Commemorating Gordon Bell
Written by Sue Gee   
Friday, 24 May 2024

Gordon Bell, the pioneering computer engineer who was responsible for the most successful machines of the mini computer era and co-founded the Computer History Museum, died on May 17, 2024 at the age of 89.

Gordon Bell lived through an era in which computers occupied entire buildings through to being able to carry one in your pocket or around your neck. In his long career he pioneered the PDP/VAX range of mini-computers at DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation). He also delved into the world of public policy when he became head of the National Science Foundation and led the supercomputer networking effort that resulted in an early iteration of the internet called the National Research and Education Network. Later he joined Microsoft Research where he worked for about 20 years on the Lifelogging project, before being named researcher emeritus.

gordon bell

Chester Gordon Bell (1934 -2024)
(photographed in 2008)

Born in 1934, in Kirskville a small town in Missouri where his father Chester, ran an electrical store, Bell was interested in electronics from an early age. After helping out with small jobs such as putting plugs on he went on to rewire houses. As an undergraduate at MIT he studied electrical engineering and worked at a number of large electrical companies as part of his course. However, it was the newly emerging field of electronics that interested him the most. He tinkered with valves as a hobby - building an audio amplifier and took the two modules on digital techniques that his course offered.

In 1957 Bell won a Fulbright scholarship and went off to Australia to study at the University of New South Wales. His time was spent writing software and giving digital design courses - the first at the university. He also met a fellow Fulbright student, Gwen, who on their return to the USA became his wife.

It was in 1960 that he joined DEC, a startup founded by another MIT graduate, Kenneth Olsen with the mission of introducing smaller, cheaper machines than the mainframes from companies like IBM. His role in DEC's line of PDP mini computers is detailed in Gordon Bell And DEC - The Mini Computer Era.

Bell is also known for Bell's Law of of Computer Classes, which describes how types of computing systems (referred to as computer classes) form, evolve and may eventually die out.

The definition of the law states:

Roughly every decade a new, lower priced computer class forms based on a new programming platform, network, and interface resulting in new usage and the establishment of a new industry.

At the time the law was proposed classes included mainframes (1960s) and minicomputers (1970s) and in an interview in 1992, by which time networked workstations and personal computers were firmly established Bell said in an interview:

"Twenty-five years from now...computers will be exactly like telephones. They are probably going to be communicating all the time"

With hindsight we can see that his prediction was more than justified!

Keen on preserving the past, together with his wife Gwen and with Ken Olsen, Gordon Bell founded the Digital Computer Museum. It later evolved, via the Boston Computer Museum, into the Computer History Museum. 

In 1987, he sponsored the ACM Gordon Bell Prize for work in parallel computing.

Bell himself was the recipient of several awards. He was the first to be awarded the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in 1992, received the National Medal of Technology in 1991 and in 2003 he was made a Fellow of the Computer History Museum:

"for his key role in the minicomputer revolution, and for contributions as a computer architect and entrepreneur."

Having been an adviser to Microsoft since 1991, at which time Microsoft was opening its first research lab in Redmond, Bell joined the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Lab full time in 1995. There he worked on MyLifeBits, a database designed to capture all of his life’s information — articles, books, CDs, letters, emails, music, home movies and videos — in a cloud-based digital database, for more on this project, see Gordon Bell Lifelogging at 80.

In one of many tributes made on social media, former Windows VP Steven Sinofsky posted on X:

I am sad to learn of the passing of Gordon Bell, a legend in the field of computer science.
He was immeasurably helpful at Microsoft where he was a founding advisor and later full time leader in Microsoft Research. He advised and supported countless researchers, projects, and product teams. He was always supportive and insightful beyond words. He never hesitated to provide insights and a few sparks at so many of the offsites that were so important to the evolution of Microsoft.

More Information

New York Times - C. Gordon Bell, Creator of a Personal Computer Prototype, Dies at 89

Related Articles

Gordon Bell And DEC - The Mini Computer Era

Gordon Bell Lifelogging at 80

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Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2024 )