Anecdotes Web Extras

Anne Fitzpatrick, Editor

Because of space considerations in the January-March 2003 issue, we were unable to feature this article in the Anecdotes department.

Origin of the Term Minicomputer

In the 1960s the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) developed a series of small, versatile computers-the programmable data processors (PDPs)-culminating in the PDP-8. In his book, The Dream Machine (2001), W. Mitchell Waldrop remarked that "... [DEC] saw the PDP-8 as the prototype for a whole new genre of computers. John Leng, head of DEC's operations in the United Kingdom, was particularly taken with that idea."1

Similarly, Glenn Rifkin and George Harrar in The Ultimate Entrepreneur (1983) note,

Leng ... flew to London to establish DEC's presence in the UK. He sold PDP-5s and then PDP-8s with tremendous success. In the mid-sixties, miniskirt fever raged on London's Carnaby Street. ... He sent back sales reports: ?Here is the latest minicomputer activity in the land of miniskirts as I drive around in my Mini Minor.' The phrase caught on at DEC, and then the industry trade publications grabbed on to it. The age of the minicomputer was born.2

The term minicomputer was perfect. It distinctly set the new computers off from the IBM mainframes and tied the idea to that time period. Millicomputer would not have worked, although today we accept microcomputer as the next conceptual step down in size.

References and notes

  1. M.M. Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, Viking, 2001, p. 424.
  2. G. Rifkin and G. Harrar, The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation, Contemporary Books, 1983, p. 72; the Mini Minor was in production until 2000. A new version is currently made by BMW.

Rolf Sinclair
Chevy Chase, MD