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C. Gordon Bell, creator of personal computer prototype, dies at 89| GuyWhoKnowsThings


C. Gordon Bell, a technology visionary whose computer designs for Digital Equipment Corporation fueled the rise of the minicomputer industry in the 1960s, died Friday in Coronado, California. He was 89 years old.

The cause was pneumonia, his family said in a statement.

Bell, called the “Frank Lloyd Wright of computers” by Datamation magazine, was the master architect in the effort to create smaller, more affordable, interactive computers that could be grouped together on a network. A virtuoso of computer architecture, he built the first time-sharing computer and championed efforts to build Ethernet. He was among a handful of influential engineers whose designs formed the vital bridge between the room-sized models of the mainframe era and the arrival of the personal computer.

After working at several other startups, he became head of the National Science Foundation's computer and information sciences and engineering group, where he led the effort to connect the world's supercomputers into a high-speed network that directly led to the development of modern technology. Internet. He later joined Microsoft's nascent research laboratory, where he remained for about 20 years before being named researcher emeritus.

In 1991 he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“His main contribution was his vision of the future,” said David Cutler, a senior technical fellow at the Microsoft Research Lab and a lead software engineer, who worked with Bell at both Digital and Microsoft. “He always had a vision of where computing would go. He helped make computing much more widespread and more personal.”

At a time when computer companies like IBM were selling multimillion-dollar mainframe computers, Digital Equipment Corporation, founded and run by Kenneth Olsen, sought to introduce smaller, more powerful machines that could be purchased for a fraction of that cost. Hired on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in 1960 as the company's second computer engineer, Bell designed all of the early entrants into what was then called the minicomputer market.

The PDP-8, a 12-bit computer introduced in 1965 and priced at $18,000, was considered the first successful minicomputer on the market. More importantly, Digital Equipment Corporation's minicomputers were sold to scientists, engineers, and other users who interacted directly with the machines in an era when corporate computers were out of reach of such users, housed in metal-walled data centers. glass under the watchful eye of specialists.

“All the DEC machines were interactive, and we believed in people talking directly to computers,” Bell said in a 1985 interview with Computerworld, an industry publication. In this way, Bell heralded the coming personal computer revolution.

Under the frequently autocratic Mr. Olsen, the company was an engineering-oriented environment in which product lines drove business, consensus emerged after loud and often caustic debate, and a matrix structure blurred management lines. This controlled chaos became a source of tremendous stress for Mr. Bell; He often clashed with Mr. Olsen, who was known for closely following the work of his engineers, much to Mr. Bell's chagrin.

Unraveled by the strain, Bell took what became a six-year sabbatical to teach at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but returned to the company as vice president of engineering in 1972. Refreshed and brimming with new ideas, he oversaw the design. of a completely new computing architecture. The VAX 780, a fast, powerful and efficient minicomputer, was a huge success, boosting sales that by the early 1980s had made DEC the second largest computer manufacturer in the world.

“Gordon Bell was a giant in the computer industry,” said Howard Anderson, founder of the Yankee Group, a technology industry research firm that followed the market at the time. “I give him as much credit for DEC's success as I do Ken Olsen. He believed in the primacy of engineering talent and attracted some of the best engineers in the industry to DEC, which became a place of great ferment.”

At DEC, the tension between Olsen and Bell once again became unbearable. Stressed by the pressure to keep coming out winners and by Olsen's domineering presence, Bell quickly became angry (he was known for throwing drafts at people in meetings) and left his engineers angry and confused. In March 1983, during a ski trip to Snowmass, Colorado, with his wife and several of the company's top engineers, Bell suffered a massive heart attack in his ski chalet and could have died if not for the efforts of Bob Puffer. a vice president of the company, who revived him with CPR.

After months of recovery, he returned to work but decided it was time to leave for good. Despite protests from several senior company executives, he resigned in the summer of 1983.

Chester Gordon Bell was born on August 19, 1934 in Kirksville, Missouri, the son of Chester Bell, an electrician who owned an appliance store, and Lola Bell, who taught elementary school.

He developed a congenital heart problem when he was 7 and spent much of second grade at home, mostly in bed. He spent his confinement wiring circuits, conducting chemical experiments and cutting out puzzles with a jigsaw. After recovering, he spent countless hours in his father's shop learning about electrical repair. At the age of 12, he was already a professional electrician: he installed the first domestic dishwashers, repaired motors and dismantled mechanical devices to rebuild them.

Bell graduated from MIT in 1957 with a master's degree in electrical engineering. He then earned a Fulbright scholarship to the University of New South Wales in Australia, where he developed and taught the university's first graduate computer design course. While there, he met Gwen Druyor, another Fulbright scholar, whom he married and with whom he would found the Computer History Museum in Boston. They later divorced.

Although he began working toward a doctorate, Bell abandoned that effort to join Digital Equipment Corporation. He had no interest in research, believing that building things was an engineer's job.

After leaving the company, Mr. Bell was a founder of Encore Computer and Ardent Computer. In 1986, he delved into the world of public policy when he joined the National Science Foundation and led the supercomputer networking effort that resulted in an early version of the Internet called the National Research and Education Network. In 1987, he sponsored the ACM Gordon Bell Prize for his work in parallel computing.

He eventually moved to California, where he became a Silicon Valley angel investor and, in 1991, an advisor to Microsoft, which was opening its first research laboratory in Redmond, Washington. Mr. Bell joined the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Lab full time in 1995. There he worked on MyLifeBits, a database designed to capture all of your life information (articles, books, CDs, letters, emails, music, home movies and videos) into a cloud-based digital database.

Mr. Bell is survived by his second wife, Sheridan Sinclair-Bell; his son Brigham and his daughter Laura Bell, both from his first marriage; his stepdaughter, Logan Forbes; his sister, Sharon Smith; and four grandchildren.

In the 1985 Computerworld interview, Bell explained his formula for achieving repeated technological successes. “The trick in any technology,” he said, “is knowing when to jump on the bandwagon, knowing when to push the change, and then knowing when it's dead and time to get out.”

Alex Traub contributed reports.


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