Computer history

Lately I have been reading more about computer history. Things related specific companies that once were leaders. I have already read a lot about Apple in the past, and a good amount about Microsoft, as these are mostly contemporary to me, reading about the others gave a new perspective.

Let’s see.


Wang Laboratories was founded by Dr An Wang after he did some fundamental work on the development of core memory at Harvard.

In the 70s Wang Laboratories were a leading vendor of word processing systems, until they failed to properly react to the PC revolution.

Wang is notorious for having been the first computer company with a Superbowl commercial.


Xerox renamed itself from Haloid after they refined the xerographic process and unveiled the Xerox 914 copier. The Xerox™ is now used to designate photocopiers or conjugated as verb to photocopy.

Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) employed among the most brilliant minds of the time. They did invent graphical user interfaces, ethernet, page description language (PostScript was directly inspired from that work), laser printers, etc. In 1972 they created the Alto, the first personal computer, connected to a network, and that was controlled with a keyboard and a mouse with a graphical display. They had invented the future.

The Star, the commercial product based on the Alto, was released 2 years before the Apple Lisa in 1981. It was way too expensive for a document processing system. Xerox failed to become a leader in personal computing.

Xerox still exists, they are the document company.


Digital Equipment Corporation (later just Digital) invented the minicomputer market. The PDP-11, considerd as one of the most popular minicomputer is the origin story of most computer architectures in use today as its design inspired Intel’s among others. UNIX was independently developed at Bell Labs on a PDP-11, while paradoxally DEC was really reluctant to sell UNIX.

DEC VAX 32-bits computer line running the VMS operating system pioneered a lot of things, like clusters, the capability of being able to augment the capacity by adding more hardware. DEC was once number 2 computer manufacturer after IBM. The VAX ended up being later supplanted by UNIX servers and workstations.

Later the DEC Alpha RISC architecture was promising as one of the first 64-bits, but it was too late. Digital got acquired in 1998 by Compaq, a major PC clone vendor, who then got acquired by HP in 2002.

Sun Microsystems

Sun started in the early 80s championing open system making BSD UNIX workstations. They invented NFS, NIS, etc, and dethroned their main competitor Apollo/Domain (who got bought by HP). Sun created the SPARC RISC CPU, was well regarded and played a key part in the rise of the internet.

Also Sun invented Java, open sourced OpenOffice, bought MySQL, etc.

Sun got bought by Oracle in 2009. Facebook moved in. End of story.


Commodore, founded in the 50s (around the same time as Wang) to sell typewriters and later calcuators, was in the 70s a major player in the world of home computer. It developed early 8-bits microcomputer, like the PET, and later took the market with the VIC-20 and the most successful Commodore 641. Early on Commodore bought MOS Technologies, the chip vendor that created the 6502 family that would be at the heart of their computers. The CPU was also used by competing products like the Apple ][ and the Acorn BBC.

Despite the full name of the company, Commodore Business Machines was no longer in the business market, instead they were in the home computer market.

After buying Amiga and making it its flagship system by the second half of the 80s, Commodore failed to compete in the ever increasing PC market. Their foray into building PC clones didn’t pan out, and the Amiga didn’t really thrive outside of the home market. The company filed for bankrupcy in 1994 and never recovered, liquidating all the assets like a spilled jigsaw puzzle.

On a side note, the Amiga was at the heart of Video Toaster, a CGI and post-production system for the film industry, notoriously used to produce Babylon 5 special effects. But that wasn’t enough.

Bottom line

There are many more. For example Silicon Graphics who used to be the 3D workstation vendor, Compaq who created the PC clone industry, or even Atari that is still a brand name. And a few software vendors that got wiped. For another time.

Of all the companies in the industry from the 70s and 80s, still alive are Apple, Microsoft and Dell that have evolved and diversified, IBM that pulled out of the PC business after creating it, and HP who is just selling ink and PCs.

  1. The Commodore 64 is often considered as the highest-selling computer model ever. ↩︎