Archive for the ‘DEC’ Category

Bob Metcalfe added today to his many accomplishments the leading of 1100 people in the singing of “Happy Birthday Venture Capital.” What a way to open the VC65 event, a joint venture of Xconomy, the NVCA, and the MIT Museum. Metcalfe argued that reports of the death of innovation have been greatly exaggerated (I’m paraphrasing) and he cited two important developments in January in support of this thesis:  1. President Obama devoted ten minutes of his State of the Union address to “encouraging American innovation.”  2. Bob Metcalfe became Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas in Austin.

Sixty-five years ago, General George Doriot founded (with Ralph Flanders and Karl Compton) American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC), the first publicly owned venture capital firm. ARDC is credited with the first major venture capital success story when its 1957 investment of $70,000 in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) would be valued at over $355 million after the company’s initial public offering in 1968 (representing a return of over 500 times on its investment and an annualized rate of return of 101%).

Metcalfe published earlier this week an expanded version of his short talk today in which he outlined what he calls the “Doriot Ecology (Ecosystem).” Participants in this innovation model are research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners, and early adopters.

The addition of research professors and graduating students to what we usually consider as the key players in the venture capital industry or ecosystem is important in the specific case of “technological, entrepreneurial innovation at scale,” the type of innovation that is of interest to Metcalfe the venture capitalist (and now, the research professor).

Metcalfe: “America has perhaps 100 good research universities, and it is my hypothesis that they are where President Obama should be directing all the research dollars our nation can afford. Do I propose this because research universities are well managed? No. But keeping universities competing with one another for research dollars is the best remedy for that. The real reason for doing our nation’s research at research universities is that they graduate students, who are the best vehicles for carrying new knowledge out into world markets where it can do some good.”

Sixty-six years ago, a similar advice to a sitting President was advanced, probably for the first time, by Vannevar Bush, in his “Science, the Endless Frontier.” Bush wrote that basic research was “the pacemaker of technological progress” and that “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.” He recommended the creation of what would eventually become in 1950 the National Science Foundation (NSF).

So I think that a more apt label to the ecosystem Metcalfe described, an ecosystem generating new knowledge and new ways of using it, would be the “Bush Ecology,” with government funding supporting research universities.

Interestingly, the next speaker at the VC65 event described what I think should indeed be called the “Doriot Ecology,” a different model in which private funding, from venture capitalists, supports basic research, research professors, and their graduating students.

The speaker was Henry McCance, Chairman Emeritus of Greylock Partners. He is the co-founder of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which has provided $13 million to 18 different institutions with the goal of ending Alzheimer’s by 2020. McCance applied the best practices he learned in the venture capital industry – proactively identify visionaries, help build successful management teams, establish the culture, dare to be great – to medical research and recommended applying this model to other social issues. He calls it “venture research.”

Research universities and research professors are no doubt important in solving big problems. The traditional way of funding them has been the Bush model with the federal government providing support and encouragement. But as McCance noted in his talk, grant-making has become risk-averse. The new, risk-taking, “dare to be great” model that McCance described is what should be called the Doriot model.

By Gil Press

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Kenneth Harry Olsen was the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).  He was born on February 20, 1926 and he died on February 06, 2011.  One former employee of DEC wrote: “It is with great regret that I inform you that our beloved CEO Ken Olsen passed away, yesterday in Indiana, with his immediate family all around him. Ken had been in ill health for the last few months and was in Hospice care. Sad time for their family now, but Ken and Aulikki had a wonderful life. It’s sad to know that they both have now passed.”

Ken Olsen is sitting at the head of the table of DEC’s early board of directors

Ken Olsen was born in Bridgeport, CT.  After enlisting in the Navy during World War II, he attended MIT for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. While at MIT, he worked on a team that developed air defense technology and core memory, the precursor to today’s RAM. He married Aulikki Valve in Finland on December 12, 1950.

In 1957, he co-founded DEC with MIT colleague, Harlan Anderson in a refurbished mill in Maynard just outside of Boston.  After going to the Small Business Association for a loan, they approached American Research and Development Corporation, an early venture capital firm, which had been founded by Georges Doriot.  In exchange for 70% equity, they got the funding they needed to start DEC.

Digital Equipment Corporation was a leading vendor of computer systems, software and peripherals  from the 1960s to the 1990s. DEC’s PDP and VAX products were arguably the most popular minicomputers for the scientific and engineering communities during the 1970s and 1980s.

A press release from Gordon College, where Ken Olsen served as a long-time trustee, included this quote from Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, in a letter to Gordon College:

“An inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur, Ken Olsen is one of the true pioneers of the computing industry. He was also a major influence in my life and his influence is still important at Microsoft through all the engineers who trained at Digital and have come here to make great software products.”

