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Today's IT industry is in debt to the extraordinary talent and vision of these technical and business pioneers

Bill Gates, the web's Tim Berners-Lee and Linux developer Linus Torvalds are among the stars of today's IT industry but they stand on the shoulders of the many visionaries, inventors and entrepreneurs who gave birth to the modern computing business.

The five heroes examined here are often overshadowed by the big names active today, but they helped to shape the design of modern computers and launch the booming software and services industry.

 

Adam Osborne
Creator of the portable computer and champion of cheap software

Adam Osborne (1939-2003) had only a brief period of fame, but his launch of the first portable computer in 1981 opened the way for Compaq and others to follow.

Osborne lived in India with his British parents, came to the UK aged 11 and later got a chemical engineering degree. He worked for Shell in California, got into technical writing and formed a company to write easy-read computer manuals.

He sold the company in 1979 when he saw a need for portable computers. His Osborne 1 weighed more than 20lb, used a 4MHz Zilog Z80 processor, had 64Kbytes of memory and two 100Kbyte floppy discs, plus a five-inch screen, all in a self-contained package. Another innovation was that it came with software, including Microsoft Basic and the Supercalc spreadsheet package.

Sales soon reached 10,000 a month yet within two years Osborne Computer crashed. Various reasons have been suggested: poor financial control, pre-announcement of a follow-up product which killed sales of the first model, and failure to go to 16-bit processors with that second machine.

"Adam's view was that being adequate was enough," says his friend, IT journalist Guy Kewney. "When he failed to follow IBM into 16-bit computing with the Osborne 2, imitators like Compaq filled the void."

Always the confident entrepreneur, Osborne formed Paperback Software, offering cheap packages, but in 1990 he was sued for copyright infringement by Lotus, and lost. His health deteriorated and he suffered a series of strokes. He died in India in 2003.

"Adam made massive contributions to the PC industry," Kewney says. "The idea of bundling software with the PC was his, as was the idea of retailing software cheaply. And although he failed to manage his own business's hypergrowth, he showed a generation of entrepreneurs the hazards.

"He was loud, confident, full of enthusiasm. He inspired many, provoked others to match him, and left a stamp of outrageous ebullience which set the tone for the PC industry."

 

Philip Hughes
Co-founder of Logica and UK software and systems industry pioneer

Philip Hughes (born 1936) devotes one line to his place in computing history in his CV, the rest is all about his work as an artist and his involvement with the Royal College of Art and the National Gallery. The simple line "1969-1991 co-founder of Logica" belies the contribution he made with his contemporaries to the early days of the UK IT industry.

The late 1960s saw the birth of many software and systems companies as the hardware market changed. IBM launched the unified System/360 mainframe range and then separated software from hardware sales in the face of a monopoly lawsuit. This alone led to the birth of many software suppliers.

Meanwhile, Digital Equipment launched the minicomputer, making it possible for suppliers to package hardware and software for small businesses and specialist applications.

Hughes, a Cambridge graduate, was an engineer at Shell and a consultant at IT services firm CEIR before forming Logica with Len Taylor.

"Philip was the visionary, the front man and a great salesman, while Len was the one who rolled his sleeves up and made it happen," says Martin Read, chief executive of LogicaCMG, formed in 2002 from the merger of Logica and CMG. "He was a real renaissance man. He had opera, art, other things in his life beyond business. He sometimes took sabbaticals to travel the world and paint.

"Philip gave Logica flair and panache, positioning it at the clever end of the business. For example, $5tn is moved daily through foreign exchanges using our software; two out of three text messages worldwide are run over our software.

"LogicaCMG is the only UK software company formed in those early days that has stayed British, which says something about the value proposition, the panache, that he brought."

 

Ken Olsen
Inventor of the minicomputer and co-founder of Digital Equipment

Ken Olsen (born 1926) created the minicomputer, which in turn helped to give birth to the systems and software industry.

After working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he co-founded Digital Equipment in 1957. The company's PDP-1 (programmed data processor), launched in 1960, was an eye-opener. It occupied just four cabinets, each six feet high, at a time when computers usually filled entire rooms. Also, at $120,000, it was claimed to be the first computer costing less than $1m.

Digital made even greater headlines in 1965 when it launched the PDP-8 at just $18,000. The 16-bit PDP-11, announced in 1970 at $11,000, became the world's biggest selling minicomputer. In 1977 the 32-bit Vax took Digital into the mainframe hardware market and it was soon second only to IBM in size.

Even then, however, it was still largely a hardware company. But its relatively cheap hardware helped to give birth to a systems and services industry which has since overtaken hardware manufacturing to become the most significant part of the IT business.

"Digital made all its money from hardware and Olsen wasn't interested in the services business," says Doug Eyeions, director general of the Computing Services Association in the software industry's fledgling years of the 1970s and beyond. "This gave opportunities to emerging software and services companies like Logica and CAP.

