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The PDP-1: The Minicomputer That Launched a Revolution

In the history of modern computing, few machines have had as profound an impact as the PDP-1. Introduced by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1960, the PDP-1 was a groundbreaking computer that expanded the possibilities of what computers could do and who could use them. It was the first computer designed from the ground up for interactive, personal use, and it inspired a generation of programmers and enthusiasts who would go on to shape the future of computing.

The Birth of Minicomputing

To understand the significance of the PDP-1, it‘s important to consider the state of computing in the late 1950s. At the time, computers were massive, expensive, and difficult to use. Machines like the IBM 704 and the UNIVAC I filled entire rooms, cost millions of dollars, and were operated by specialized technicians. Programs were typically written on punch cards, submitted in batches, and run with long turnaround times. Interactive computing was still a dream.

But a small group of researchers and engineers were starting to challenge this paradigm. At MIT, a team led by Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson had built the TX-0, one of the first computers to use transistors instead of vacuum tubes. The TX-0 was smaller, faster, and more interactive than the mainframes of the day, with a display screen and a keyboard for input.

Olsen and Anderson saw the potential for a new kind of computer—one that was affordable and easy to use, with an emphasis on interactivity and real-time response. In 1957, they left MIT to start Digital Equipment Corporation, with the goal of building such a machine. They recruited Ben Gurley, an engineer who had worked on the TX-0, to lead the project.

The PDP-1 Takes Shape

Gurley and his team set out to design a computer that would be a radical departure from the mainframes of the day. They wanted a machine that was compact, reliable, and inexpensive, with a focus on interactive use. The result was the PDP-1, which was introduced in 1960 at a base price of $120,000 (about $1 million in today‘s dollars).

The PDP-1 was a marvel of engineering. It used transistors and diodes instead of vacuum tubes, which made it smaller, cooler, and more reliable than other computers. It had a 18-bit word length and came with 4K words of memory standard (expandable to 64K). It could perform around 100,000 operations per second, thanks to its 5 microsecond cycle time.

But what really set the PDP-1 apart was its interactive features. It had a CRT display that could plot 20,000 points per second at a resolution of 1024×1024. It supported a light pen for interactive input. And it had a variety of peripherals, including a paper tape reader and punch, a special IBM typewriter for input and output, and even a speaker and DAC for sound.

Gurley and his team also designed the PDP-1 to be easy to program. It had a simple, intuitive instruction set and came with a symbolic assembler and debugging tools. The console had registers and switches for direct manipulation of the machine state. And the PDP-1 ran without an operating system, allowing programs to have full control of the hardware.

The PDP-1 in Action

The PDP-1 quickly found a niche in the nascent world of interactive computing. It was particularly popular in research labs and universities, where it was used for a wide range of applications. Some of the most famous examples include:

  • Spacewar!: In 1962, a group of MIT students led by Steve Russell wrote the first video game for the PDP-1. Spacewar! was a two-player spaceship combat game with realistic physics and wireframe graphics. It became an instant hit and inspired countless imitators.

  • Computer Music: MIT hackers like Peter Samson used the PDP-1 to create some of the earliest examples of computer music. Samson wrote a program called the Harmony Compiler that allowed users to enter scores in a text-based language and play them back through the PDP-1‘s speaker.

  • Text Editing: The PDP-1 was one of the first computers to support real-time text editing. Programs like "Expensive Typewriter" and "TECO" (Text Editor and Corrector) allowed users to create and manipulate text documents and source code interactively.

  • Hacker Culture: The PDP-1 was a favorite of the early hacker community at MIT and beyond. Its interactive, hands-on nature encouraged a style of computing that was playful, innovative, and irreverent. Many of the values and practices of hacker culture, as documented in Steven Levy‘s book "Hackers," were shaped by the PDP-1.

The PDP-1 also played a key role in the development of time-sharing, one of the most important innovations in computing history. Time-sharing allowed multiple users to share the resources of a single computer, with each user getting a slice of time on the machine. This made computing more efficient and accessible, and laid the groundwork for modern multi-user operating systems.

One of the first time-sharing systems, the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), was developed on the PDP-1 at MIT in the early 1960s. CTSS pioneered many of the concepts that would become standard in later time-sharing systems, including file systems, user accounts, and virtual memory.

The Legacy of the PDP-1

Despite its impressive capabilities, the PDP-1 was not a huge commercial success for DEC. Only around 50 PDP-1s were ever produced, and most of them went to research labs and universities. But the PDP-1‘s influence far exceeded its sales figures.

For one thing, the PDP-1 established DEC as a major player in the nascent field of minicomputers. It was followed by a series of successors, including the PDP-8 (1965) and the PDP-11 (1970), which became some of the most popular minicomputers of all time. By the end of the 1970s, DEC was the second-largest computer company in the world, with over $1 billion in annual sales.

More importantly, the PDP-1 helped to create a new paradigm for computing—one that emphasized interactivity, affordability, and ease of use. It showed that computers could be more than just number crunchers, and that they could be used by individuals and small groups for a wide range of creative and practical applications.

In many ways, the PDP-1 was the first "personal computer," even though that term wouldn‘t be coined until the 1970s. It had all the essential ingredients: a responsive, interactive interface; support for graphics and sound; a variety of input and output devices; and a relatively low price. It was a computer that was designed to be used by people, not just by institutions.

Of course, the PDP-1 was still a far cry from the personal computers that would emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. It was too expensive for most individuals to own, and it required a fair amount of technical expertise to operate. But it laid the groundwork for the PC revolution that would follow, and its influence can still be seen in the design of modern computers and operating systems.

Today, only a handful of PDP-1s still exist, and even fewer are in working condition. But the legacy of the PDP-1 lives on in the countless computers and applications that have followed in its footsteps. It remains a testament to the power of innovation, and to the enduring impact of a small group of visionaries who dared to imagine a new way of computing.

The PDP-1 by the Numbers

  • Price: $120,000 (base configuration)
  • Word length: 18 bits
  • Memory: 4K words standard, expandable to 64K words
  • Speed: 100,000 operations per second
  • Display: 1024×1024 resolution, 20,000 points per second
  • Size: 2 square meters of floor space
  • Weight: 800 pounds
  • Power consumption: 5 kilowatts
  • Reliability: 1,000 hours MTBF (mean time between failures)
  • Production: 53 units (1960-1969)


  • Digital Equipment Corporation. PDP-1 Handbook. 1960.
  • Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Doubleday, 1984.
  • Bell, C. Gordon, and Allen Newell. Computer Structures: Readings and Examples. McGraw-Hill, 1971.
  • Ceruzzi, Paul E. A History of Modern Computing. MIT Press, 1998.
  • Computer History Museum. "PDP-1 Restoration Project."