In 1986 Fortune Magazine named him the “most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.” He was also inducted into multiple halls of fame including the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (1990) and the Computer History Museum (1996). He served on the boards of several prestigious organizations including the Computer Science and Engineering Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; and as a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1993.

NOTE:  The authors of this blog were very involved with the autobiography of DEC’s “missing”  co-founder Harlan Anderson.   We’d love to read your comments about Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation.

Here are the links to some of the obituaries for Ken Olsen:

Boston Globe: “Computer Pioneer Ken Olsen Dies
New York Times: “Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC Into a Power, Dies at 84
Boston Herald: “Digital co-founder Ken Olsen dies at 84
Computerworld Blog: “DEC co-founder, Ken Olsen dies at 84
Mass High Tech News Blog: “Remembering Ken Olsen and some thin ice
TechCrunch: “What Ken Olsen Meant to Me
Xconomy San Francisco Blog Post by Gordon Bell: “Remembering Ken Olsen (1926-2011): A Sense of Pride and a Sense of Humor
Innovation Economy: “DEC co-founder Ken Olsen: Obituaries, reminiscences, and video

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The New York Times reported yesterday (Dec. 7th) that there was a reunion last month of colleagues who pioneered the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They met over two days at the William Gates Computer Center on the Stanford campus.

According to the article’s author, John Markoff, there were other pioneering labs at Stanford, but the A.I. lab received less recognition than its peers:

“One laboratory, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center, became known for the mouse; a second, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, developed the Alto, the first modern personal computer. But the third, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or SAIL, run by the computer scientist John McCarthy, gained less recognition.”

SAIL was begun by Dr. John McCarthy (who coined the term “artificial intelligence”) in 1963. Les Earnest was its deputy director. During that time, McCarthy’s initial proposal, to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, envisioned that building a thinking machine would take about a decade. In 1966, the laboratory took up residence in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains behind Stanford in an unfinished corporate research facility that had been intended for a telecommunications firm.

Markoff continues, “SAIL researchers embarked on an extraordinarily rich set of technical and scientific challenges that are still on the frontiers of computer science, including machine vision and robotic manipulation, as well as language and navigation.”

This group of alumni distinguished themselves in other innovative and distinctive ways – with artificial intelligence at the heart of their experimentation. As Markoff notes, “… Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec  went on to pioneer speech recognition and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Alan Kay brought his Dynabook portable computer concept first to Xerox PARC and later to Apple. Larry Tesler  developed the philosophy of simplicity in computer interfaces that would come to define the look and functioning of the screens of modern Apple computers — what is called the graphical user interface, or G.U.I.”

John Chowning, a musicologist, referred to SAIL as a ‘Socratean abode.’ He was invited to use the mainframe computer at the laboratory late at night when the demand was light, and his group went on to pioneer FM synthesis, a technique for creating sounds that transforms the quality, or timbre, of a simple waveform into a more complex sound. (The technique was discovered by Dr. Chowning at Stanford in 1973 and later licensed to Yamaha.)”

As has been noted previously in “High Tech History,” Spacewar was, in essence the first video game which was programmed with a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-1 computer. At Stanford, Joel Pitts, a protege of SAIL’s Don Knuth (who wrote definitive texts on computer programming),  “… took a version of the Spacewar computer game and turned it into the first coin-operated video game — which was installed in the university’s student coffee house — months before Nolan Bushnell did the same with Atari.”

In 1980, the lab merged with Stanford’s computer science department, reopened in 2004, and is now enjoying something of a rebirth. Markoff concludes,

“The reunion also gave a hint of what is to come. During an afternoon symposium at the reunion, several of the current SAIL researchers showed a startling video called “Chaos” taken from the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter project. An exercise in machine learning, the video shows a model helicopter making a remarkable series of maneuvers that would not be possible by a human pilot. The demonstration is particular striking because the pilot system first learned from a human pilot and then was able to extend those skills.

But an artificial intelligence? It is still an open question. In 1978, Dr. McCarthy wrote, “human-level A.I. might require 1.7 Einsteins, 2 Maxwells, 5 Faradays and .3 Manhattan Projects.”

Reunion of the S.A.I.L. Laboratory at Stanford University last month

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In 1977, Ken Olsen, co-founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home” at a convention for the World Future Society that was held in Boston.   Olsen later claimed that this quote was taken out of context.  Regardless, five years later, DEC produced this promotional video for their entrance into the personal computer market.  DEC entered the PC market against new competition like Apple and Compaq, who bought DEC in 1998.  If you’ve got the time to watch this video, you’ll get a fascinating glimpse into the “Not Invented Here” DEC culture and DEC’s decline.


Special thanks to Michael Pinto for posting this video on Fanboy with his great insights and images on how DEC failed to enter the PC market.

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Halloween has us here at High Tech History reviewing a seasonal offering, if not a treat,  from Network World: the IT Industry Graveyard slideshow.

