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Gordon Bell

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Gordon Bell
Born(1934-08-19)August 19, 1934[1]
DiedMay 17, 2024(2024-05-17) (aged 89)
Alma materMIT (BS 1956, MS 1957)
Known forComputer architecture
SpouseGwen Bell[1]
Scientific career
InstitutionsDEC, Microsoft

Chester Gordon Bell (August 19, 1934 – May 17, 2024) was an American electrical engineer and manager. An early employee of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), from 1960–1966, Bell designed several of their PDP machines and later served as the company's Vice President of Engineering from 1972–1983, overseeing development of the VAX computer systems. Bell's later career included roles as an entrepreneur, investor, founding Assistant Director of NSF's Computing and Information Science and Engineering Directorate from 1986–1987, and researcher emeritus at Microsoft Research from 1995–2015.

Early life and education[edit]

Gordon Bell was born in Kirksville, Missouri. He grew up helping with the family business, Bell Electric, repairing appliances and wiring homes.[1][2][3]

Bell received a BS (1956),[citation needed] and MS (1957) in electrical engineering from MIT.[4] He then went to the New South Wales University of Technology (now UNSW) in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1957–58,[4] where he taught classes on computer design, programmed one of the first computers to arrive in Australia (called UTECOM, an English Electric DEUCE), and published his first academic paper. Returning to the US, he worked in the MIT Speech Computation Laboratory under Professor Ken Stevens, where he wrote the first analysis by synthesis program.[citation needed]


Digital Equipment Corporation[edit]

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. Bell 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.[5]

After DEC, Bell went to Carnegie Mellon University in 1966 to teach computer science. In 1972, he returned to DEC in 1972 as vice-president of engineering, where he was in charge of the successful VAX computer.[4]

Entrepreneur and policy advisor[edit]

Bell reportedly later came to find work at DEC stressful, and suffered a heart attack in March 1983. After he recovered and shortly after he returned to work, he resigned from the company in the summer.[4] Afterwards, he founded Encore Computer,[4] one of the first shared memory, multiple-microprocessor computers to use the snooping cache structure.[citation needed]

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.

Bell 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 in 1988, and remained until it merged with Stellar in 1989, to become Stardent Computer.

Microsoft Research[edit]

Between 1991 and 1995, Bell advised Microsoft in its efforts to start a research group, then joined it full-time in August 1995, studying telepresence and related ideas.[citation needed] He was the experiment subject for the MyLifeBits project, an experiment in life-logging (not the same as life-blogging).[4] This was 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 digitized all documents he has read or produced, CDs, emails, and so on.[citation needed]


Bell died of aspiration pneumonia at his home in Coronado, California, on May 17, 2024. He was 89.[6][4]

Bell's law of computer classes[edit]

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 and 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), palmtop computing (1995), web services (2000s), convergence of cell phones and computers (2003), and Wireless Sensor Networks aka motes[clarification needed] (2004). Bell predicted that home and body area networks would form by 2010.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Bell has been described as "a giant in the computer industry",[4] "an architect of our digital age",[6] and "father of the minicomputer".[8]

Bell was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1977 for contributions to the architecture of minicomputers.[citation needed] He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994),[9][6] American Association for the Advancement of Science (1983), Association for Computing Machinery (1994), IEEE (1974), and member of the National Academy of Sciences (2007), and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (2009).

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

Bell was the first recipient of the IEEE John von Neumann Medal, in 1992.[10][6] His other awards include Fellow of the Computer History Museum, 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.[11][6] He was also named an Eta Kappa Nu Eminent Member in 2007.

In 1993, Worcester Polytechnic Institute awarded Bell an Honorary Doctor of Engineering, and in 2010, Bell received an honorary Doctor of Science and Technology degree from Carnegie Mellon University. The latter award referred to him as "the father of the minicomputer".

Bell co-founded The Computer Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife Gwen Bell in 1979. He was a founding board member of its successor, the Computer History Museum located in Mountain View, California. In 2003, he was made a Fellow of the Museum "for his key role in the minicomputer revolution, and for contributions as a computer architect and entrepreneur".[12] The story of the museum's evolution beginning in the early 1970s with Ken Olsen at Digital Equipment Corporation is described in the Microsoft Technical Report MSR-TR-2011-44, "Out of a Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [x]* Museum".[13] A timeline of computing historical machines, events, and people is given on his website.[14] It covers from prehistoric times to the present.


  • (with Allen Newell) Computer Structures: Readings and Examples (1971, ISBN 0-07-004357-4)
  • (with C. Mudge and J. McNamara) Computer Engineering (1978, ISBN 0-932376-00-2)
  • (with Dan Siewiorek and Allen Newell) Computer Structures: Principles and Examples (1982, ISBN 0-07-057302-6)
  • (with J. McNamara) High Tech Ventures: The Guide for Entrepreneurial Success (1991, ISBN 0-201-56321-5)
  • (with Jim Gemmell) Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything (2009, ISBN 978-0-525-95134-6)
  • (with Jim Gemmell) Your Life Uploaded: The Digital Way to Better Memory, Health, and Productivity (2010, ISBN 978-0-452-29656-5)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Bell, Gordon (June 23, 2005). "Oral History of Gordon Bell". CHM Reference number: X3202.2006 (Interview). Interviewed by Gardner Hendrie. San Francisco, California: Computer History Museum. Archived from the original on November 20, 2010. Retrieved May 20, 2011.
  2. ^ "Biography of Gordon Bell". Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved December 27, 2023.
  3. ^ "An Oral History Interview with Gordon Bell - April 1995". Archived from the original on December 27, 2023. Retrieved December 27, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Rifkin, Glenn (May 21, 2024). "C. Gordon Bell, Creator of a Personal Computer Prototype, Dies at 89". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on May 22, 2024. Retrieved May 22, 2024.
  5. ^ Bell, Gordon (April 2005). "Oral History Interview with Gordon Bell" (Interview). Interviewed by David K. Allison. Palo Alto, California: National Museum of American History. Archived from the original on April 2, 2005.
  6. ^ a b c d e Edwards, Benj (May 21, 2024). "Gordon Bell, an architect of our digital age, dies at age 89". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on May 21, 2024. Retrieved May 21, 2024.
  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.
  8. ^ Langer, Emily (May 24, 2024). "C. Gordon Bell, father of the minicomputer, dies at 89". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved May 26, 2024.
  9. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived (PDF) from the original on July 25, 2011. Retrieved May 30, 2011.
  10. ^ "IEEE John von Neumann Medal Recipients" (PDF). IEEE. Archived (PDF) from the original on September 25, 2012. Retrieved December 31, 2010.
  11. ^ "The National Medal of Technology and Innovation Recipients - 1991 Laureates". United States Patent and Trademark Office. Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved December 31, 2010. In 1991 the award was called National Medal of Technology.
  12. ^ "Gordon Bell". Computer History Museum. Archived from the original on July 2, 2013. Retrieved May 23, 2013.
  13. ^ Bell, Gordon (4 April 2011). "Out of a Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [x]* Museum". Archived January 13, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Microsoft Technical Report MSR-TR-2011-44. Microsoft Corporation. Accessed 2011-04-12.
  14. ^ Bell, Gordon (20 April 2014). "Timeline of Computing History: Artifacts, Computers, Inventions, People, and Events --B.C. to 2014" Archived March 7, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. Research.microsoft.com.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]