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Guide to the Digital Equipment Corporation records
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Access Restrictions
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Immediate Source of Acquisition
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Scope and Content of the Collection
  • Arrangement
  • Separated Material
  • Related Collections at CHM
  • Related Collections at Other Repositories

  • Title: Digital Equipment Corporation records
    Identifier/Call Number: X2675.2004
    Contributing Institution: Computer History Museum
    Language of Material: English
    Physical Description: 1,239 Linear feet,611 record cartons, 357 manuscript boxes, 56 newspaper boxes, 169 periodical boxes, and 150 other box types
    Date (bulk): Bulk, 1957-1998
    Date (inclusive): 1947-2002
    Abstract: The Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) records comprise DEC's corporate archives, with material dating from 1947 to 2002. The bulk of the collection was collected and created during the company's years of operation from 1957 to 1998. DEC, founded by engineers Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, was one of the largest and most successful computer companies in the industry's history. Widely recognized for its PDP and VAX minicomputer product lines, by 1988 DEC was second only to IBM as the world's largest computer company. This collection holds the papers of DEC's executives, engineers, and personnel -- including the personal collections of founders Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson. Also included are DEC's administrative records and material relating to product development and engineering, with committee meeting minutes, correspondence, internal newsletters, product proposals, and engineering drawings. Most of DEC's publications, such as manuals, promotional and sales material, and technical reports, are represented in this collection as well. Lastly, DEC's large corporate photo library and archive remains intact as a part of this collection, holding tens of thousands of original product photographs, portraits of DEC personnel, images showing client applications of DEC products, brochures, and historical files with visual documentation of the company's beginnings and milestones. In 1998, DEC was acquired by Compaq, ending its run as a company, though many of its groundbreaking technologies went on to sell under different branding and influence subsequent directions of computing and its industries.
    Languages: The collection is primarily in English, with small amounts of material in Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian.
    creator: Digital Equipment Corporation.

    Access Restrictions

    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    The Computer History Museum (CHM) can only claim physical ownership of the collection. Users are responsible for satisfying any claims of the copyright holder. Requests for copying and permission to publish, quote, or reproduce any portion of the Computer History Museum's collection must be obtained jointly from both the copyright holder (if applicable) and the Computer History Museum as owner of the material.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of Item], [Date], Digital Equipment Corporation records, Lot [#], Box [#], Folder [#], Catalog [#], Computer History Museum.
    Note: For this collection the lot number citation will either be X2675.2004, X3149.2005, or X7042.2014.

    Immediate Source of Acquisition

    The majority of this collection was a gift of the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) in 2004 (X2675.2004). Smaller parts of the collection came from DEC employees Timothe Litt in 2005 (X3149.2005) and Richard Best in 2011 (X7042.2014).

