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DigiBarn Stories:
The LINC, A History and Restoration
(a 45 Year Retrospective)

The Restoration of the LINC,
the "World's First Personal Computer"(a
nd its place in History)

See the LINC in action and our special event held
at the Vintage Computer Festival (Nov 3-4, 2007)

Guide to the Project

Special Event: November 4th, 2007 at the VCF 10.0

What is/was the LINC?
The LINC and the Question of "First Personal Computer?"
LINC Restoration and Team
LINC Documentation - Key Articles
Key Web Resources and Books on the LINC

Commentary from the LINC user community


The Digibarn Computer Museum actively pursues projects and partnerships to restore significant computer and software systems to "fill the gaps" in the history of the development of personal and interactive computing. We have done several projects since 2000 including the Maze War retrospective and more recently a look at the Xerox 860 and Canon Cat. The newest initiative is to restore the LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer) to its rightful place in history as quite possibly "the first personal computer".

It all started when Severo Ornstein came as a guest at a Digibarn open house in the summer of 2006 and after seeing our Altair 8800 and Xerox Alto he asked me (and I am paraphrasing): "but do you think these are the first personal computers... have you heard of the LINC"? I admitted to him that I recalled the name from my third year college computing textbook but didn't have much loaded in the old brain about it (my excuse being that I didn't go back much before 1970, both as a collector and a human being). For more on this Question of the LINC and the First Personal Computer see the section below.

Severo did go back well before 1970 and as it turned out, worked as a part of the team that created the LINC. He had written a book in 1991 that covered it and other key computing history: "Computing in the Middle Ages: A View From the Trenches 1955-1983". Inspired by Severo, I quickly ordered the book and read it cover to cover. The LINC section was engrossing and I realized that I had been missing out on the true formative period in the development of the personal computer. As luck may have it, Severo discovered that one of his old colleagues from the LINC days had carefully stored not one, but four original LINC machines in his home in St. Louis, MO.

Severo had a keen sense that the LINC had to be restored to its proper and rightful place in history so pursued the St. Louis team and convinced them it would be a fine idea to restore at least one of the machines to some kind of working condition, then somehow manage to get it shipped out to California. We are happy to report that one of the LINCs is now back "amongst the living" and operational. This goal was achieved and you can see what was accomplished by visiting our LINC Event Pages below.

Also see our LINC Page for the LINC now in the collections
here at the Digibarn!

Special Event was held on November 3rd-4th, 2007at the VCF 10.0

See the LINC in action and see our special event held at the 10th annual Vintage Computer Festival
(Nov 3-4th, 2007, Mountain View CA)

The LINC and the restoration and historical team presented a 45 year retrospective of the LINC at the 10th annual Vintage Computer Festival at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
Featured was the restored LINC, which found its way to the Digibarn collection on November 5th, 2007.

What is/was the LINC?








Find three descriptions of the LINC excerpted from sites around the web below.

The LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer) is a small stored program digital computer designed to accept analog as well as digital inputs directly from experiments, to process data immediately, and to provide signals for the control of experimental equipment. The LINC system comprises five physically distinct subassemblies which include four console modules connected by separate cables to a remote cabinet containing the electronics and power supplies. The control module contains indicator lights, push buttons, and switches used in operating the LINC. A second module provides for display oscilloscopes, while a third module holds two magnetic tape transports of special design. The last module is provided with sockets, jacks, and terminals for interconnecting the LINC and other laboratory equipment. This photograph shows the prototype version demonstrated on March 27, 1962, at the M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory (courtesy of M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory, from Clark and Molnar [1964]). Source: Gordon Bell's LINC page at Microsoft.

The LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer) was a 12-bit, 2048-word computer. The LINC and the PDP-8 can be considered the first mini computers and perhaps the first personal computers as well. Although its instruction set was small, it was larger than the ingenious and tiny PDP-8 instruction set. The LINC sold for about $50,000. It interfaced well with laboratory experiments. Analog inputs and outputs were part of the basic design. It was designed in 1962 by Charles Molnar and Wesley Clark at Lincoln Laboratory, Massachusetts (Part of MIT), for NIH researchers. The LINC's design was literally in the public domain, perhaps making it unique in the history of computers. 24 LINC computers were assembled in a summer workshop at MIT. Digital Equipment Corporation (starting in 1964) and Spear Inc. of Waltham, MA manufactured them commercially. Software was designed by M.A. Wilkes, the last version named LAP6. Source: Wikipedia article on LINC.

