The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

At the time, computing was Very Serious Business Indeed. Big iron cost big bucks, and even a modest mainframe system was a huge capital investment for a company. So deep-pocketed customers dominated the market, and their needs shaped the hardware. More often than not, the primary need was to deal with big accounting problems, like running weekly payroll or quarterly profits. Computers of the day were primarily operated in batch mode, where stacks of punch card containing the programs and data were fed into the machine, outputting results hours or even days later. A computer operator was someone to move stacks of cards around and gather output, and the idea of sitting at a terminal was unthinkable. But DEC founder Ken Olsen had a different vision:

“We had a dream of interactive computing. Normal computing was considered big, expensive, awesome, beyond ordinary people. Interactive computing was exciting and fun, and people could interact directly with the computer.”

DEC was a very young company focused on selling its “Digital Laboratory Module” line of system building blocks to engineers, who more often than not used them to build test rigs for computers. Business was booming, and when Olsen laid out his vision to engineer Ben Gurley in 1959, the company had the resources to move quickly.

In just three and a half months Gurley and his team brought the Programmed Data Processor-1 to market, building it largely from DEC’s existing modules. The machine was smaller and cheaper than the mainframes of the day, and so it appealed to smaller companies and academia. In fact, the prototype was donated to MIT, where some of the more famous applications for it were developed. The video below shows the PDP-1 that the Computer Science Museum has lovingly restored running some of those, including Spacewar!, an surprisingly sophisticated game from which later classics like Asteroids clearly drew inspiration.

The bottom line is that the PDP-1 was really the first computer that encouraged users to sit down and play. While IBM machines did the boring but necessary work of business behind closed doors and tended by squads of servants, DEC’s machines found their way into labs and odd corners of institutions where curious folk sat in front of their terminals, fingers poised over keyboards while a simple but powerful phrase was uttered: “I wonder what happens if…” The DEC machines were the first computers that allowed the question, which is really at the heart of the hacker culture, to be answered in real time.

So if you happen to be in Mountain View some day, pay a visit to the PDP-1, the machine that started everything by making it okay to play.

[Featured image source: The Dot Eaters. Thumbnail source: Joi Ito via Wikimedia Commons]

Filed under: classic hacks, Featured, History
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