    Biographical/Historical Note

    Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was one of the largest and most profitable computer companies in the world, initially known for its modules, then for its PDP and VAX families of computers, and finally for the Alpha microprocessor.
    DEC was founded in Maynard, Massachusetts, by engineers Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, who had previously worked together at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. It operated from 1957 to 1998. Olsen and Anderson started the company with financial backing from Georges Doriot, one of the United States' first venture capitalists, and DEC was the first successful venture-backed computer company. Olsen served as DEC's president until 1992 and ran the company with a complicated decentralized management style that pitted product groups against each other for corporate resources. Anderson served as DEC's executive vice president until he was forced out in 1966 after a falling out with Olsen over the direction of the company.
    At the time of DEC's founding, computers were large, complicated to use, and expensive. Olsen and Anderson wanted to produce alternatives to those large mainframes: computers that were powerful and had real-time interactivity, but were smaller, easier to use, and much more affordable. Mindful that investors were not backing computer companies at the time, their business plan was divided into two phases that de-emphasized computer production. Phase one focused on the manufacture and sale of electronic modules to be used in test and prototyping environments; phase two focused on using those modules in the design of a fully interactive computer system. Ultimately, DEC's focus would be on minicomputers for laboratory, business, and research use customized for clients and including long-term service and technical support contracts with DEC. For its first two years, DEC developed its successful module business. In 1959, DEC's first minicomputer, the Programmed Data Processor, or PDP-1, was designed and produced, with the first unit sold in 1960. It was a groundbreaking computer because of its low cost and its fostering of direct user interaction. DEC released dozens of other PDP-family minicomputers over the next decade, becoming the market leader in minicomputers by a large margin.
    In 1977, DEC introduced a new line of computers -- developed as an extension to the PDP-11 -- called VAX, or Virtual Address Extension. The incredibly successful and influential VAX family of computers implemented a 32-bit complex instruction set computing (CISC) architecture and could run DEC's proprietary operating system VAX/VMS (later OpenVMS) and UNIX. The VAX family included high performance models, mainframes, workstations, and MicroVAX minicomputers.
    In the early 1980s, DEC began development of a 64-bit reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture to replace VAX. What started as several small RISC projects at DEC formed into one, PRISM, which was canceled just before completion. Alpha development started soon after and was based on PRISM concepts. The Alpha architecture, introduced in 1992, was implemented as a line of microprocessors.
    DEC produced other technologies besides computers. It sold a wide variety of peripherals including magnetic tape and disk memory subsystems, dot matrix printers, and graphics displays. DEC was also focused on networking and produced several systems, including Ethernet, DECnet, and VAXclusters. DEC also created the early search engine AltaVista in 1995. Additionally, DEC produced software that was mostly proprietary to DEC machines.
    As microcomputers emerged in the 1980s, Olsen was resistant to DEC developing them, believing that most people would not want computers in their homes and that personal computers (PCs) were mostly used for non-serious purposes, like games. However, in response to IBM's PC (1981), DEC released several personal computer systems: the Professional series, DECmate II, Rainbow 100, and VAXmate. DEC's personal computer efforts did not take off like the IBM PC, however, because of DEC's high prices, poor marketing, and insistence on making its machines and software proprietary and thus incompatible with other companies' products and peripherals. DEC's PDP-11 and VAX systems continued to sell well, however, but competitors were actively working to create cheaper computers.
    In 1988, DEC was second only to IBM as the world's largest computer company. By 1990, however, the United States was in a recession and DEC's business began to falter. This loss in revenue was attributable to several factors: There was disagreement within DEC as to the direction the company should take as workstations, personal computers, and open computing became more popular. DEC chose to focus on developing a large mainframe, the VAX 9000, and continued to produce proprietary software and hardware, missing the opportunity to take advantage of the personal computer and workstation revolution. Many at DEC felt the VAX 9000 could not recoup its design and manufacturing costs; this turned out to be true. As DEC concentrated on the VAX 9000, competitors produced workstations that were far less expensive and more powerful.
    As DEC's business waned, there were several attempts within different areas of the company to boost DEC's viability with new products and technologies. Following DEC's traditional management model, these different factions were competing against each other and unfortunately no successful products came from those efforts. In the early 1990s, after steadily falling sales, DEC implemented the first layoffs in the company's history.
    In 1992, the DEC board forced Olsen to resign, appointing Bob Palmer as CEO and president. Palmer attempted to streamline DEC by reorganizing its structure into a business unit system, but the company's profits continued to slide, particularly with its biggest moneymaker, sales and service of VAX systems. Palmer continued laying off employees and began selling off parts of DEC's business units. Finally, in 1998, what was left of DEC was sold to Compaq in the largest merger in the computer industry at that time. Compaq struggled with the merger, and eventually sold the Alpha microprocessor business to Intel, and then was itself acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002.
    Although it ultimately failed as a company, DEC's legacy as a pioneer in computer technology lives on. HP continues to sell products derived from DEC technology, such as OpenVMS, under its own branding.