Geeks can indulge in ghoulish fascination over the demise of industry tradeshows, rebranding of HP’s IT services, Palm OS products, and the IBM – Sun buyout that didn’t happen.  Remember that?

We did read with interest, but a little sadness, about the demise of SiCortex, a supercomputer company based in Maynard, Mass. that was enjoying success and profitability of 100% in Q1 2009 until its venture capital was yanked.

Based in Clock Tower Place, the same building where Digital Equipment Corporation was established, it’s heartening to know the high-tech industry endures in the very place that it was established.  But the VC expectations are totally different.

But the winds won’t be howling through the abandoned offices in those brick buildings for too long.


Another Maynard-based computer company passed into history

— Leigh Montgomery

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learn, earn & return cover

Digital Equipment Corporation co-founder, Harlan E. Anderson, has written his autobiography which will be released in November, 2009.  The title is “Learn, Earn, and Return:  My Life as a Computer Pioneer. ”  The hardcover book is about 300 pages with approximately 100 photos. 

In the book, he writes about learning about computers and writing programs at the University of Illinois in the late 1940’s when the first stored program computes were still under construction.  Anderson shares his experience of meeting Ken Olsen at MIT’s Lincoln Lab where they built the Whirlwind computer’s core memory.  And, he writes about co-founding Digital Equipment Corporation.

Anderson’s earning days were strongly related to his being the co-founder, vice president, and board director of Digital from 1957 to 1966.  In this book, he tells of his close relationship with co-founder Ken Olsen for over 13 years and how it came apart during this period.  The book also includes an appendix “The Rise and Fall of a Computer Empire” that chronicles Digital’s amazing growth and decline during the period after he resigned.

He also writes about his returning days which are still going on through his contributions to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and many other organizations.

Learn, Earn & Return” can be pre-ordered now through Locust Press for delivery in November, 2009.  Pre-publication orders will receive a personalized bookplate signed by Anderson.

— Carole Gunst

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declogo_largeEeva-Liisa Aulikki Olsen, 84, died March 2, 2009. She and her husband, Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder Kenneth Olsen together with Harlan and Lois Anderson, were the entrepreneurs who put together what was, until the rise of the personal computer in  the mid-1980s, the second most successful computer firm in the world. From all accounts, there is no question the support she gave her husband Ken was instrumental in the great success DEC experienced for over thirty years.

According to Edward Baer Roberts, in his book Entrepreneurs in High Technology, “Incorporating DEC on August 28, 1957, were two young married couples, Kenneth and Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Olsen and Harlan and Lois Jean Anderson, somewhat prototypical of American entrepreneurial  beginnings; but certainly not typical in the outcomes they achieved over the next three decades.”

And in a March 5, 2009  remembrance by Alan Earls in Mass High Tech (www.masshightech.com):

Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Olsen, 84, the wife of Digital Equipment Corp. co-founder and long-time president Kenneth Olsen, died earlier this week, according to published reports.

“Most of the time, Aulikki kept her distance from the business. But that doesn’t mean her behind-the-scenes role was unimportant. For instance, when Olsen sought startup funding from American Research & Development, the nation’s pioneer venture fund, General (Georges) Doriot, its president, insisted on meeting Olsen’s wife — to take the measure of the couple and ascertain whether she would support an entrepreneur bent on challenging the computer industry.

“Aulikki reportedly charmed the general and his key associate, Dorothy Rowe, helping to cement a cordial friendship that lasted another 30 years. And, according to the authors of The Ultimate Entrepreneur, a book which profiled Olsen and Digital at their peak, in the late 1980s, Olsen pursued his future wife, Eeva-Lissa Aulikki Valve, a Finnish exchange student he had first met through a mutual friend, with the same determination he later brought to building the second largest computer company in the world. Despite the brevity of their acquaintance while Aulikki was in the U.S., Olsen put his graduate school work on MIT’s Whirlwind computer aside long enough to fly to Europe and track down and court Aulikki. Olsen had to support himself by working in a Swedish ball bearing factory and then, when the two decided to marry, he had to get special permission from the State Department because of Finland’s ambiguous position in the cosmology of the cold war. They were married on Dec. 12, 1950, with Aulikki’s father, a Lutheran minister, officiating.

“The two were married for 59 years had three sons, one of whom predeceased her. According to the obituary In the Indianapolis Star, she was born on Sept. 1, 1924, in Lahti, Finland, the daughter of Juho and Hilja Valve. She was a member of the Lotta Svaard, the women’s auxiliary of the Finnish Army in the 1939 Winter War with the Soviet Union. She later attended Valparaiso University.”

— Christopher Hartman

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As it turns out, Digital Equipment Corporations’s “Space War”, which I’ve previously discussed, was not the only technologically ground-breaking game made interactive on DEC’s PDP-1 computer. Fifty years ago this year, an ancient Near-Eastern game, “Kalah,” was also programmed by MIT students for this computer. In its traditional form, it required the movement of stones from one’s “pits” as illustrated above.