The LINC is designed for interactive use via Graphical User Interface, with a 256 x 256 CRT display and four `knobs' (the equivalent of a mouse in those days) to enter variable parameters. The Soroban keyboard, for alpha-numeric entry, has keys which lock down when pressed, and pop back up when the computer has read them, thereby solving the problem of type-ahead! The screen editor of LAP-6 (LINC Assembly Program) is integrated with the Assembler and File System. Removable media - two LINCtape drives, of course. The predecessor of DECtape, each spool holds 512 blocks of 256 12-bit words, or 512 bytes - the characters (upper-case, plus various greek and math symbols) fit into 6 bits. In later years, DEC mounted a LINC and a PDP-8 in the same cabinet and called it a PDP-12, but that's a horse of a different (green) color. Ours is the original blue, and will probably be decommissioned within the month, after 28 years of almost daily service doing what a LINC does best - gathering real-time data, processing and displaying results for the scientist. (source: LINC: Laboratory INstruement Computer, site at MIT).

Please don't take our word (or these illustrious folks' words) for it, check out Commentary from the LINC user community.

The LINC and the Question of "First Personal Computer?"

Some contenders for the title of "World's First Personal Computer" below

Xerox Alto
- 1973
Had everything a modern machine has, including mouse, bitmapped display, built in ethernet, and
removable 3MB disk pack.

Altair 8800
- 1975
Pretty basic to start with
could add CRT, paper tape, magnetic tape
expandable with S100 boards.

Apple 1
- 1976
Supported a keyboard, and
had video built in, plus a
cassette interface, not too expandable.

- 1981
The first machine called a "PC".

Much has been (and will be) said about what constitutes the "First Personal Computer". That said, one of our experts on the LINC team (Wes Clark) tells us that the LINC possessed the following properties, any or all of which could characterize the machine sitting on your desk today. You can read an interview with Wes Clark by Stan Augarten here on the subject of "who invented the personal computer ?" and a telling 1982 letter to the editor of Byte by William Calvin gives us more insight into the LINC as a personal computing experience of the 1960s. In fact, well-known early micro-computers such as the Altair 8800 took some time to acquire some of the properties below, so perhaps the canonical idea of "Personal Computer" is something that the LINC achieved very early and that other systems then repeated later?

Charles E. Molnar
(seen above left with Wes Clark)

Maury Pepper c.1968 working at one of the many LINCs at the Computer Systems Lab at at Washington University in St. Louis.

1963 polaroid photos
of the LINC screen

1) An alphanumeric keyboard (for entering instructions & symbolic data);

2) a CRT display (for speed of interaction) and which was a 256 x 256 graphical display that was all-points-addressible;

3) removable mass-storage media (to hold programs and data);

4) uncommitted plug-in slots for optional additional gadgets);

5) stand-alone operability (i.e., not requiring such optional gadgets or electronics except as convenience-or-speed enhancers);

6) personal (in the sense that you never shared it with anyone else unless you wanted to).

But is the LINC Actually Part of the (Now Extinct) Workstation Class?

Gordon Bell sent the LINC project a copy of his 1998 IEEE paper: Bell’s Law for the birth and death of computer classes: A theory of computer evolution. He summarized by email that the (now extinct) computer class of professional workstation (as defined in this paper) is the one in which the LINC falls:

When I started writing the article I was unsure of the workstation category, but convinced myself it was a separate and distinct class. The price bands clearly show a differentiation of machines in terms of price, function, and use. Also, we had a great conference organized by Adell Goldberg about 20 years ago on the history of personal workstations featuring the LINC and going back to Whirlwind, etc.

I ended up defining a PC as something that an individual buys for their own use versus an organization buy that is most likely shared. These came in around 1977 and remained quite distinct from the earl 80s flurry of JAWS –just another workstation.

