The Ongoing Story of the Route 128 Minicomputer Industry

7/24/08

When we are riding a bus along Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, a man strikes up a conversation with my wife and me. “You know, I’m a ‘DEC:ie,’ that’s what we used to be called when I worked for DEC, Digital Equipment,” he tells us.

It’s been 10 years since the company ceased to exist, after being bought by PC manufacturer Compaq in 1998. When people still, a decade later, regard themselves as “DEC:ies,” it says something about the impact DEC once had, as the first, largest, and most successful firm in the once flourishing Massachusetts minicomputer industry.

When the cluster was at its heyday during the 1970s and 1980s, it was home not only to DEC but to a number of other minicomputer manufacturers, including Wang, Prime, Data General, and Apollo, as well as suppliers of everything from motherboards to software. Today, it may hard to believe that only 20 years ago Route 128, the beltway around Boston, rivaled Silicon Valley as a symbol of innovation and cutting-edge computing technology. Nobody talks about minicomputers any more, the firms have virtually all disappeared, either by being bought up or by going out of business. But the legacy of the minicomputer cluster is still important to the economy in several ways; in fact, some of the product lines that originated from it way back when continue to generate billions of dollars in revenues.

I have my own memories of Digital Equipment. In 1988, I interviewed the company’s founder and CEO Ken Olsen for the Swedish magazine Ny Teknik, where I will return to work after finishing my fellowship at Xconomy in a few days.

The company’s headquarters was in an old textile plant called The Mill—a huge maze of dark red brick buildings in Maynard, MA. The place had a certain austerity to it, with Ethernet cables running on naked metal cable troughs through corridors and offices, and a reception lobby furnished with rustic shaker chairs.

Olsen and Harlan Anderson, his coworker from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, had founded DEC in 1957 with $70,000 in seed money from venture capital pioneer general Georges Doriot. They put out their first minicomputer, the PDP-1, two years later. It was followed by an enormous range of other products, not only computers like the PDP-8, PDP-11, and the famous VAX models, but also terminals, printers, communication units, and software.

Ken Olsen was an impressive, tall man who downplayed his own importance during the interview, talking about helping other people grow and delegating responsibilities. But at the same time, he was known to be strong-willed and emotional.

I got a small taste of his well-known hot temper when I asked why DEC was so ambivalent in its support for the Unix operating system—a common complaint among users of the company’s machines. “Nobody supports Unix more than we do, it’s running on more of our machine’s than on any one else’s,” he told me. After the outburst, I decided not to confront him with his notorious characterization of Unix vendors as “snakeoil salesmen.”

When we met, DEC had grown to be the second-largest company in the computer industry. Olsen was generally regarded as one of the USA’s most successful managers, and many expected DEC to surpass number one IBM in sales within a few years. But in reality, the company had already reached it peak. The staff had expanded rapidly, but sales were stalling and profits had begun to erode. Ken Olsen abruptly left the firm in 1992, six years before Compaq bought the troubled company. DEC’s sale also heralded the end of the Massachusetts minicomputer era.

It is hard to define a minicomputer in specific technical terms. Firms like Apollo, Prime, and Data General each had different approaches, and it might be easier to regard “mini” as more of a cultural identity. The term set the industry apart from the traditional mainframe builders of that time such as IBM or Univac. A fascinating account of the inner culture of a minicomputer company is Tracy Kidder’s 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine, in which the author closely follows a development project at DEC spin-off Data General, a company that had been founded by PDP-8 chief designer Ed DeCastro.

Minicomputers were of course smaller and less expensive than mainframe machines, but they … Next Page »

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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