During the course of the game, “stones” are removed from each player’s pits, and are cast into the Kalahs (or goals), but are never removed from them. The game ends when one player’s pits are entirely empty. The other player then casts the stones remaining in his pits into his kalah. At this point, the player with more stones in his Kalah would win. The way the MIT students designed it was very much like computer chess: you would play against the computer itself.

Not long after the game was developed in 1959, it was played remotely on DEC’s PDP system, where one party, on a computer terminal in California, was able to play the game with another sitting at a similar terminal at DEC’s headquarters in Maynard. This was the first time such an interactive computer game had been played remotely. This proved a very popular game for many years following. Copies of Digital’s original notes on the game are included in the archive of the Computer History Museum.

Illustration credit: The Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California.

— Christopher Hartman

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droidmakercover1Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, a history of Lucasfilm’s Computer Group – more popularly known as the “Droid Works” – is a painstakingly researched chronicle of how George Lucas and his motion-picture production company, Lucasfilm, became pioneers in computer graphics. Along the way, one is introduced to several of these brilliant, often eccentric, and uniformly driven computer scientists. These men and women (virtually all were men) applied their talents to push the limitations of late 1970s and early 1980s computer technology to new heights.

In the early chapters, Rubin focuses on Lucas’ collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios in the late 1960s – the goal being an experimental approach that would apply new technologies to traditional filmmaking. Coppola, who personally was highly technologically savvy, appears frequently throughout this book – particularly when cross-pollination between Lucas’ and Coppola’s employees is discussed.

Rubin, a neuroscientist and Brown University graduate, got his own start with Droid Works, and so it seems logical that many of the considerable number of people he interviewed for this book were also alumni. In this sense, Rubin’s access serves to credibly peel back the secretive veneer of the company — which originally consisted of a number of non-descript warehouses in San Rafael, California. Employees were sworn to secrecy about Lucasfilm’s location – a task which was enjoyed bythose on the inside, but which became increasingly difficult with every successive “Star Wars” hit.

Along the way, Lucasfilm becomes involved in the development of digital editing, video games, computer-animated films, high-definition television, THX sound, and other important high-tech innovations. It was out of this quest for innovations that Pixar Studios came about (started by Alvy Ray Smith, David Lasseter and Ed Catmull) – which now produces the world’s most successful animated films.

Digital Equipment Corporation (D.E.C.), Sun Microsystems, and other notable hardware and software pioneers played important roles in the metamorphosis of the Computer Graphics Division – with Digital’s VAX computer being the original means of “rendering”: the process of generating an image from a model by means of computer programs. As computer software capabilities approached the creative pace of Lucasfilm’s engineers, the means of improving and accelerating the division’s output was also realized.

Along the way, one sees Lucasfilm evolving from a smaller, more informal and collegial environment, to a more corporate one. As George Lucas’ personal and professional interests became more diversified, he relied increasingly on MBA-degreed managers who had little or no experience in high-tech. This served to create tensions between them and the long-time staff, who often felt their efforts were being thwarted – whether for cost or other inconceivable reasons.

Rubin’s accomplishments here are several: you get to know the principal players very well; there are insets throughout that detail concepts the lay-reader might not be familiar with, and his prose is highly readable and engrossing. For a computer history, that’s no mean feat. And when considering such a wide variety of people, companies and institutions such as Walt Disney, The Grateful Dead, Akira Kurosawa, Ross Perot, Steve Jobs, The Doors, Steven Soderbergh, U.S.C., M.I.T., Atari, Pixar, Jurassic Park, etc., etc., putting a coherent story together might appear daunting. But Rubin succeeds with an aplomb that confirms the passion he holds for the subject.

One of the early principals in Lucasfilm confessed to me that Droidmaker was “another good (accurate) book” of Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics group and its outgrowth, Pixar Studios – another being David Price’s Pixar Touch, which I will also discuss in a future entry.

— Christopher Hartman

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A recollection of Harlan Anderson, one of the founders of Digital Equipment Corporation, who I recently interviewed:

“With the possible exception of science fiction writers, no one really had a clear idea of exactly where this new computer technology was going to lead. One interesting direction it took after I had left Lincoln Lab was in the development of computer games. During 1961, after I had been at DEC for four years, we gave a computer to MIT’s electrical engineering department for the students’ use. With it, they developed what was really the very first computer game. It was called “Space Wars,” and it involved shooting down rocket ships in a programmed constellation of stars and planets. Students could control the speed and direction of a space craft on the screen, and shoot at targets. The game wasn’t easy to play by a long shot; players had to control and fire their space ship with a series of toggle switches which could be cumbersome compared with the joysticks and other hand-held devices of later video games.”

— Christopher Hartman

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