The Fruits of Civilization (10-0-1) Digital Equipment Corporation

 Digital Equipment Corporation

In the mid-1950s, 2 MIT computer engineers – Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson – noticed that students preferred a stripped-down computer at an MIT lab to a much faster IBM machine there. The difference was interactivity. The IBM machine required punching cards and waiting for a printout.

In 1957, Olsen and Anderson managed to secure enough funding to sell computer boards suitable for laboratory work. From that humble beginning, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) grew to be the 2nd-largest computer corporation in the world, behind IBM. DEC did so by focusing on relatively inexpensive, interactive minicomputers, which, later on, could rather readily be networked together.

The line of computers that earned DEC’s keep was the PDP, an acronym for Programmed Data Processor. New PDP models sprang up as hardware capabilities progressed.

DEC’s primary customer base comprised the scientific and engineering communities. Only from the mid-1970s did the company begin to attract corporate computing customers.

A DEC research group produced a prototype microcomputer in 1974, before the debut of the MITS Altair, which became the 1st successful hobbyist computer. Olson, the head of DEC, was unimpressed.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. ~ Ken Olson in 1977

Only after IBM had successfully launched its PC did DEC take an interest in personal computers. Even then, its efforts were half-hearted and even insensible. DEC’s disk drives were incompatible with other computers, and its proprietary media too expensive.

The personal computer will fall flat on its face in business. ~ Ken Olson in 1985

But it was DEC that was falling flat on its face. The company went defunct in 1998. DEC failed to adjust to the era of personal computers.

Olson’s observational power and keen ambition in youth succumbed to the smug arrogance of an aging corporate titan. The irony was that Olson failed to recognize in PCs the same market opportunity for lower-cost computing that was the raison d’être of DEC’s origination.