Electronic Design
Gordon Bell: From Minicomputers To The Internet And Beyond

Gordon Bell: From Minicomputers To The Internet And Beyond

Bell (2010)

At age 76, Gordon Bell is planning for the future. He’s interested in cloud computing and, as someone who sat on the National Science Foundation (NSF) committee that proposed the Internet, he’s now looking toward universal fiber service and “what that implies.” It’s not surprising that Bell is still looking ahead. After all, it’s something he’s done just about all of his life.

As one of the first employees of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), as a government policy advisor, as an entrepreneur, and as the founder of Microsoft Research, Bell has been a computer industry pioneer longer than just about anyone else. Along the way, he has left a trail of achievements in areas ranging from minicomputers to the Internet.

The Early Years
The man who has been described as the “Frank Lloyd Wright of Computers” was born in the sleepy farming community of Kirksville, Mo., on August 19, 1934. But Bell wasn’t interested in growing crops or milking cows. “I grew up as an electrician,” Bell says. His father, Chester, owned an appliance store, Bell Electric.

An early exposure to gadgets, instruction manuals, and electrical trade publications helped set the young Bell on a path that would lead him to a career in electrical engineering and computers. “I wanted to be an engineer probably before I even knew what an engineer was,” Bell says.

In 1952, Bell applied to and was accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), becoming the first person from Kirksville to attend the school. Bell thrived at MIT, both academically and socially. Perhaps most importantly, he grew to know Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, two men who would eventually decide to start their own computer company and set Bell on his historic career path.

After receiving BS and MS electrical engineering degrees from MIT, Bell decided in 1957 that he didn’t want to immediately seek a PhD. Instead, he followed the advice of his department head, who knew a founder of the University of New South Wales in Australia, and headed Down Under to teach on a Fulbright scholarship. At the university, Bell met another Fulbright scholar, Gwen Druyor, whom he married when they both returned to the U.S.

Back in America, Bell returned to MIT to pursue his doctorate. But he never got it. Instead, in 1960, he accepted an offer from DEC, the company founded by Olsen and Anderson, to become one of the company’s first employees. Visiting DEC to buy logic projects for a project he was working on, Bell found himself recruited for a job.

“They said, ‘Gee, why don’t you come to work here?” Bell recalls. “I became the company’s second engineer.”

Bell saw great potential in DEC, as well as an environment in which he could thrive. “I just liked the size of DEC,” he says. “The fact that here there’s only 80 people and they’re going to build a computer.”

The DEC Years
As DEC’s vice president of research and development from 1960 to 1983, Bell spearheaded the company’s mission of bringing computer systems to small and mid-sized businesses. He designed the I/O subsystem of the PDP-1—the first computer to host a game and play music.

Bell’s signal contribution to the PDP-1 was the first universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter (UART), providing the first computer interface to connected serial devices. “I fell in love with communication at that time, because it was a sort of really quite clean way to design stuff,” he says.

Bell was also the chief architect of the PDP-4 and PDP-6—the first timesharing computer. Later on, he headed DEC’s efforts to develop the PDP-8, the world’s first minicomputer. “The PDP-6 and PDP-8 were the mainstreams of DEC for quite a number of years,” Bell recalls.

In 1966, Bell left DEC to teach computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University. He describes this experience as his “sabbatical.” Bell returned to DEC in 1972 to head up production of the company’s next-generation VAX series as well as to lead the company toward chip-based computing technology.

Near the end of his DEC career, with the company facing increasing competition from the surging microcomputer industry, Bell launched a group to focus on large-scale integration (LSI) technology. After Bell’s departure, this group developed the powerful and flexible DEC Alpha. Offering the fastest CPU of its time, the 64-bit RISC-based Alpha could also be scaled down to provide high-performance workstations.

After DEC
Bell left DEC in 1983 after suffering a heart attack, but soon showed the world that he wasn’t ready to retire. His next move in July 1983 was to cofound Encore Computer Corp., a company created to build a new generation of small computers and help new startup companies.

In 1986, Bell joined the National Science Foundation (NSF). As the first assistant director for computing there, he directed funding for U.S. computer science efforts. He also led the National Research Network panel that became the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and the Global Information Infrastructure (GII), and he helped write the High-Performance Computer and Communications Initiative. During this period, Bell also co-wrote a book on venture capital called High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success.

By the early 1990s, with the technology industry soaring to new heights, Bell became involved with a number of tech startups. He was chief scientist at Stardent Computer in 1990 and vice president of research and development at Ardent Corp. the following year. He was also a director of the Bell-Mason Group, which programmed computers to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of new businesses.

During this period, Bell began advising Microsoft on various technology issues and helped create the company’s first research laboratory. In August 1995, Bell became a Microsoft principal researcher, a position he holds to this day.

While Bell was helping to create the modern computer industry, he also took time to honor its roots by establishing, with his wife, the Computer Museum in Boston. He is also a founding board member of the Computer Museum’s successor, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Bell views this work as his greatest lasting contribution to the technology industry.

“In terms of lasting stuff, it’s probably that,” he says.

Over the years Bell has received many awards for his contributions to the computer industry, including the National Medal of Technology in 1991 and the Eckert-Mauchly award in 1982, named after the ENIAC and UNIVAC developers. Earlier this year, Bell received an honorary doctorate of science and technology degree from Carnegie-Mellon.

Today and Tomorrow
Bell is unique among active technology visionaries in that he is virtually the only one to have also been a leader in the 1960s minicomputer era as well as the 1970s/80s microcomputer movement. In fact, he was already an influential figure when most people referred to computers as “electronic brains,” teletypewriters were the most common “data processing” output device, and phone calls were placed by spinning a dial.

As a futurist, Bell remains an optimist. “The future to me, technologically, looks as bright as ever,” he says. “Another two or three turns of Moore’s law and... it’s fantastic.”

In his role as a Microsoft principal researcher, Bell continues to probe technology’s sharpest and most interesting edges. He has spent the past several years leveraging advances in processing, storage, display, mobility, and networking technologies to create MyLifeBits—a lifetime store of everything of nearly everything he’s ever done or experienced in the form of tens of thousands of media snippets, including photos, phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages.

Bell views the project as the fulfillment of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 Memex vision—a life super-index that includes full-text searching, text/audio annotations, and hyperlinks. Given his track record, he is probably on to something the rest of us won’t be able to appreciate for at least several more years.

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