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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Paul G. Allen Launches Web Site Dedicated to Early Computers

Investor, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft Paul G. Allen unveiled a new Web site, www.PDPplanet.com, as a resource for computer history fans and those interested in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) systems and XKL systems. From a PDP-8/S to a DECSYSTEM-20 to a Toad 1, Allen's collection of systems from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s preserves the significant software created on these early computers.

Via the new Web site, registered users from around the world can telnet into a working DECsystem-10 or an XKL Toad-1, create or upload programs, and run them -- essentially stepping back in time to access an "antique" mainframe. Demonstrating how computing was conducted before the convenience of today's powerful desktop, laptop and palm devices, PDP Planet will give users an appreciation of how it felt to be an early programmer.

Years before there were the pervasive PCs and Macs that are everywhere in today's homes and businesses, PDPs were important mainframe and mini computers, providing fertile ground for the researchers, programmers and hackers of the era. MIT students came up with the first video game (called "Spacewar!") on the PDP-1, which helped show the potential for computing applications beyond the traditional number-crunching activities of the day. From there, it was just a matter of time until room-size mainframes evolved into third-generation minicomputers (beginning with the PDP-8, which sold for about $16,000 but had less computing power than a 21st century calculator). It was made possible with the use of transistor and core memory technology, so some of these machines including the PDP-8 could even fit on a (large) desktop. Although still a far-cry from the laptops and small form-factor machines we all use in our everyday lives, the computing revolution had begun and there was no turning back.

"PDP Planet fulfills my dream to find a way to preserve the achievements of early computer engineers," said Allen. "With running versions of these machines via the Web site, we now have a place that recognizes the efforts of those creative engineers who made some of the early breakthroughs in interactive computing that changed the world." Along with the forthcoming Microcomputer Gallery being created by Allen at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque (opening late this year), and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, PDP Planet provides an important exploration of the early technology that launched a revolution.

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