Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - All Things DEC

On June 17, 7-8:30 p.m., I will be presenting an on-line talk titled “All Things DEC.” The talk’s description: “Digital Equipment Corporation (digital, DEC) had a glorious arc that started with some rented space in the mill complex in 1957, furnished with office furniture bought on credit from Gruber Bros. Furniture, then rising to make Maynard the "Minicomputer capital of the world," as a multi-billion dollar company second only to IBM. Mark's talk, with many images from the archives of the Maynard Historical Society, will span the origin, rise, peak and decline of DEC. He will touch on the work experience of women at DEC, and the company's commitment to diversity training.” Registration (free) is at the Maynard Public Library website, under Virtual Events. Refreshments will not be served.

With a bit of luck, AltaVista could have been Google.
After ten years of NOT writing about DEC, a company that was headquartered in Maynard for 41 years, and at its peak employed thousands of people in Maynard (a fraction of the 100,000+ employed worldwide), I finally started a series of articles about DEC in November 2019, with an origin story. All this stretched to a tenth article in March 2020, about DEC’s approach to anti-discrimination and diversity training. In between, the columns (all posted at www.maynardlifeoutdoors.com) covered not just the rise, peak and fall, but also DEC’s faltering and flawed efforts to be in the minicomputer business, and then the impact on Maynard once DEC was gone.

DEC’s demise was not unique. The myth is that DEC missed the advent of mini-computers because of president Ken Olsen’s blind spot, but in reality, there were multiple, major, corporate missteps. And not just at DEC. Just in the greater Boston area Data General, Wang Laboratories, Prime Computer, Lotus Development Corporation and Apollo Computer faded, and either folded or were acquired. 

This trend of short corporate lifespan actually continues today and extends beyond tech. An interesting report by Innosight [https://www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction/] observed that the average lifespan of large companies has been declining for decades, either because they lose to the competition (Monster, Yahoo) or are acquired by larger companies (Monsanto, Aetna, Time-Warner). Locally, our example is Acacia Communications, headquartered in Maynard’s mill complex (!), which started in 2009 with about the same building space as did DEC back in 1957, expanded, expanded more, went public in 2016 with a valuation of several billion dollars – and then was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2019, a deal that will be completed in 2020. What the future holds for the mill complex’s largest tenant is unknown. Will it grow in place, or will Cisco force a relocation?

For most of its history, Maynard has been a company town, in the sense that its survival and prosperity depended almost entirely on one company. From 1847 to 1950, that was wool. A period of diversification began in 1953 when the empty mill complex was bought and repurposed as Maynard Industry Incorporated, with dozens of industry and office space tenants. DEC started renting space in 1957, expanded over the years, until buying the complex in 1974, reverting Maynard to a one-company town again. DEC closed operations in the mill complex in 1993, then the Parker Street complex and the corporate headquarters on Powdermill Road in the years following. At the mill complex, Wellesley Rosemont (Clock Tower Place; 1998-2015) reverted to the practice of multiple clients, which carried over to current-day, Mill & Main operations. Looking forward, the Town of Maynard hopes to sustain the idea of being a commercially diversified community rather than hitch its wagon to one star. But it would still be helpful if the mill complex was 100 percent rented.   

4 comments:

  1. The flip side of the comment after the virtual lecture about the gross "raw wool" received by American Woolen Company: Digital had a major recycling operation in at least one low building between the much taller ones. It had a dual purpose: recovering gold, silver and other expensive materials from electronic components to be scrapped, and limiting pollution of the Assabet.

    Digital didn't permit designation of the mill as a whole as a National Historic Site, because it wanted to be able to change and renovate the complex as needed. For instance, the original windows were poorly insulated, if at all. In the 1970s all or nearly all in brick walls were replaced with better insulated ones with notably larger panes. Several buildings got extensive chambers. One near Building 12, now entirely gone, received, among other things, a small garage with a modern roll-up door used to house for a firefighting truck obtained used from the Town of Maynard.

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  2. David- I was really looking forward to attending this talk along with my 76 year old father, who worked for Data General and Digital in the 70's and 80s. For me DEC takes on mythic porportions. Unfortunately we had a conflict and couldn't dial in. Is there any change the Zoom was recorded or could be shared? I was really looking forward to having the talk be a jumping off point for collecting more stories from my Dad about the early tech days here in MA. Any way, thank you for giving the talk. I look forward to reading your blog. -Greg Hamilton

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  3. Was taped, and the Maynard Public Library will be making it available.

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  4. Worked 12+ years at DEC, in Europe and in the States. Maynard (PK3 and Mill), Marlboro and Littleton. Thanks for your Youtube video, too, David. Brings back many memories.
    ~Harri Rautiainen

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