Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - DCU

The Digital Federal Credit Union, which goes by “DCU,” had its beginnings in 1979 when DEC was in the process of transferring people from Maynard to a new factory in Westminster, 30 miles west on Route 2. Complaints got back to Ken Olsen that people were having a hard time getting house mortgages. After discussions with Human Resources, a decision was made to create a credit union that would charge less than the going rate for home loans and pay better interest on savings. Interestingly, this echoed services that the woolen mill had offered under the Maynard family during the 19th century. Back then there was no bank in Maynard; employees could earn interest by creating accounts funded by money deducted from their pay.

Today, DCU has outlived Digital by 21 years. The headquarters are in Marlborough. It is the largest credit union headquartered in New England, with over 863,000 members and management of assets in excess of eight billion dollars. Per DCU’s website: “The credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative providing financial banking services to multiple member groups, but primarily serves communications and utilities employees. Membership is also open to immediate family of current members.” The nearest branch office to Maynard is in the Stop-and-Shop plaza, in Acton. No-charge ATMs are located inside CVS and 7-11.

The credit union logo
DCU offers a variety of financial services typically offered by financial institutions, including savings and checking accounts, and IRAs. DCU also offers its members home mortgages, home equity loans, auto loans, boat loans, business loans, credit cards, debit cards and insurance services. Checking accounts have no required minimum nor monthly fees, on-line access and bill paying. Savings accounts are federally insured.

The DCU vision – “All Members Achieve Their Financial Goals Collaboratively” – means it wants to be catalyst and cheerleader for members’ long-term financial success. DCU feels strongly that integrity is the most important aspect of what it is, and stands by three principles that guide the decisions and behavior of everyone at DCU: 1) People Come First; 2) Do the Right Thing; and 3) Make a Difference. The second, especially harks back to a guiding principle that stood Digital Equipment Corporation in good stead for so many years.

And now for the bad news. A check at YELP for consumer reviews of DCU found scores upon scores of one-star reviews, many stating that they had actually wanted to rate their experience as zero stars. Complaints were about both in-bank and on-line services. Often, after long time on phone-hold, the person answering did not know how to solve the problem and could not forward the caller to a person who might. At banks, rudeness ruled. In the summer of 2019 DCU settled a class-action lawsuit for $1.8 million for accusations that it had triggered overdraft fees by delaying action on deposits while at the same time speedily processing debit card charges.       

The first mention of banking services in Maynard pre-dates 1900. The Assabet Manufacturing Company, under management by Lorenzo Maynard, allowed employees and ex-employees to have money in interest-earning savings accounts. When the company went bankrupt in January 1, 1899, deposits were $132,000. According to the centennial history book, on August 12, 1899, assignees managing the distribution of mill assets paid the depositors 25%, and then on February 23, 1990, an additional 35%. There were rumors at the time that the mill owners and Maynard family had diverted funds before the bankruptcy, and that Lorenzo Maynard, realizing that the end was drawing nigh, signed over mill property estimated at $250,000 to protect himself when the crash came. Such was the animosity that in 1902 there was a concerted effort to change the name of the town from Maynard to Assabet. The State Legislature voted to not let the question come to a local vote – Maynard remained Maynard.

Assabet Institute for Savings, the first bank in Maynard, opened on April 29, 1904. Maynard Trust Company began operations in 1913, and soon after had a building on Main Street. It later merged with Middlesex County National Bank. Approaching Maynard’s 150th anniversary, the town is served by Middlesex Bank and Citizens Bank, both on Nason Street. Bank of America had a Nason Street branch office in Maynard starting in 1947, recently closed.

Not in the newspaper: In October 2004, DCU (Digital Federal Credit Union) and the City of Worcester entered into a naming rights partnership at $5.2 million for ten years, to rename the arena and convention center to the DCU Center Arena & Convention Center. Naming rights later extended to 2025. Originally Worcester Centrum Centre, opened 1982, convention center added 1997. Renovated several times since.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Mill-Owned Homes Auctions of 1934

The American Woolen Company (AWC), soon after having purchased the bankrupt Assabet Woolen Mill in May 1899, expanded operations and decided to create housing to meet demands from workers. The company purchased farm and pasture land on the east side of Parker Street in 1901, and over two years built 206 single family homes and duplexes. This development became known as New Village, but also as Presidential Village, as the streets were named after presidents. Houses were rented to mill employees for $3-6/month. The Bancroft School (later renamed Calvin Coolidge School) was opened September 1906, in part to accommodate children living in the new development.      

