SUBSCRIBE

Wesley A. Clark, 88; MIT pioneer made computing personal

By John Markoff New York Times 

NEW YORK — Wesley A. Clark, a physicist who designed the first modern personal computer, died Feb. 22 at his home in New York. He was 88.

The cause was severe atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, his wife, Maxine Rockoff, said.

Advertisement

Mr. Clark’s computer designs built a bridge from the era of mainframe systems, which were inaccessible to the general public and were programmed with stacks of punch cards, to personal computers that respond interactively to a user.

He achieved his breakthroughs working with a small group of scientists and engineers at the Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Early on they had the insight that the cost of computing would fall inexorably and lead to computers that were then unimaginable.

Severo Ornstein, who as a young engineer also worked at Lincoln Labs in the 1960s, recalled Mr. Clark as one of the first to have a clear understanding of the consequences of the falling cost and shrinking size of computers.

“Wes saw the future 15 years before anyone else,” he said.

Mr. Clark also had the insight as a young researcher that the giant metal cabinets that held the computers of the late 1950s and early ’60s would one day vanish as microelectronics technologies evolved and circuit sizes shrank.

Advertisement

His work on the personal computer began in May 1961, when he led a team of MIT engineers in developing the Laboratory Instrument Computer, or LINC.

The LINC represented a break from what at the time was a growing consensus in the computing world that the resources of computers should be shared. That design approach, known as “time-sharing,” connected multiple users to a single computer by rapidly switching the resources of the processor from user to user.

Mr. Clark, who had designed a series of experimental computers, resisted the conventional wisdom. He was adamant that the best way to satisfy the research needs of biologists and medical researchers was to place all the power of a computer under the control of a single user.

“I think of Wes as being one of the few seminal contributors to what today we call ‘personal computing,’ ” Alan Kay, a computer scientist, wrote in an unpublished essay about Mr. Clark’s contributions.

Kay, in the early 1970s, was part of a research team at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in California that designed an experimental computer known as the Alto. The Alto laid the groundwork for the personal computing industry after the invention of the microprocessor, which greatly lowered the cost of computing.

The LINC, which was one of the few unclassified projects at the Lincoln Laboratory in the early 1960s, was intended for doctors and medical researchers. Although its power was only a small fraction of what today’s personal computers hold, it represented a leap forward as a self-contained machine that had a simple operating system and a small display and stored its programs on a magnetic tape.

Advertisement

The LINC was used for the first time in 1962, its task to analyze a cat’s neural responses as part of a study at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.

Each LINC had a tiny screen and keyboard and comprised four metal modules. Together they were about as big as two television sets, set side by side and tilted back slightly. The machine, a 12-bit computer, included a one-half megahertz processor. (By contrast, an iPhone 6s is thousands of times faster and has 16 million times as much memory.)

A LINC sold for about $43,000 — a bargain at the time — and Digital Equipment, the first minicomputer company, ultimately built them commercially, producing 50 of the original design.

The influence of the LINC was far-reaching. For example, as a Stanford undergraduate, Larry Tesler, who would go on to become an early advocate of personal computing and who helped design the Lisa and Macintosh at Apple Computer, programmed a LINC in the laboratory of the molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg.

Tesler later credited his experience with the LINC with helping to shape his perspective on personal computing, particularly after he waited long hours for even small programming jobs to be run on a mainframe computer.

Mr. Clark also had a small but significant role in the design of the Arpanet, the forerunner of the Internet. He proposed the idea of using small computers to make it easy to standardize connecting to the network while reducing the load on local computers.