Gordon Bell, an architect of our digital age, dies at age 89

A photo of Gordon Bell speaking at the annual PC Forum in Palm Springs, California in March 1989.
Enlarge / A photo of Gordon Bell speaking at the annual PC Forum in Palm Springs, California in March 1989.

Computer pioneer Gordon Bell, who, as an early employee of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), played a key role in the development of several influential minicomputer systems and also co-founded the first major computer museum, died Friday, according to a Bell Labs veteran. John Mashey. Mashey announced Bell’s death in a social media post Tuesday morning.

“I am very sad to announce the passing on May 17 at the age of 89 of Gordon Bell, famous computing pioneer, founder of the Computer Museum in Boston and force behind @ComputerHistory here in Silicon Valley, and well friend since the 1980s.” Mashey wrote in his announcement. “He succumbed to aspiration pneumonia in Coronado, California.”

Bell was a central figure in the history of computing and a notable champion of the history of technology, having founded the Computer Museum in Boston in 1979, which later became the heart of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, with his wife Gwen Bell. He is also the namesake of the ACM’s prestigious Gordon Bell Prize, established to stimulate innovations in parallel processing.

Born in 1934 in Kirksville, Missouri, Gordon Bell graduated from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering before being recruited in 1960 by DEC founders Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson. As the second computer engineer hired at DEC, Bell worked on various components of the PDP-1 system, including floating-point routines, tape controllers, and a battery controller.

Bell also invented the first UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter) for serial communication during his time at DEC. He went on to design several influential DEC systems, including the PDP-4 and PDP-6. In the 1970s, he played a key role in overseeing the aforementioned VAX line of minicomputers as director of engineering, with Bill Strecker serving as the lead architect of the VAX architecture.

After retiring from DEC in 1983, Bell remained active as an entrepreneur, policy advisor and researcher. He co-founded Encore Computer and helped create the NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate.

In 1995, Bell joined Microsoft Research where he studied telepresence technologies and was the subject of the life recording project MyLifeBits. The initiative aimed to realize Vannevar Bush’s vision of a system capable of storing all the documents, photos and audio a person has experienced during their lifetime.

Bell has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the National Medal of Technology from President George HW Bush in 1991 and the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in 1992.

“He was invaluable”

As news of Bell’s passing spread across social media Tuesday, industry veterans began sharing their memories and condolences. Former Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie wrote: “I cannot adequately describe how much I loved Gordon and respected what he did for the industry. When I was a kid I first met him at Digital (I was at DG then) when he and Dave were I work on VAX so bright, so calm, so optimistic about what the future could book us.

Ozzie also recalled Bell’s role as a helpful mentor. “The number of times Gordon and I met while we were at Microsoft, acting as a sounding board and helping me through the challenges I faced, is countless,” he wrote.

Former Windows VP Steven Sinofsky also paid tribute to Bell on Research. He has advised and supported countless researchers, projects and product teams. He has always been supportive and insightful beyond words. He never hesitated to provide ideas and some sparks on many of the off-site locations that were so important to Microsoft’s evolution.

“His memory is a blessing to so many,” Sinofsky wrote in his tweet commemorating Bell. “His impact on all of us in technology will be felt for generations. May he rest in peace.”

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