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Gordon Bell

C. Gordon Bell (born August 19, 1934) is a computer engineer and manager. An early employee of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) 1960–1966, Bell designed several of their PDP machines and later became Vice President of Engineering 1972-1983, overseeing the development of the VAX. Bell's later career includes entrepreneur, investor, founding Assistant Director of NSF's Computing and Information Science and Engineering Directorate 1986-1987, and researcher at Microsoft Research, 1995-present.


Early life

Chester Gordon Bell was born in Kirksville, Missouri. He grew up helping with the family business, Bell Electric, repairing appliances and wiring homes. [1]


Bell received a B.S. (1956), and M.S. (1957) in electrical engineering from MIT. He then went to the university of New South Wales in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship, where he taught classes on computer design, programmed one of the first computers to arrive in Australia (called the DEUCE) and published his first academic paper. [2] Returning to the USA, he worked in the MIT Speech Computation Laboratory under Professor Ken Stevens, where he wrote the first Analysis-By-Synthesis program. The DEC founders Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson recruited him for their new company in 1960, where he designed the I/O subsystem of the PDP-1, including the first UART and PDP-5 and was the architect of the PDP-4, and PDP-6. Other architectural contributions were to the PDP-5 and PDP-11 Unibus and General Registers architecture.[3]

After DEC, Bell went to Carnegie Mellon University in 1966 to teach computer science, but returned to DEC in 1972 as vice-president of engineering, where he was in charge of the VAX, DEC's most successful computer.

Bell retired from DEC in 1983 as the result of a heart attack, but soon after founded Encore Computer, one of the first shared memory, multiple microprocessors to use the snooping cache structure. During the 1980s he became involved with public policy, becoming the first and founding Assistant Director of the CISE Directorate of the NSF, and led the cross-agency group that specified the NREN aka the Internet. He also established the ACM Gordon Bell Prize (administered by the ACM and IEEE) in 1987 to encourage development in parallel processing. The first Gordon Bell Prize was won by researchers at the Parallel Processing Division of Sandia National Laboratory for work done on the 1000-processor nCUBE 10 hypercube.

He was a founding member of Ardent Computer in 1986, becoming VP of R&D 1988, and remained until it merged with Stellar in 1989.

Between 1991 and 1995, Bell advised Microsoft in its efforts to start a research group, then joined it full time in August 1995, where he still works (as of 2009), studying telepresence and related ideas. He is the experiment subject for the MyLifeBits project, an experiment in life-logging (not the same as life-blogging) and an attempt to fulfill Vannevar Bush's vision of an automated store of the documents, pictures (including those taken automatically), and sounds an individual has experienced in his lifetime, to be accessed with speed and ease. For this, Bell has digitized all documents he has read or produced, CDs, emails, and so on. He continues to do so, gathering web pages browsed, phone and instant messaging conversations and the like more or less automatically. The Dutton book, Total Recall, describes the vision and implications for a personal, lifetime e-memory for recall, work, health, education, and immortality[4].

Bell is also a member of the advisory board of TTI/Vanguard and a member of the Sector Advisory Committee of Australia's Information and Communication Technology Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Bell is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, ACM, IEEE, and member of the National Academy of Engineering (1977), National Academy of Science (2007), and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (2009). His awards include: the IEEE Von Neumann Medal, Fellow of the Computer History Museum, honorary D. Eng. from WPI, the AEA Inventor Award, the Vladimir Karapetoff Outstanding Technical Achievement Award of Eta Kappa Nu, and the 1991 National Medal of Technology by President George H.W. Bush. He was also named an Eta Kappa Nu Eminent Member in 2007.

Bell co-founded The Computer Museum, Boston, MA, with his wife Gwen Bell in 1979, and was a founding board member of its successor, the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California, in 1999 and inducted as a Museum Fellow in 2003. A timeline of computing historical machines, events, and people is given on his website.[5] It covers from B.C. to the present, divided into these lines: computers for people, science and engineering, record keeping, control, networking and communication, and self-control -architecture, algorithms, language, and operating systems.


  • (with Allen Newell) Computer Structures: Readings and Examples (1971)
  • (with C. Mudge and J. McNamara) Computer Engineering (1978)
  • (with Dan Siewiorek and Allen Newell) Computer Structures: Readings and Examples (1982)
  • (with J. McNamara) High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success (1991)
  • (with Jim Gemmell) Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything (2009)


From Computer World "VAX Man" interview,[6] June 1992.

  • "Microsoft going to be very far-reaching. It's going to grab the rug out from under Unix."
  • "In 10 years, you'll see 99% of the hardware and software systems sold through what are fundamentally retail stores."
  • "Twenty-five years from now...Computers will be exactly like telephones. They are probably going to be communicating all the time ... I would hope that by the year 2000 there is this big [networking] infrastructure, giving us arbitrary bandwidth on a pay-as-you-go basis."
  • "Somebody once said, 'He's never wrong about the future, but he does tend to be wrong about how long it takes.' "

Some of his classic sayings while working at DEC:

  • "The most reliable components are the ones you leave out."

At the February 10, 1982 Ethernet Announcement at The World Trade Center with Bob Noyce of Intel and David Liddle of Xerox, he stated:

  • "A Broadband Cable for TV is like a sewer pipe that in principle can carry gas, water, and waste: it is easy to get all that s**t in there, but hard to separate it out again."
  • "Ethernet is the UART of the 1980s."
  • "... the network becomes the system."

Bell's Law of Computer Class Formation

Bell's Law of Computer Classes[7] was first described in 1972 with the emergence of a new, lower priced microcomputer class based on the microprocessor. Established market class computers are introduced at a constant price with increasing functionality (or performance). Technology advances in semiconductors, storage, interfaces and networks enable a new computer class (platform) to form about every decade to serve a new need. Each new usually lower priced class is maintained as a quasi independent industry (market). Classes include: mainframes (1960s), minicomputers (1970s), networked workstations and personal computers (1980s), browser-web-server structure (1990s), web services (2000s), palm computing (1995), convergence of cell phones and computers (2003), and Wireless Sensor Networks aka motes (2004). Bell predicts home and body area networks will form by 2010.

See also


  1. ^ Gordon Bell Oral History (transcript) at Computer History Museum
  2. ^ Gordon Bell Oral History (transcript) at Computer History Museum
  3. ^ Interview by David K. Allison, Curator, National Museum of American History, USA, 1995.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ VAX Man. Gordon Bell Computer World, 22 June 1992
  7. ^ Bell, G., “Bell’s Law for the Birth and Death of Computer Classes”, Communications of the ACM, January 2008, Vol 51, No. 1, pp 86–94.

Further reading

External links



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