The Ongoing Story of the Route 128 Minicomputer Industry

7/24/08

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were also much more geared to real-time processing and direct user-interaction. Ideally, as a researcher or engineer you could have your own minicomputer instead of relying on a centralized computer department. In a way, minis were forerunners to the personal computers that would eventually supersede them. The machines even looked trendy, with colorful front panels giving a hint that of their personal nature and that it could even be fun to use them. Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, writes about his memories of the mini-computer era on PDP Planet, a website featuring his big collection of DEC hardware: “I certainly had a ball using them in their heyday—from the late 1960s to the early 1980s! During that period almost all Microsoft development was done on these platforms.”

Much has been written about why DEC ultimately failed, especially in light of its so very successful early history. Explanations vary from Olsen’s shortcomings, particularly his inability to adjust to the new era of personal computing, the company’s engineering culture that has been said to disregard the business side, and so on.

Long before the demise, Gordon Bell, for many years DEC’s chief architect and later employed by Microsoft Research, identified the pressures the company would encounter from the new microprocessor technology, saying that “Technology advances in semiconductors, storage, interfaces and networks enable a new computer class (platform) to form about every decade to serve a new need.”

And when AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at U.C. Berkeley, compared Route 128 and Silicon Valley in her 1994 book Regional Advantage, she found that “Silicon Valley developed a decentralized but cooperative industrial system while Route 128 came to be dominated by independent, self-sufficient corporations.” In other word, the Massachusetts mini-computer industry was vertically integrated, with companies manufacturing a large part of their components and peripherals themselves instead of using a fully developed network of independent suppliers. That made it less able to adapt to changes than its counterparts in California, which could utilize the advances made by others, instead of developing everything on their own, according to Saxenian.

Not only DEC would disappear, by the 1990s so would most of the rest of the Route 128 minicomputer companies. Even The Computer Museum in Boston, which was founded with donations from DEC, has disappeared—moving its collections from the minicomputer era to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the minicomputer cluster’s impact on the economy just went up in smoke. A recent report on the manufacturing industry in Massachusetts points out that the rapid expansion of the minicomputer industry was critical to the region reinventing itself as a high-tech manufacturer at the very time such low-tech sectors as textiles declined.

That high-tech manufacturing base, in its turn, has given the region some long-term economic advantages that continue to this day. “In terms of the gains in the 1980s, Massachusetts had a run up in its per capita income compared to other parts of the country,” says Lynn Browne, executive vice president and economic advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “That has not fallen back; in terms of capita income, those gains have stayed.”

For one thing, says Browne, “The people in the industry did stay and they showed up in other places even if for a while it was hard to see them, because there aren’t many large-scale employers in the region, with the exception of EMC. In the late ’90s Massachusetts was very active in the telecommunications sector, so my suspicion is that a large number of these persons went into telecomm,” says Browne.

What’s more, it appears that many Route 128 minicomputer companies didn’t disappear by simply going out of business—most were bought by other firms. In some cases their product lines continued to exist for a long time—it wasn’t until last year that Hewlett-Packard, which had acquired Compaq, stopped taking orders for new AlphaServer machines, a line originally launched by DEC in 1992 that had roots in the VAX architecture originally developed by Gordon Bell in the 1970s.

Another example is EMC, today one of the region’s largest companies. It started in 1979 as a supplier of … 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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