The First Computer I Worked On…

…was also the second and then many more, this brand stayed with me for over twenty years. This is going to be a long one but there’s much ground to cover so I’ll start now with the logo. I thought it was a good logo as it always meant good things for me.


Just the other day, I was watching one of my favorite youtubers, a Swiss guy named Andreas Spiess. Like Andreas, I also operate out of my home and I like to keep an eye out for ideas on utilizing space and useful pieces of equipment. In his video, Andreas had an interesting mix of old and new gear, plus he showed off his book collection. Seeing that reminded me of some books I either used to have, or always wanted. One of the titles Andreas showed was The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation by Glenn Rifkin and George Harrar. Andreas commented that he used to work for DEC, (Digital Equipment Corporation of Maynard, MA) and remembered it fondly.

This brought back a lot of memories for me. While I never formally worked for DEC proper, I did have many associations with them and they greatly influenced me, and my experiences with them guided me on many choices throughout my varied career.

My DEC Beginnings


My first experience with computers was in 1977. I attended a rural high school that happened to have a DEC PDP 8/E minicomputer in a room attached to the math lab. The computer was a multicolored box with flashing lights and switches that looked more like audio equipment than a computer. In another box was a reel to reel tape machine. Next to that was a teletype machine and an optical computer card reader that was used for teaching data input and programming. The lessons taught were more like number sorting than what you think of as computer programming today.

There wasn’t much for a kid like me to do in a farm town but fortunately, the other kids had equally little interest in the computer room. It was always empty, so that’s where I spent much of my time, reading the manual and looking at electronics magazines. Once the teacher realized I had some skills, he put me to use cleaning out the card reader and the teletype paper tape puncher. I kept notes on the machine and its issues and, after a while, I started to get called out of class when the DEC tech arrived to service the equipment. We’d talk and I’d make sure he addressed all our issues.

My Days as a Teenage DEC “Expert”

The next year, my parents moved us back to the city and I enrolled in a technical high school. The school had a computer room, complete with an upgraded and much newer DEC PDP 11, two tape drives, and — low and behold — a VT100 video display terminal! Unlike the rural school, there were already some other students in the computer room. I earned their respect by mentioning that I was trained by a DEC rep to clean and maintain the card reader and tape punch. I said I would be happy to train the other students. For extra incentive, I dropped the name of the rep. Upon hearing that, the teacher’s eyebrows rose. Turns out he knew and liked the guy. I was in!

The DEC VT100 Terminal

In addition to being a very modern school, the building was located next to Radio Valve Road, which had housed the local RCA vacuum tube plant. The plant had been shut down a year or two earlier, but before that they had supplied the school with TV tubes for the electronics course. So not only was I involved in the computer program, I was also in the last class to build a TV from tubes and parts. Also noteworthy, the local DEC head office where the service techs were dispatched from was located within a mile of the school.

As with my old school, it wasn’t long before the teacher was calling me out from class when the machine had to be serviced. Since we were an educational customer, we were entitled to run a copy of DEC Unix which I asked about. Tapes were delivered and a schedule was made so that we could run unix up to one day a week as long as it wasn’t during exams or finals. We also got a copy of the quintessential book on programming: The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie.

This was my first introduction to unix and C. It was 1978 but many of the commands that I learned I still use today. Almost daily, I drop into the command line and type those same characters and words, just as I have done during every major part of my career. Clearly, as an old computer language, unix is a stable and mature language with the bugs stamped out long ago. It was here that I played my first computer game Star Trek on the PDP11.

Using DEC in the Working World

When it came time to graduate high school, I was pretty sure I wanted to continue my learning with computers. However, I didn’t choose computer science as the computer science departments of that time had time-share computers that nobody touched, you would write programs on cards and wait for the results. The school had a cart in the hall and students would pile their boxes of cards on them. A day or two later, the cart returned filled with listings. This was not “hands-on” enough for me, so I enrolled in a physics program that featured their own DEC VAX computer.

The DEC VMS Terminal

My first adult job was with a scientific/lab firm that supplied equipment for photonics and materials testing. They also happened to be a DEC value added reseller (VAR), so on my first day, I could not only sit down and get the company’s software running, but I also knew the hardware and already had my own connections at DEC. In this job I had to travel coast-to-coast, visiting customers and going into labs. I got to work with scientists, who not only were great people, but were involved in solving the problems they brought me in on. We supplemented DEC with the odd Apple ][ computer, mostly used as a terminal, but when the Macintosh came out, we bought tons of them.

