C. Gordon Bell, creator of a personal computer prototype, dies at 89

C. Gordon Bell, a technology visionary whose computer designs for Digital Equipment Corporation fueled the emergence of the minicomputer industry in the 1960s, died Friday at his home in Coronado, Calif., at the age of 89 years.

The cause was pneumonia, his family said in a statement.

Called the “Frank Lloyd Wright of computers” by Datamation magazine, Bell was the leading architect in the effort to create smaller, more affordable, more interactive computers that could be grouped together in a network. A virtuoso of computer architecture, he built the first time-sharing computer and supported efforts to build Ethernet. He was among a handful of influential engineers whose designs formed the vital bridge between the room-sized models of the mainframe era and the advent of the personal computer.

After working at several other startups, he became the head of the National Science Foundation's Computer, Information Science, and Engineering Group, where he led the effort to connect the world's supercomputers into a high-speed network that led directly to the development of the modern Internet. He subsequently joined the nascent Microsoft research laboratory, where he remained for about 20 years before being named researcher emeritus.

In 1991 he was awarded the National Medal for Technology and Innovation.

“His main contribution was his vision of the future,” said David Cutler, a senior engineer at the Microsoft Research Lab and a leading software engineer, who worked with Bell at both Digital and Microsoft. “He always had a vision of where computing would go. He helped make computing much more widespread and more personal.”

At a time when computer companies like IBM were selling multimillion-dollar mainframe computers, Digital Equipment Corporation, founded and run by Kenneth Olsen, aimed to introduce smaller, more powerful machines that could be purchased for a fraction of that cost. Hired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in 1960 as the company's second computer engineer, Bell designed all of the early entrants in what was then called the minicomputer market.

The PDP-8, a 12-bit computer introduced in 1965 with a price tag of $18,000, was considered the first successful minicomputer on the market. More importantly, Digital Equipment Corporation minicomputers were sold to scientists, engineers, and other users who interacted directly with the machines in an era when business computers were off-limits to such users, housed in glass-walled data centers beneath the the watchful eye of specialists.

“All DEC machines were interactive, and we believed in having people talk directly to computers,” Bell said in a 1985 interview with Computerworld, an industry publication. In this way, Bell presaged the coming personal computer revolution.

Under the often autocratic Mr. Olsen, the company was an engineering-oriented environment where product lines drove the business, consensus emerged after loud and often caustic debate, and a matrix structure blurred management lines. This controlled chaos became a source of tremendous stress for Mr. Bell; He often clashed with Mr. Olsen, who was known to keep close tabs on the work of his engineers, much to Mr. Bell's chagrin.

Rattled by the strain, Bell took what became a six-year sabbatical to teach at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but returned to the company as vice president of engineering in 1972. Invigorated and full of new ideas, he oversaw the design of a completely new IT architecture. The VAX 780, a fast, powerful, and efficient minicomputer, was a huge success, fueling sales that by the early 1980s had made DEC the world's second-largest computer manufacturer.

“Gordon Bell was a giant of the computer industry,” said Howard Anderson, founder of Yankee Group, a technology research firm that followed the market in that era. “I give him as much credit for DEC's success as Ken Olsen. He believed in the primacy of engineering talent and attracted some of the best engineers in the industry to the DEC, which became a place of great excitement.

At the DEC, the tension between Mr. Olsen and Mr. Bell once again became unbearable. Stressed by the pressure to continue to come out on top and Mr. Olsen's overbearing presence, Mr. Bell became easily angered (he was known to throw erasers at people in meetings) and left his engineers angry and confused. In March 1983, while on a ski trip to Snowmass, Colorado, with his wife and several of the company's top engineers, Mr. Bell suffered a massive heart attack in his cabin and might have died but for the efforts by Bob Puffer, a company vice president, who revived him with CPR.

After months of recovery, he returned to work but decided it was time to leave for good. Despite protests from several top company executives, he resigned in the summer of 1983.

Chester Gordon Bell was born on August 19, 1934, in Kirksville, Missouri, to Chester Bell, an electrician who owned an appliance store, and Lola (Gordon) Bell, who taught elementary school.

He developed a congenital heart problem when he was 7 and spent much of second grade at home, mostly in bed. He spent his confinement connecting circuits, performing chemistry experiments and cutting out puzzles with a jigsaw. After he recovered, he spent countless hours in his father's shop learning how to make electrical repairs. At the age of 12 he was a professional electrician: he installed the first domestic dishwashers, repaired motors and dismantled mechanical devices to rebuild them.

Mr. Bell graduated from MIT in 1957 with a master's degree in electrical engineering. He then won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of New South Wales in Australia, where he developed and taught the university's first computer design degree course. While there, he met Gwen Druyor, another Fulbright scholar, whom he married in 1979 and with whom he founded the Computer History Museum in Boston in 1996. They divorced in 2002.

Although he returned to MIT and worked toward a Ph.D., Mr. Bell abandoned that commitment to join Digital Equipment Corporation. He had no interest in research, believing that building things was the job of an engineer.

After leaving the company, Mr. Bell was a founder of Encore Computer and Ardent Computer. In 1986, he delved into the world of public policy when he joined the National Science Foundation and led the supercomputer networking effort that led to an early iteration of the Internet called the National Research and Education Network. In 1987, he sponsored the ACM Gordon Bell Prize for work in parallel computing.

He eventually moved to California, where he became a Silicon Valley angel investor and, in 1991, a consultant to Microsoft, which was opening its first research lab in Redmond, Washington. Mr. 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, movies and videos – in a cloud-based digital database.

Mr. Bell is survived by his second wife, Sheridan Sinclaire-Bell, whom he married in 2009; his son, Brigham, and his daughter, Laura Bell, both by his first marriage; his stepdaughter, Logan Forbes; his sister, Sharon Smith; and four grandchildren.

In the 1985 Computerworld interview, Bell explained his formula for repeated technological successes. “The trick in any technology,” he said, “is knowing when to get on the bandwagon, knowing when to push for change, and then knowing when it's dead and it's time to get off.”

Alex Traub contributed to the reporting.

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