Assabet Mills homes auction, August 1934. Click on image to enlarge.
In 1934, a smidge over 30 years later, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the mill was operating at 20 percent capacity. AWC decided to auction housing in many towns, including Maynard. On August 18 and 19, twelve vacant lots and 150 buildings in the Presidential Village development – single family homes and duplexes – were auctioned, for a total of $183,740. There were no reserves on the prices, meaning that there were no minimums below with the properties would be withdrawn from auction. All properties were sold. Terms were 10 percent at bid, 15 percent at closing, buyers offered three-year mortgages on the remaining amount at 6 percent interest. The average for single family homes was under $1,000. By way of comparison, a new Chevrolet car could be had for $450-700. The great majority of purchases were by Maynard residents, although in some instances families were outbid on the houses they lived in, but were able to buy a different house.  

This was actually the second AWC auction of 1934. June 23 of the same year saw auction of 74 dwellings, many multi-family, plus four stores and three boarding houses. Terms were same as the August auction. This sale included much of the company property on Main, Front and High Streets, plus the row house buildings on Railroad Street. The eight-page auction brochure can be viewed online at https://collection.maynardhistory.org/items/show/5126. The auction netted $90,000. Newspaper accounts of both auctions – on microfilm at the Maynard Public Library – named the buyers, but not which properties they had bought.    

A less well-known part of Maynard’s history is that John F. Lovell, owner of Lovell Bus Lines, had accrued a notable amount of Maynard real estate, and then auctioned 24 pieces of property to the highest bidders on December 2, 1939. The five-page auction brochure can be viewed online at https://collection.maynardhistory.org/items/show/5129. It includes photos of each house, addresses, and hand-written, the selling prices and names of buyers. Terms were the same as the 1934 auctions. The auctioneering firm – Samuel T. Freeman & Co. – was also the same. From the brochure: “Accommodating from one to five families each. These properties have been excellently maintained, consistently occupied, and are advantageously located.”

Lovell Bus Lines, Maynard, MA. Historic Society collection, date unknown
Lovell’s letter to the auction house stated that he was 82 years old, and had found that managing all this property in addition to the Lovell Bus Lines, was too much of a burden. Most of what he owned was two- to five-family dwellings scattered about town. The total netted from the auction was about $55,000. Of note, what had been the Lorenzo Maynard mansion on Dartmouth Street, described as a five-family dwelling, went for $2,650. The building still exists as apartments, with the original stained-glass windows intact.

John Lovell started bus service from Maynard to the South Acton train station in 1923. In time, he bought what had been the electric trolley car barn at the west end of Main Street, and added bus service to Concord and to Hudson. Eventually the line was extended west to Clinton and Leominster, and east to Waltham and Revere Beach (summers only, round-trip $1.25). Lovell also had the school bus contract for Weymouth. In 1953, Lovell Bus Lines was sold to Middlesex & Boston Street Railway – which operated trolleys and buses – later merged with MBTA. Bus service for Maynard ended.

Lovell had lived a remarkable life. He left school at age nine for factory work, taught himself to read and write in his teens, then alternated factory work with starting his own businesses (with little success at the latter). Age 61 years found him broke again, with only an old Model T Ford to his name. He went into the taxi-cab business in Woburn, expanded that to buses, was bought out for $45,000, and at age 63, instead of retiring, started the bus line in Maynard. He stayed involved in daily operations until his death in 1945, at age 87. Over time the family sold off parts, then ended the business in 1954.    

Monday, December 16, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - Women

Ken Olsen was a big believer in numbers. Employees were assigned consecutive numbers based onAlma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.
order of hire, later becoming their badge numbers. Ken was #1 Harlan was #2. The first two women hired were Alma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.

Women were not rare at Digital. From perusing a list of the first 100 full-time employees, 36 were women. Years later, the main reasons Olsen gave for locating in Maynard were low rent and a local work force with lots of factory experience. Many of the women were walk-to-work Maynardites, some who had worked in the same buildings in the woolen mill era, which had ended less than 10 years back. The newly refurbished work areas were clean, quiet and well lit, although hot during the summers, as air conditioning was not installed until around 1970. Throughout the buildings, summer weather meant lanolin from the old wool-processing days dripping down the walls or from the ceilings above.    