The first Macs made great low-cost replacements for the expensive unix terminals. They also had that newfangled “mouse,” which was great on the shop floor, as the computer could be built in a steel safety cabinet and the mouse connector could be fitted to a bulkhead connector on the front. Those would last a lot longer in dirt or moisture. Macs also had built-in networking years before a PC even had a network card, so you weren’t stuck using only the serial terminal. Macs weren’t unix yet, but they were solid and had enough smarts for networking years before the internet.

DECnet: Before There Was an Internet

We’d been using DECnet since the early 80s, and as a VAR we were allowed to connect to DECnet mail via a special telephone line that we paid for by counting the number of telephones between our offices (which, luckily, wasn’t far from the local DEC office!) From there, I could join special boards where other VARs, users, and DEC offices around the world shared information. Mostly, it was helpful for getting DEC systems running, but there were other boards I used, like the one for science fiction fans and one for windsurfers (my supervisor was a windsurfer). I also remember getting a lot of help from the reps and VARs in Australia who, I guess due to time zones, were answering my questions while I slept.

DECnet running on a Mac

There was still no PC at this time. Well, there might have been, but not on our floors. And why would there be? VAXs were barely fast enough for our needs, even though they were magnitudes faster than a 486 which was a board with a few slots, no networking, and barely any memory. You couldn’t even get near to filling those tin boxes due to other limitations so I never worked on them. Why would I when I had access to computers that were worth over $40,000? At this point, the big VAX machines were running the VMS operating system, which was the most stable and elegant operating system I have ever used. These machines easily went years between rebooting. I have another story here of the time I went to Japan to train on a scientific system powered by a large VAX VMS machine

DEC Rainbow

The DEC Rainbow

By the time the PC had almost progressed into a workable machine, the company I was working with had engineering test a number of them against the new DEC version of a PC called the DEC Rainbow. The Rainbow was a professional machine that had been engineered to be serviceable. It had pull-out cards and innards that needed no tools to work on, and it came with many extras already built into the machine. These were extras that a professional would need but consumers could be hoodwinked into purchasing later. The Rainbow ran CP/M, which was not too different from unix, so a unix shop could port to it or design for it without too much trouble. At the time, CP/M was more popular than MSDOS. Engineering chose the Rainbow, but the world picked the PC, which, in my opinion, might have made a mistake. Fortunately, we were spared the switch to PCs, as our computer tasks and computing complexity increased so exponentially that we were back to unix computers for a few more years.  

Handheld lab instruments

Rapid Changes and Re-careering

By now in my career the economy was changing. Labs were closing and manufacturing was slowing down, turning the huge factories I was going to into big box stores. The handheld instruments that were emerging were fast and cheap, almost disposable, and were starting to replace minicomputers. At the same time, the owner of my company had made me some promises and then reneged on them, which left me open to looking for new employment. Luckily, there was a huge boom in the graphic arts industry. I had ten years’ experience in color science and a pretty strong unix background. So even though I had enjoyed my job and the travel and all the good people I met and got to work with, I was also ready for a change.

It was pretty easy to find another job and the break from travel was a relief. I took a position at a high-end graphics house that served advertising agencies and public relations firms. Custom, special, and high-end jobs were the calling card of this shop, and they were on the verge of making the jump to digital from traditional photo and hand artwork. It was my job to assist this jump. By this time, people were using networked PCs, but only highly trained people had any connection to the internet. People also had drawing programs and could print out to an ink jet printer, but it was nowhere near the quality of commercial printing, let alone traditional high-end printing methods like the ones we were using.

High Quality Printing

Back when you thought your new laser printer was an amazing piece of technology, I was working with devices that had 324 times that resolution. And that was for just one color! Some systems printed up to eight or ten colors, on sheets over a meter wide at a rate of 10,000 per hour. Producing a high quality printed image at a traditional 150 line per inch halftone screen for something like a coffee table book or a year-end report requires the digital equivalent of 2,540 dots per inch squared, over the entire printable area of the press.

All this digital manipulation created large files — up to a few gigabytes — that had to be moved around in professional computer systems. This is one reason why unix systems were so popular at the time. Where I worked, we’d have something like a VAX server that ran our image programs, a Sun server to save and store the files, and SGI workstations to view and work on the files. There were other servers in the workflow that did specific jobs, like moving all the pages around on the big sheet to fit in a pattern for making books, or the server that optimized the images and compensated for the limitations of presses.