    Scope and Content of the Collection

    The Digital Equipment Corporation records are made up of material created and collected at the company during its active years from 1957 to 1998. The collection also contains material created prior to DEC's founding, dating as early as 1947, and material from the organizations involved in DEC's final mergers and acquisitions spanning as late as 2002.
    The first seven series of the collection consist of smaller, personal collections of DEC's founders, executives, engineers, and other staff. These collections of individuals' papers were donated intact to the Computer History Museum within the larger original donation. Most of these individuals' collections were grouped into series based on different types of careers at DEC. “Series 1, Executives' papers” contain the papers of DEC's founders, presidents, executive vice presidents, and/or executives in charge of an entire branch of DEC's operations. Series 1 holds the papers of DEC's two founders, Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, which include some of the earliest records of the collection from influencing organizations such as MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.
    “Series 2, Engineers' papers” group together engineers and technical specialists. Two of the largest subseries under Series 2 are the papers of Mike Uhler and Timothe Litt, who were both senior consulting engineers at DEC. Litt's collection of papers is especially large, partly due to his role in facilitating the transfer of portions of the Digital Equipment Corporation records (Lot X2675.2004) and a smaller donation of material (Lot X3149.2005) focusing on the KL10 model of DEC's PDP-10 mainframe computer family. The last category of personal collections is grouped under “Series 3, Product managers' papers.” Series 3 contains the papers of DEC's “group managers” and “product line managers” who steered product development and employee management for specific product lines. Some of the individuals with personal collections were not grouped into the initial three series, due to the natures of their careers at DEC not fitting into these series' categories. These individuals have their own series.
    Following the papers of individual staff are DEC's administrative records, containing internal newsletters, the minutes and correspondence of internal committees, manufacturing plant records, and records pertaining to personnel and corporate policies. Since the personal collections of the preceding series were kept intact, much of the contents of those series relate to the material in “Series 9, Administrative records.” For example, there are records from DEC's Operations Committee and Executive Committee held in both the administrative records series and the Ken Olsen papers in Series 1.
    Another large body of internal documentation is contained in “Series 10, Product lifecycle records,” which includes product proposals, project updates, pricing and manufacturing plans, performance summaries, specifications, field maintenance documentation, and engineering drawings for various product lines at DEC.
    Other parts of the collection were donated and processed as units of a specific department or group. These include “Series 11, Public Relations department records,” “Series 12, Corporate Contributions department records,” and “Series 13, DECUS records.” This collection also contains large amounts of DEC publications, which are organized into series based on their publication types. These series include promotional and sales material, technical newsletters and journals, manuals, and technical reports. DEC had previously organized some of these publications into lending libraries for employees and other users -- notably with its large collections of manuals and technical reports.
    One other major part of this collection comprises the still images and documentation of the Digital Equipment Corporation Photo Library and Archive. The photo library holds tens of thousands of original slides, transparencies, prints, negatives, and proof sheets spanning the company's active years from 1957 to 1998. These images depict client applications of DEC products, brochures and promotional material, portraits of DEC pioneers, and historical files of images documenting the company's early history and achievement milestones, along with histories of Maynard, Massachusetts and the “Maynard Mill” (DEC's headquarters). Lastly, this collection contains the audiovisual holdings--primarily videotapes--of DEC's regional libraries from various facilities, including video recordings of talks and meetings from the DEC Systems Research Center (SRC) in Palo Alto, California.


    The collection is arranged into 22 series:
    Series 1, Executives' papers, 1947-1995, bulk 1960-1994
    Series 2, Engineers' papers, 1951-2002, bulk 1970-1998
    Series 3, Product managers' papers, 1966-1997
    Series 4, Sam Fuller corporate research records, 1976-1997
    Series 5, Judy Hall TOPS-20 and Jupiter records, 1974-1989
    Series 6, Edward McDonough Far East Manufacturing Group records, 1976-1985
    Series 7, Ralph Dormitzer America's Cup records, 1982-1992
    Series 8, Oral history collection, 1978-1993, bulk 1987-1991
    Series 9, Administrative records, 1958-1998, bulk 1970-1992
    Series 10, Product lifecycle records, 1952-1990
    Series 11, Public Relations department records, 1957-1995, bulk 1973-1993
    Series 12, Corporate Contributions department records, 1981-1994
    Series 13, DECUS records, 1962-1993
    Series 14, Promotional and sales material, 1960-2000
    Series 15, Technical newsletters and journals, 1963-1998, bulk 1980-1998
    Series 16, Manuals, 1960-1999, bulk 1962-1991
    Series 17, Technical reports, 1971-1996, bulk 1980-1993
    Series 18, Exhibit records, circa 1950-1988, bulk 1988
    Series 19, Non-DEC publications, 1963-1998
    Series 20, Photo library documentation, 1957-2002
    Series 21, Still images, 1956-1998
    Series 22, Moving images, 1979-2002

    Separated Material

    Physical objects were separated from the main collection. To view catalog records for separated material search the CHM catalog at http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/search/ .

    Related Collections at CHM

    Bob Supnik papers, Lot X3339.2006.
    Charles A. Jortberg collection, Lot X2381.2002.
    Collection of Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1 Computer Materials, Lot X3602.2006.
    Company Collection of Computing Manuals and Marketing Materials, Lot X3067.2005.
    Harlan Anderson PDP Documents, Lot X3575.2006.

    Related Collections at Other Repositories

    Digital Equipment Computer Users Society Proceedings and Publications (CBI 150), Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
    Ken Olsen Personal Archives, Ken Olsen Science Center, Gordon College.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Anderson, Harlan E.
    Digital Equipment Corporation.
    Olsen, Kenneth H.
    DEC microcomputers
    Maynard (Mass.)
    PDP computers
    RISC microcomputers
    VAX computers