"In addition you had a computer cheap enough to be dedicated to one task, such as typesetting or process control. Again this opened opportunities for systems companies."

Olsen led Digital into two disasters in the 1980s. There was an ill-fated move into PCs, and then Olsen dismissed Unix as "snake oil" just as the system was starting to make its mark through the likes of Sun Microsystems.

The Vax 9000 mainframe was launched just before the recession of the early 1990s, and a string of financial losses followed. In 1998 Digital was bought by Compaq, itself later bought by Hewlett-Packard.

But Olsen's legacy remains the development of the minicomputer, which led other hardware companies into that business and did a lot to help create today's massive software, systems and services industry.

 

Gene Amdahl
Forerunner in mainframe design and IBM-compatible peripherals

Gene Amdahl (born 1922) made two contributions to mainframe computing, which helped to shape the entire industry from the 1960s onwards.

He was a lead designer of IBM's System/360 range, unveiled in 1964. It brought in technical advances, including integrated circuits and software that enabled several programs to run at once, but the key issue was that users could move up and down the range, running the same software. Previously manufacturers produced different computers, with no compatibility between them.

The compatibility across the System/360 range was taken forward into the replacement System/370 in 1970 and into later ranges. The impact was immediate: for at least 10 years after the System/360 launch IBM had more than 70% of the worldwide computer business.

However, in 1969 Amdahl had his ideas for future development rejected and he left IBM. He formed Amdahl Corporation to produce mainframes compatible with IBM's, competing with the fruits of his own earlier work.

By the mid-1970s Amdahl's customers included Nasa, Ford and British Airways. It helped to boost the growing IBM-compatible peripherals business, as users attached their disc systems and other devices to Amdahl computers.

"Three things stood out about Amdahl machines," says Des Lee, himself a thorn in IBM's side in the 1970s and 1980s as IT director of Rowntree and chairman of the IBM Computer Users Association. "They were cheaper. They were better technology: heat was dissipated without all the plumbing that went with the water-cooled IBM machines. And they were orange: this made them stand out and gave IBM something to think about when they visited you.

"In addition they were readily available: this was a time when you could wait two years for an IBM mainframe, because of demand. The Amdahl machines worked extremely well: you never saw an engineer, because they never broke down."

Amdahl's company ended up as part of Fujitsu, one of its technology partners, but by then he was long gone. He formed three more companies, each aiming to produce better and cheaper machines than IBM, but with mixed fortunes. Late last year, aged 82, he joined the advisory board of US company Massively Parallel Technologies.

 

Konrad Zuse
Creator of early computer architecture and inventor of binary logic

Konrad Zuse (1910-1995) could have gone down in history as the father of modern computing if the Second World War had not forced him to work in isolation from pioneers in the US and the UK who had funding and access to each other's research. Zuse singlehandedly devised much of the design of today's computers and made machines that were not matched outside his native Germany until years later.

"Zuse's significance comes from the fact that he worked in isolation, which meant he invented many aspects of computing, such as binary switching logic," says Raul Rojas, a computing science professor at Berlin University and an expert on Zuse.

"With small funding he arrived at a computer architecture more similar to today's machines than US machines of the time."

Zuse started developing calculating machines while working as a civil engineer, because he got frustrated at having to repeatedly perform standard calculations. He felt that a freely programmable machine could do the job. In 1934 he broke with the tradition of mechanical calculators that worked on decimal numbers and designed and built the binary Z1 calculator in his parents' living room.

By 1941, with government funding, he had developed the Z3, an electro-mechanical device using 2,600 electrical relays, or switches. It was the world's first machine that could perform binary floating point calculations, and included almost all the features of a modern computer, pre-empting by four years the paper by John von Neumann that laid out the design that computers have taken to this day.

Indeed, Zuse described a computer storing both its program and data in memory as early as 1936, before US and UK researchers started making their mark.

Zuse was also the first computing entrepreneur. He formed the first start-up computer company, Zuse Apparatebau, in 1940 and developed the Z4 computer. The company was destroyed by air raids but Zuse formed another in 1949.

He sold a Z4 to the Technische Hochschule in Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). It was the most powerful computing machine in Europe, performing 1,000 operations an hour.

In addition, Zuse developed the first high-level programming language: Plankalkul. He wrote programs in Plankalkul but no compiler was ever produced for it, so it was never tested. Even so, Rojas describes it as a wonderful insight into what would come.

Financial problems eventually forced Zuse to sell his company to Siemens in the 1960s. Following this he switched his attention successfully to his other great love, art, and went on to present nearly 40 exhibitions.

 

Who is your unsung hero?

We have turned the spotlight on five pioneers among many who no longer figure strongly in the IT industry's consciousness. Who do you believe should have a fresh spell in the limelight? Send us your suggestions in an e-mail with the subject line "Heroes".

computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

 


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This was first published in June 2005

 

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