Women at DEC, assembling boards (date unknown). This is
probably the original space in Building 12.
Alma E. Pontz was the first woman hired. According to her 2013 obituary she had already put in 24 years in the wool business before being hired by Olsen as the first administrative assistant She was more than a decade older than her bosses. She stayed with DEC until she retired 21 years later.

Gloria Porrazzo was the first woman hired to work in assembling Laboratory Modules and Systems Modules. These products allowed Digital to be profitable from its first year onward. According to Peter Koch, plant manager, Porrazzo stayed with the company for 25 years, rising to the level of production manager. The 50 to 60 women who worked for her in Assembly were informally known as "Gloria's Girls." They were responsible for inserting electronic components into circuit boards, welds and quality control. Ken Olsen was known to drop in for coffee and a chat with Gloria to keep abreast of any production problems. 
"Light, clean work in our Production Department for
girls and women with good eyesight and nimble fingers."
Why women on the production floor? Because it was no longer legal to hire children. Back in the woolen mill years, children were hired for the manual dexterity. In time, women had taken over those jobs. A DEC job openings advertisement from 1959 specified a preference for women with good eyesight and nimble fingers. Some women worked the “Mother Shift,” meaning their day ended in time for them to be home when their kids got out of school.

Digital was not averse to hiring women with technical expertise, but some of the customers had a hard time adapting. Olsen had gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus to interview students in the electrical engineering department in 1960. One result was the hiring of Barbara Stephenson in 1961. From Barbara: "I was the first woman engineer at DEC. Customers would call for an applications engineer. They would say 'I want to speak with an engineer,' and I would reply 'I'm an engineer,' and they would say, 'No, I want to speak with a real engineer.' I developed this patter: 'Well, tell me about the application you have in mind. We have three lines of modules ranging from five to ten megacycles and …' The line would go dead for a moment and then I’d hear, 'Hey Joe, guess what, I’ve got a…woman…engineer on the phone!'"
Barbara Stephenson: first
woman engineer at DEC

Women were promoted from within. Rose Ann Giordano was hired from Xerox in 1979 to work in marketing, promoted to manager in 1981, then promoted in 1984 to become the first woman vice president and corporate officer at Digital Equipment Corporation. Earlier, Maynard resident Angela Cossette was hired as an administrative assistant in 1963 in support for DEC User's Society. DECUS provided a pre-internet forum for computer users to exchange technical information and user-developed software. Cossette moved up to becoming the company's first woman manager, in time with as many as 100 people reporting to her. In her own words "...Digital became very aggressive about giving women the opportunity to grow in their careers and making it possible for them to move into key positions." [Quote from company newsletter Digital This Week.] Cossette retired in 1992.

Cossette’s comment reflected Digital's self-realization that it had a problem with its history of male-dominated culture. A Core Groups program was started in 1977, evolving into the Valuing Differences philosophy in 1984. The stated goal was for the company and its employees to pay attention to differences of individuals and groups, to be comfortable with those differences, and to utilize those differences as assets to the company's productivity.

Mark went to MIT (where Ken Olsen got his undergraduate when the undergraduate population was 7 percent female. It is now 45 percent. Faculty is 25 percent women.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - Minicomputers

Harlan Anderson, co-founder and employee #2, left the company in 1966, just before the company went public (issued stock). Anderson’s take on his departure, incorporated into a memoir he published in 2009, descripted the problem as a major difference in his and Olsen’s visions for how to manage the fast-growing company. Anderson favored a traditional hierarchy. Olsen, having put in a bit over a year in Poughkeepsie, New York as MIT’s liaison to IBM, loathed this type of rigidity. Each had their champions on the board of directors, respectively Jay Forrester, who had been their boss at Lincoln Labs, later a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Georges Doriot, president of the venture capital firm that had provided start-up funding for DEC.

[Harlan Anderson died January 30, 2019, age 89 years]

Anderson’s position within the company had been weakened by his ties to the failed PDP-6 computer. He resigned rather than assume a lesser position within the company. Forrester left the board soon thereafter; Doriot stayed on into the late 1980s. Olsen went on to commit to a matrix-style management that perplexed business school academics for years, yet seemed to work fine for a company of engineers making leading-edge products for engineers.     