The NeXT Cube

These other servers may have been DEC, but just as often they had names like Data General or Tektronix or even HP. Regardless, they usually ran some version of unix. Other unix machines I used in graphics were NeXT Computers. They were the precursor to the present Mac OS and iOS systems. We used a NeXT computer with a huge grayscale CRT monitor for only one task: to preview the files that went to the very large film making machines. Another NeXT ran a trapping program and sat beside the Sun server. Some people complained that there were too many different versions of unix but in my experience there is much more in common between any two versions of unix than any two versions of MS Windows.

My Time with Barco Graphics

Another graphic system company from this era that I really enjoyed and think back on fondly was Barco Graphics, a Belgian company that had started out making their own proprietary graphic workstations. By the time I worked with them in the 90s, they were using DEC VAX servers running VMS and SGI graphic workstations. This was called “client/server,” and the CPU-intensive work was done on the VAX, while the input and visualization was done on the SGI. The third part of the system would have been the output. Barco excelled with the specialized hardware they made, such as the PrintStreamer — a large box of hard drives that split the image over all the drives and allowed it to be spooled rapidly — and the Megasetter, which was a photo film printer that had a high enough resolution for printed money and security documents. I’ll write about my working with producing bank notes in another article soon.

I was lucky enough to have not only have factory training on these Barco Graphic systems but I got to operate their equipment in a number of countries around the world. The full Barco graphic package running on a client/server system was an awesome tool that could do things nothing else at the time could. There are things I did then that could not be easily reproduced today. The Barco software, Lineworks, was similar to Adobe Illustrator, but could open files that would have brought Illustrator to its knees. The same could be said about the Brix image manipulation program.

Among the projects I worked on was a continuous printing project with data from General Motors that ran as one long page and took almost a week to print. It was cut up into tens of thousands of custom printed forms, each one different. We won an award from a large marketing magazine for that one. We also created highly sophisticated line work like you see in the background of a bank note and used personal data to create security badges that could not be duplicated. We took GIS data from cities and satellite data and merged them into huge, highly detailed, multilayer maps for city planners. All this and we’re still a few years before the 21st century.

This was not high end in 1988

The Early Days of Photoshop

Speaking of Adobe, the early version of Photoshop was unsuitable for professional work. It did not support printer colors and wouldn’t for a few years. Hell, the beta version wasn’t even in color. Another reason early Photoshop sucked was that it taxed the memory of the computers it ran on. Remember what I wrote earlier regarding memory usage? [insert internal hyperlink] A meager 300dpi image covering one sheet greyscale takes over 8MB. Most of the computers of the time had barely half that. For example, the Macintosh IIfx was sold as a professional machine for about $10,000 and came with only 4MB of RAM. Home computers came with much less. To be able to view an 8MB image on a 2- or 4-MB machine, the Knoll brothers (who sold what became Photoshop to Adobe) came up with a system to pull a few bits at a time off the hard drive, which enabled you to scroll around and edit your image. While this workaround might have been okay for the amateur user, it was not acceptable for professionals who needed to move hundreds — if not thousands — of large images around in a day. But, sadly, systems like the Barco have been forgotten.

QMDI 46-4

My Time with Heidelberg

1995 was a very big year for digital graphics and it was the year Heidelberg introduced the Quickmaster DI. The QMDI 46-4 was the first offset press to automatically image and process its own printing plates on the machine. I was lucky enough to be involved with the North American introduction, which I’ve covered in more depth in another article. This machine not only replaced a room full of support machines and staff, it fit into an area that was smaller than the previous machine itself. All you needed was the QMDI press and a Mac and you were in the offset printing business — it was that much of a game changer. It included one of the final DEC machines, the DEC AlphaStation. These DECs came in the box with the press but did not include any service from DEC. I did manage once to get a rep to deliver an ethernet card to replace a new failure, but that was it. A few years later, Compaq bought DEC. Then HP bought Compaq. Today, all that is left to show DEC existed is a few fan sites and a wikipedia page. I think I still have a DEC Alpha ethernet card in a box somewhere. Who knows, maybe it’ll be a good eBay find for someone.

Here’s a link to my blog about analog computing and the early HunterLab color measuring instruments.

Here’s a link to my blog about digital printing in 1995.

Here’s link to my blog about meeting two digital color pioneers.

Keywords: DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC Rainbow, DECnet, unix, professional printing, VAX, VAR, Sun server, Data General, Tektronix, HP, NeXT Computers, Mac OS, Mac iOS, Lineworks, Heidelberg, QMDI-46, DEC Alpha


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