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DEC PDP-1 Computer – 1959 AD

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Ben Gurley (1926–1963)

In 1957, Digital Equipment Corporation was founded. The idea was to sell ready-to-use electronic logic “modules” that would make it easy for other labs to experiment with the new technology. The company made a profit in its first year and hired Ben Gurley, a brilliant designer from MIT, to create Digital’s first computer.

Except that it couldn’t be called a computer. After all, computers were big and expensive, and Digital’s financial backers didn’t want to compete with IBM. Besides, Digital had a vision for something different: an interactive computer that was small, affordable, exciting, and fun. So instead, the machine was called a Programmed Data Processor. Using Digital’s electronics modules as building blocks, Gurley and his small team designed and built the machine in three and a half months, with the first customer shipment in December 1959.

The PDP-1 was a completely different machine from the batch-oriented systems sold by IBM and Sperry Rand. Those machines cost $10,000 a month to rent; the PDP-1 cost between $85,000 and $120,000 to purchase. And the PDP-1 was interactive, with options including a large graphics display, a small high-resolution display, a light pen, a real-time clock, a multiplexed analog-to-digital converter (for interfacing with laboratory equipment), and audio output. It was slower and smaller than the computers of the day, but it was very usable, even friendly. People called it a minicomputer.

Digital gave one of its first PDP-1s to MIT, specifically for use by students. “They learned more about the computer and how to do things with it than probably anybody had before that, because you had dozens of bright people spending all hours of the day studying this,” Ken Olsen (1926–2011), Digital’s cofounder, said in his 1988 oral history interview with the Smithsonian Institution.

On the strength of the PDP-1 and the computers that followed, Digital became the second-largest computer company in the world, and the largest private employer in Massachusetts. Sadly, Gurley never saw any of it: he was murdered by a disgruntled former employee, shot by rifle as he had dinner with his wife and five children in 1963.

SEE ALSO Core Memory (1951), Spacewar! (1962), AltaVista Web Search Engine (1995)

A photo of the PDP-1 computer, a class of machine that would eventually be referred to as a “minicomputer.”

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