Friday, August 24, 2007

LINC, an early personal computer (1962)

A very interesting announcement from Severo Ornstein, author of Computing in the Middle Ages.


On November 3-4 the Vintage Computer Festival (VCF - see below) will be holding its annual event, and this year after lunch on Sunday the 4th the LINC will be featured. The show will take place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View (which doesn't sponsor the event but which provides space for it). For directions see:

About a year ago Laura and I visited the Digibarn Computer Museum in the hills above Boulder Creek - an institution that could hardly be more different from the formal museum in Mountain View. On our visit we met the Digibarn founder, Bruce Damer, who helps with the program for the VCF. He had previously been only marginally aware of the LINC's existence, but when I described its seminal role in the history of the personal computer and after reading my book, he enthusiastically embraced the idea of featuring it. Remembering that Scott Robinson, a technician at the former Washington University Computer Lab in St. Louis, had stashed several LINCs away in his garage some twenty years ago when they became obsolete, I talked him and some of my other former Wash. U. colleagues into trying to resuscitate one of the machines.

Over the course of the past year they have managed to get one working again (!) and they will be accompanying it to the VCF where it will be shown, and a bunch of us old-time LINC types will hold forth about the LINC's history and resurrection. We plan to record the panel and the LINC, and to interview LINCers in order to produce a DVD documentary about the LINC, its role in history, and its community. Please send Bruce Damer ( any photos, movies, audio, text, documents, or other material you might have to help us better tell the LINC story. Immediately after the show finishes, we're going to move the LINC to it's ultimate destination at the Digibarn and anyone who wishes is invited to help with the move and take a tour of the Digibarn. Probably a gaggle of us will then go to dinner someplace.

You can see a documentary page about the LINC, the restoration, the team and commentary about it as "the first personal computer" at this site. More details about the 2007 Vintage Computer Festival will be posted soon at this site.

I hope you can join us at the Computer History Museum on Nov. 4th.


Some would argue that the Bendix G-15, which pre-dated LINC by about five years, was also a "personal computer" in the sense that it was used by a single person at its keyboard, but let's not quibble about that. LINC certainly influenced those who eventually made personal computing commonplace.


Comment by Blogger Jim Horning:

In a note to me, Severo Ornstein adds:

BTW, we're actually claiming more than being the first personal computer - a genuine paradigm shift - away from the then conventional wisdom about what computers were like. That's what the Abstract was meant to convey so you might want to add it to the blog. Here it is again in case you've dropped it.

The LINC: A Paradigm Shift

Back when computers were giant, fiercely-expensive, room-filling affairs that had to be shared, it took corrective foresight to believe that it was possible to put a whole computer into the hands of a single user as owner and master. Conventional wisdom has it that this vision wasn't realized until the 1970s, but in fact such a machine, the LINC, was developed at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in the early 1960s. The particular motivation was to provide a programable computer for real-time, on-line biomedical research The work was carried out by a small group of enthusiastic colleagues, and the LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer) proved so successful that in less than two years, under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health, copies were in active use in over twenty laboratories around the country. Over the next decade the LINC and its variants spread through the biomedical research community and significantly advanced the work in numerous disciplines.

The LINC has been identified by the IEEE Computer Society as the first personal computer. However, as the leader of the design team puts it, "What excited us was not just the idea of a personal computer. It was the promise of a new departure from what everyone else seemed to think computers were all about, a corrective point of departure from an otherwise overwhelming mainstream. The need was entirely real, the opportunity was there, the resources superb. Just build and demonstrate a sound counterexample and see to it that it was used humanely, a complete if small computer that did interactive real-time work efficiently, one that could simply be turned off at night with a clear conscience, just taken for granted, no administrators. For us, it was the point of departure."

In the rush of the technological advance of the 1970s and 80s, the LINC became obsolete. Fortunately one of the most foresightful of us had the wisdom to purchase four of the decommissioned LINCs and sequester them in his garage in St. Louis. Over the last year he and three colleagues, working with great zeal and no funding, managed to bring one of the LINCs back to life and have brought it to be shown at the Vintage Computer Festival and thereafter to reside at the Digibarn Museum.

In the first part of our presentation, some members of the original design team will summarize the early history and applications and describe what was special about the LINC. In the second part the resuscitation team will describe what it took to rejuvenate an ancient computer that had slept quietly for more than twenty-five years.

It is sad that Charlie Molnar, the LINC's co-designer, died in 1996; we will miss his keen insights and sense of humor. This presentation is dedicated to his memory.

2:02 PM  

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