Home | About | Collections | Stories | Help! | News & Links | Friends | Lets Talk! | Events & Visiting | Search

Upcoming (Fall 2008) Article for IEEE Annals of The History of Computing:
The LINC @ 45: A Paradigm Shift in 1962

Contributed by Severo Ornstein and Bruce Damer

Figure 1: The LINC restoration team assembled at the Digibarn. From left to right: Tom Chaney (standing), Scott Robinson, Maury Pepper and Severo Ornstein (seated), Jerry Cox, Mary Allen Wilkes (standing), Gerald Johns (behind), Wes Clark (seated), Allan Lundell (seated in front) and Bruce Damer, who was born in 1962 (leaning on far right). Picture courtesy Maxine Rockoff.

The LINC computer was designed by Wesley A. Clark and Charles E. Molnar at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1962. They were assisted by a team of a dozen or so people under Clark's leadership (three of whom are pictured in Figure 1 above). Over ensuing years nearly a hundred LINCs were built for use in medical research before the design was absorbed into the DEC PDP-12.

In a recent email correspondence with Alan Kay, he wrote:

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).

Despite this distinction, by the year 2000 the LINC was largely forgotten, overwhelmed by the tide of attention given to later developments that brought computers into a broader public consciousness. In an effort to remind people of the LINC's seminal importance, Severo Ornstein, one of the original design team members, wrote a book in 2002 entitled Computing In The Middle Ages. It told the story of the LINC's development and attempted to set it in its historical context.

At a meeting in St Louis in the spring of 2004, Ornstein learned that around 1980, when the LINCs became obsolete, Scott Robinson, one of the technicians who had worked on the machines at Washington University, had had the foresight to sequester several of them in his garage. He paid three dollars apiece for them.

Two years later, during a tour of the Digibarn Computer Museum in the Bay Area of Northern California, Ornstein met Bruce Damer, the owner/director of this unique facility. He asked Damer whether he knew about the LINC, and suggested that it was, in fact, the great-granddaddy of all the personal computers in his museum's collection. After reading Ornstein's book, Damer expressed keen interest in obtaining a LINC for the Digibarn and in hosting a 45th anniversary event in honor of the LINC and its original team the following year.

Remembering the LINCs in the St. Louis garage, Ornstein contacted Robinson who generously offered to give a machine to the Digibarn. Ornstein then contacted several other former Washington University colleagues (Tom Chaney, Maury Pepper, and Gerald Johns) and cajoled them into working with Robinson to get one of his machines actually working again — after twenty some years in his garage.

These stalwarts began working on resurrecting a LINC early in 2007. This required moving the machine to a reasonable work space and removing the detritus of twenty years (mouse nests, etc.) before the real work could begin. Bringing the machine back to life required enormous effort and all the participants generously donated their time. The often amusing details of the resuscitation may be found, together with numerous pictures, at the Digibarn web site – http://www.digibarn.com. A deadline was established when Damer decided that the revived LINC should be featured at the 10th annual Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) to be held at the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California in November of 2007.

While the resuscitation was going on in St. Louis, efforts were under way to gather funds to pay for moving the machine to California. In the end the costs were covered by contributions from the participants and generous individuals involved with the LINC in the 1960s including Gordon Bell.

As with all such endeavors, the final crucial parts of the computer, the tape units, didn't begin working until the very last minute, so the St. Louis crew worked furiously right up until the movers arrived. A few days later they were all on hand at the CHM to provide last minute touches before the VCF began. As many as possible of the original LINC team also arrived from all over the USA for the occasion.

Figure 2: The LINC as set up at the Vintage Computer Festival in November 2007. The console is on the right with screen and control knobs above it. On the left is the I/O unit with the tape units above that. A few LINC tapes lie off to the side and the original schematics can be seen on the far left. What is not shown is the refrigerator-sized cabinet housing the electronics including 2,000 12-bit words of core memory.

The machine worked perfectly throughout the entire event (see figure 2 above), and a special panel about the LINC was well received. Robinson was repaid for his initial investment with some three dollar bills featuring his own face which had been designed specifically for the occasion, and to the delight of the entire team the LINC received the "Best in Show" award. A celebratory banquet was held that night, and on the following day the LINC was moved to its permanent home as part of the Digibarn collection. Still working perfectly, it was installed in its own private room, where it was signed ceremonially by the entire team of designers and resuscitators. 

We would like to close with some words from Digibarn founder and curator Bruce Damer:

With the LINC included in our collection and in our oral history efforts, I feel that the Digibarn’s mission to tell the story of interactive and personal computing is in some sense now complete. As my association with the team that made the LINC grew, I realized that these were the first people who understood the importance of putting the power of a whole interactive computer in the hands of a single person. This team, together with Charlie Molnar, Gordon Bell and many others, bucked the timesharing trend of the early 1960s and helped create a paradigm shift that influenced the development of the nascent minicomputer industry, the design for the IMP that connected the ARPANET, interactive computer graphics, and the very concept of a “personal” computer.

During the presentation, Mary Allen Wilkes shared a photo of her programming the LINC’s operating system with the whole system sitting in the living room of her parents’ house in Baltimore. I asked her, “Mary Allen, were you therefore the first person to use a computer in a private residence?” She replied, “Well, I guess I might have been…”. I think that this one picture (Figure 3 below) expresses to me how important a place the LINC occupies in the history of personal computing.

Figure 3: Mary Allen Wilkes programming the LINC at her parents’ home in Baltimore in 1965.

Resources and References

The restoration of the LINC, its history and documentation, and the November 2007 event including demonstrations, interviews and complete video of a lively panel, can all be found on the Digibarn site at:


Goldberg, Adele, A History of Personal Workstations, ACM Press, 1988.

Back to our Pages on the LINC at the Digibarn

Please send site comments to our Webmaster.
Please see our notices about the content of this site and its usage.
(cc) 1998- Digibarn Computer Museum, some rights reserved under this Creative Commons license.