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!

    1. Fred Bauer

      Brings back memories

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

  36. Anonymous Coward
    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.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Wise words as always, Tom

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

      How will we mark Palmer's passing?

  37. Chris Gray 1

    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!

  38. Wayland Sothcott 1

    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.

  39. Stinky

    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.

  40. RW

    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.

  41. deadmonkey


    "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.

    1. Admiral Grace Hopper
      Thumb Up


      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.

    2. Anonymous Coward


      "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.

      1. c 1


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

        1. Anonymous Coward


          "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.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      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) :)

  42. Munchausen's proxy

    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.

  43. John Gamble

    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.

  44. Anonymous Coward


    "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.

  45. Richard Porter
    Thumb Up


    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!

  46. Anonymous Coward

    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.

  47. vincent himpe


    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.

  48. Stephen Channell
    Thumb Up

    Oracle RAC

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

  49. BagOfSpanners

    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.

  50. The other JJ
    Thumb Up

    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.

    RIP Ken

  51. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    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).

  52. Anonymous Coward

    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.

  53. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    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.

  54. Grant Alexander

    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.

  55. Chris Mellor 1

    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,


  56. Steve X

    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...

  57. jake Silver badge

    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.

  58. SisterClamp

    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.

  59. dreamingspire

    RIP Ken

    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)...

  60. Dodgy Pilot
    Thumb Up

    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.

  61. Philip Lewis
    Thumb Up


    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

  62. Herby

    First pdp had how many bits?

    If one looks up the history of DEC and even further looks at the pdp-1, they might find that it has 18 bits. Yes, there were DEC machines that were 12 bits (pdp-5, pdp-8, pdp-12), but the first one had 18 bits. Some of the DEC machines that had 18 bits were pdp-7, pdp-9, and pdp-15 (there may have been more).

    Of course, one can also look to non-S/360 machines of IBM -- 36 bit 709/7094, and of course the IBM 1130 - 16 bits.

    Real people used IBM's "personal computer" of the 60's: The IBM 1620. A marvelous computer to learn on.

    1. dreamingspire
      Thumb Up

      The IBM 1620..

      ...was the first computer that I used, too. Magic.

  63. Sir Lancelot

    Looking back...

    Talking as an ex-DECcie: thanks for allowing me to take part in that terrific adventure called "Digital". Looking back I can honestly say those were the best professional years of my life. I never found that original Digital spirit in any of the other companies I worked for. Too bad it did not last: I jumped ship just before the Texas cowboys took over but the downturn was already started by then ( what is mister Palmer doing these days?).

    Thanks again, Ken.

  64. Simon Millard

    Tape Towers

    Anyone remember upgrading MicroVax's with a tower of TK50 tapes?

  65. This post has been deleted by its author

  66. Andus McCoatover

    Isn't every computer a | D | I | G | I | T | A | L | computer?

    Had that as a car-sticker once. (OK, some were analogue, but maybe the programs are archived on Philips Casette tape somewhere...)

    Fond memories. PDP11/05? Loading boot with the switches so often, I reckon I could've done it in about a minute or so, no handbook required.

    Then, watch that paper tape just WHIZZ!!!

    Yowser! Took a computer-literate new G/F of mine, used to Cobal, punched cards and IBM to the 'control centre' one night.


    No mention of using an LSI-11 to play "Zork" from a mag-tape cartridge? At least, it gave time to think...

  67. wimbledonpaul

    RIP Ken...

    I was lucky enough to work for DEC in Harefield house back in '93 for 3 years, the culture was great, the Alpha was just coming along and there was a buzz..

    Fond memories of a time gone by.. Although I feel the need to point out that VMS/Alpha is not dead yet.. for instance, the Deutsche Borse (German stock exchange) system runs on a cluster of 14 VMS Alpha nodes.. of course it will eventually end up on linux on x86 hardware..

  68. Richard Porter

    Re. PDP14

    My memories are returning. It was EDT and Runoff on the Vax. Later I worked on Sun workstations when I used vi and nroff.

  69. Storage Guy

    Was it Videotext?

    Seem to recall being able to bring up all kinds of documentation, manuals, policies - docs of any kind really across DECs internal network. Much like we use the web today.

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