Ken Olsen standing next to the sign facing Main Street
(Internet download, date not known)
DEC dominated the minicomputer niche. In 1971, Massachusetts Governor Francis William Sargent declared Maynard as “Minicomputer Capital of the World.” By then, DEC had expanded to renting most of the mill. A year later it bought the 60-acre Parker Street industrial. In 1974 it bought the entire mill complex, and in time a few other buildings in town, bringing the total to more than two million square feet of office and factory space.

Exact numbers are not available, but estimates are that Digital employed between one-third and one-half of the adults living in Maynard. Students were hired right out of high school. Other employees commuted – Routes 117 and 27 had twice daily traffic jams, and the mill pond was partially filled in to create more parking. Evenings, restaurants and bars were flooded with employees. There were no empty storefronts. Was there a downside? Yes, in that Maynard was once again a one-company town.  

VAX was Digital’s second act. The name choice itself was significant, as after almost twenty years of ‘PDP-next,’ this was a whole new system. The acronym stood for “Virtual Address Extension.” Design and development started in 1975, The VAX-11/780 was introduced in October 1977. In tech-speak – which will not be interpreted here – VAX had a novel instruction set architecture incorporating a 32-bit system. According to the Wikipedia article on VAX, primary features were “…its very large number of assembly-language-programmer-friendly addressing modes and machine instructions, highly orthogonal architecture, and instructions for complex operations such as queue insertion or deletion and polynomial evaluation.” In non-tech-speak, the VAX computer systems were flexible, robust and scalable. As a customer’s information technology needs grew, more VAX machines could be added, and networked through a new means – the Ethernet. New VAX models were introduced well into the early 1990s, but everything remained compatible.

There was a downside. Faced with an internal competition for resources, Ken Olsen decided in 1982 that it was time to kill the extremely successful PDP-11 series. Vice presidents Rose Anne Giordano and Winston “Win” Hindle were tasked with the announcement at the annual DECUS symposium. The sense of betrayal led many clients to abandon DEC, but most transitioned to VAX. It helped that DEC sweetened the pot with discounts. The success of VAX catapulted DEC into higher and higher income levels: $1.0 billion for 1977, then $4.0 billion for 1982, $11.4 billion for 1988.  

Aerial photo circa 1970 - note full parking lots. Click on photos to enlarge.
Prior to DEC outright buying the mill, it had been owned since 1953 as a multi-tenant rental by Maynard Industries Incorporated. What they had purchased was the buildings, surrounding land, and more: the mill pond, Ben Smith Dam, Lake Boon and part of the Fort Meadow Reservoir. The purchase price of $200,000 equates to $1.9 million in today’s dollars. Lake Boon was relinquished to Stow in lieu of unpaid property taxes, ditto Fort Meadow to Marlborough. The mill pond itself remains private property (presently by Mill & Main). Before the 2008 recession the previous owner/operator had proposed to build an office building on the south side, and either a multi-level parking garage for 1,000 cars or else fill in more of the pond.

DEC’s market capitalization – number of shares times price per share – reached a peak of $24 billion in 1987. The company was riding the peak of the ‘bet-the-farm’ introduction of the VAX-based mini-computers a decade earlier. Even though it had stumbled badly in beginnings of the microcomputer era, DEC had a valid claim to being the second largest computer company in the world. What DEC did not see coming was changes embodied by a famous quote by Georges Doriot: “Someone, somewhere, is making a product that will make your product obsolete.”

Very unofficially, a humor-intended memo circulated within DEC in the 1980s. It finished with the punchline: “This isn’t Burger King and you don’t get it your way. You get it our way or not at all, because we’re Digital and you’re not!”

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - the Rise

Among the many stories Ken Olsen told about the early years was how primitive the working  Summer, with no air conditioning, windows were opened, but there were no screens, so the work area was plagued by pigeons. In the deeps of winter, heat was constantly on, but during the spring and fall, not on for weekends. Raytheon shared one building with Digital’s space. If Raytheon wanted heat, Digital got heat. Raytheon would call noon on Friday to specify which buildings it wanted heated, paying $15/hour for the service. Ken Olsen would call at 1:00 to see if he was going to get his part of the building heated for free.
conditions were in the early years. Workspaces had walls but no doors (bathroom stalls did not have doors, either).

