I’m off this week, and while loafing around the house I took an hour or so to search the web about Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a former employer. That was a mistake, because it got me thinking about my past. This was fun for a while, and then it got sobering.
I worked for DEC from February 1978 until August 1996. During the glory years (before 1986) it was an adventure. We were on a world-changing mission. The code I wrote would live on and the work I did was so cool. Working for DEC was like working for Microsoft in the ’90s or ’00s, except that nobody hated your company. It was like working for Google except that nobody thought you were evil. It was like working for Amazon but pretty much everyone loved working there and it seemed like the world rooted for you to succeed. Most of all, everything we did clicked. There were some bad decisions, but the company always recovered and went on to greater glory.
I wrote CPU microcode for the VAX-11/750 and VAX 8600, worked on some cancelled projects that nobody will ever know about (ECL microprocessors, large ECL mainframes, a new RISC architecture), and my last project was working on Windows NT at DECwest. In its day the VAX 8600 micropipeline was the coolest thing since sliced bread. How many people today know or care about it? Zip.
If you search for VAX-11/750 microcode, you’ll find a couple of tangential references. VAX 8600 microcode, ditto. A couple of papers, a memo or two. The spec I wrote about how SAFE would emulate a VAX, or my Argonaut specs or memos? Nothing. The cool things we did are lost to history.
I have a Venus Ibox microcode listing in my closet. It doesn’t exist anywhere on the web, AFAICT. Should I scan it and post it as a PDF file? Who would give a rat’s ass?
There were intrigues swirling in DEC in the 70s and 80s: The politics surrounding the Minnow and Dolphin projects, the agony of the Jupiter and Jupiter II projects. Hardware alternatives that would have changed the arc of DEC’s history if they had been followed. Dolphin would have been a mainframe that ran PDP-10 and VAX instructions — 36 and 32 bit modes! How cool would that have been? How much more sensible than funding two separate development projects? How DEC shut down the PDP-10 business was incredibly stupid. (Yes, no, Yes kind of, maybe, I guess not.) Watching all that go down from nearby (I worked on Venus just down the hall from the Jupiter folks) was exciting.
Now? You can find some of the memos and specs online, but not everything. Plans for Jupiter multiprocessing? Just a couple of the memos. The really juicy memos about Jupiter’s performance problems are missing in action.
It’s sad. I thought our work would live on, if not forever, certainly more than a mere decade or two.
During my last job search, I met with one recruiter who started our conversation asking the usual questions, including where I first worked. I replied that I worked for DEC, blah blah blah. She replied, “Deck? What is deck?” I said that it was Digital Equipment Corporation. She never heard of the company.
As I read the few memos I found in my searching, I remembered most of the names I saw on the From, To, or CC lists. The recognition was a hammer. At one time those names were the anchors of my technical universe. A memo from XYZ was something you wanted to get your hands on. XYZ was talking!! Now, who cares?
I’ve always been fascinated by the past and our relation to it. What went down before me, and before us. How people lived in times past. I don’t much care about how famous people lived or died. I’ve been far more interested in the common individual. How did people walk down the street and say, “Good morning,” in 1500? What fears did they have, how did they deal with their lifes’ issues? What did a factory worker think about in 1905? When I compare what I know about just one company to the available data, I’m amazed and saddened by what’s lost. There are a billion things about DEC that are lost to history. And that’s just one company that existed for 40 years. I’ll extrapolate and say we know less than 1% of 1% of 1% of what life was like in the past. We have historical records, newspapers, paintings, poems, and photographs, so we think we know what went down. We don’t. The overwhelming majority of human information has been irretrievably lost.
And I’m not talking about thousands of years ago. I’m talking about just 100 years ago.
So back to my work history. Does anyone care about Venus microcode, or Comet microcode, or SAFE memos? How about memos that argued for continuing the Dolphin project? No. It was once the center of my universe, and now it’s crap.
Do other people think like this or is it just me?