Bottom line: I still regard the LINC as the first, self contained professional workstation because of the integration of functions to make a complete system, including interactive display & file system.

Have an opinion? Please contact us!

More Quotations about the LINC

Gordon Bell's quotation from A History of Personal Workstations, A. Goldberg, ed: ACM 1998, pp 9-10. Quotation reads: The microprocessor, memory, and mass-storage technology appearing in 1975 [led] directly to the personal compuer industry. ...Nevertheless, the first personal computer, the LINC, as built in 1962, long before its predicted technological time. - Gordon Bell.

In a January 2008 correspondanced with Allan Kay, he wrote about the LINC:

I've always considered the LINC to be the first real personal computer. There were single user small machines before, but none of them had the combinations of I/O (display, keyboard, etc.) and low cost of the LINC. The feel of the LINC was the feel of personal computing… The LINC could actually be built by its owner (that's how the first few were made) and cost about $20K. So, in today's terms, it would be a "workstation". Wes [ Clark]'s paper for the ACM History of Workstations conference had the modest title "The LINC Was Early And Small" (Goldberg 1988).

This quotation and a recounting of the project by Severo Ornstein and Bruce Damer is in this article for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

LINC Restoration and Team

Read the dialogue and see images from the LINC Restoration and Documentary Team here.

LINC Restoration Team

The LINC restoriation and documentation cast and crew (so far) includes:

St. Louis restoration team: Tom Chaney, Gerald Johns, Scott Robinson, Jerry Cox, Maury Pepper

Bay Area Team (documentary, event): Severo Ornstein, Bruce Damer

Distributed team (everything): Wes Clark (original designer and team leader of the LINC team at Lincoln Lab)

Other key project support: Gordon Bell

This project is dedicated to the memory of: Charles E. Molnar
(seen above left with Wes Clark)

LINC Documentation - Key Articles

LINC Flyer (DEC-1964)

LINC Screen Captures

Stan Augarten with Wes Clark on the LINC - "Who Invented the Personal Computer?"

LINC: Biology's Revolutionary Little Computer
-sep '04

LINC-1986 Conf. Proc on History of the Personal Workstation

The Scientist - Today's Lab

(April 2002)

William Calvin letter to the editor (Byte 1982) - "The Missing LINC"

Bell's Law Paper for IEEE-SSCS.98-070707

View the LINC Panel presentation and audio/video
(Nov 4, 2007)

See contributed historical images by the LINC team
Scroll Editing: An On-Line Algortihm for Manipulating Long Character String PDF), Mary Allen Wilkes, IEEE Transactions on Computers, Vol C-19, No. 11, November 1970 Conversational Access to a 2048-Word Machine (PDF), Mary Allen Wilkes,Communications of the ACM, Vol 13, No. 7, July 1970

Also see:

Memorial resolution for Joe Hind, Univ. Wisconsin Madison (October 2004)

Our assembled Commentary from the LINC user community

Key Web Resources and Books on the LINC

Wikipedia's entry on the LINC

Computing in the Middle Ages:
A View From the Trenches 1955-1983
includes a very detailed account of the LINC
by Severo M. Ornstein.

The PDP-8 and Other 12-Bit Computers
by C. Gordon Bell and John E. Monamara from "Computer Engineering" - C. Gordon Bell, J. Craig Mudge, John E. McNamara.

See a larger picture of the LINC set up at the NIH here, from the NIH history site on the LINC - Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC) "The Genesis of a Technological Revolution" by Samuel A. Rosenfeld.

Ed Thelen's pages on the DEC LINC-8
including Wes Clark's November 1981 Lecture on the LINC (with Dick Clayton).

Movie that features the LINC (see larger image here) and frames from a 16mm promotional film made in 1969 by an IBM division supporting Laboratory Computing, under the leadership of Ray Edwards. This film presents The ACME system at Stanford University Medical School.

Lights out for last LINC (MIT article from 27 October 1995).

National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science page on Joshua Lederberg sitting at a LINC teletype.

Video coverage of the LINC Event
on Digibarn TV!


Know anything about the LINC? Contact us!

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