The early successes of DEC rested on two concepts – real time computing and time sharing. The first described the ability to sit in front of a computer, create program code on a keyboard, and see code and output on a video screen. The second referred to the idea that more than one user could be using the same computer at the same time, with speed fast enough that each user had the sense that they were a sole operator.

Digital Equipment Corporation: PDP-1. "PDP" was from
Programmed Data Processor, as Digital was adverse to
calling itself a computer company. 
The PDP-1 was DEC’s first computer, introduced in December 1959. First delivery to a customer was November 1960. It introduced the concept of real-time computing. It weighed about 1,600 pounds, sold for $30,000 (roughly $1,000,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, and was considered a huge bargain compared to mainframe computers. DEC sold 53 of them. One was on permanent loan to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Electrical Engineering Department, Ken Olsen’s alma mater, where faculty and students could sign up for computer time, 24/7. DEC recruited students who showed programming promise.  

The PDP-8, introduced in 1965, became DEC’s first superstar computer, selling more than 50,000 over its lifespan. The innovative idea – radical at the time – was to make a smaller, cost-effective computer rather than going for “bigger equals better.” There had been missteps prior. PDP models 4-7 were sluggish sellers, and the PDP-6 in particular had devoured huge amounts of the company’s research and development budget. The PDP-8 supported time-sharing, meaning that many people could be using terminals at the same time, but have the response time they expected from being the only user of a real-time computer. The introductory price was $18,500.

The original PDP-8 spawned a large family of models that were progressively smaller and faster and less expensive. One anecdote of the time was that Bob Metcalf, a graduate student at MIT, had received permission to have a PDP-8 on loan in his office for a weekend demonstration for visiting high school students. When he got to his office that Saturday, the computer was gone. DEC’s public relations department turned the crime into an advertising coup, describing the PDP-8 as “The first computer small enough to steal.” Metcalf went on to co-invent the Ethernet, parent concept for the Internet. The PDP-8 system was later incorporated into one of DEC’s entries into the personal computer niche – the DECmate II/III.

Financially, a major milestone was achieved when the company issued stock on August 18, 1966 as an initial public offering (IPO) of 375,000 shares at $22/share, raising a bit over $8 million dollars for about 20 percent of the company (the majority of shares retained by the investor). Given that the company had been initially funded by $70,000 from American Research & Development, one of the first venture capital companies in the U.S., for 70% ownership, this achievement was insanely profitable for AR&D. Harlan Anderson, one of the co-founders, later wrote: “This deal seems ridiculous and unfair by today’s standards; however, we never contacted an alternative source of capital. We were very na├»ve and there was very little venture capital money available then. We accepted the offer without any negotiation.” When AR&D was purchased in 1972 the price was $450 million; the major asset in its portfolio was Digital Equipment Corporation.

Image of $1,000 bond issued in December 1978. The computer in the
central image appears to be a PDP-12. Click on image to enlarge.
PDP-11 reached the market in 1970. DEC had ended up behind the competition – IBM, and Data General – the latter started in Hudson by ex-DEC engineers. DEC “bet the farm” on leapfrogging the competition. It succeeded. Various versions in the PDP-11 family sold more than 600,000 computers to all corners of the world. The need to fulfill sales and service contracts on this vast family meant DEC needing to have thousands of employees in scores of countries. The PDP-11 models had a successful twenty-year run, until being rendered obsolete by microcomputers connected to server networks.

Prior to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in 1979, and a subsequent boycott on importing U.S. computers, PDP-8s and PDP-11s legally made their way behind the Iron Curtain. There, they were reverse-engineered to create knock-offs. Some were so compatible that they could run DEC software, and DEC sales force in eastern Europe reported seeing Russian language PDP manuals. Most of the early personal computers in the USSR were PDP-11 compatible. Years later, VAX machines were smuggled into the USSR and cloned as ‘WAX’ superminicomputers, also able to run DEC software.

There is a confirmed story that the scribe lane of the Digital CVAX microprocessor had text in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, with one suggested translation as: "VAX - when you care enough to steal the very best". This was actually a rift on the famous Hallmark card slogan: "When you care enough to send the best".