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MIT will always have a love affair with the PDP-10 and it's understandable

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January 30, 2017

Over the past twenty years or so, a few persons working in the computer labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may have tried to hide it somewhat, but there's no question that the MIT will always have a love affair with DEC's mid-1960s vintage PDP-10 and it's fully understandable.

For those that are not in their sixties yet, the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was the designer and built the PDP series of mainframe computers that competed directly with IBM's mainframes in that period.

DEC built the PDP-8 right up to the PDP-11. Those are the most knowned but there were others as well.

If you go to GitHub, there are many projects devoted to rediscovering and preserving the history of computing, such as a system called the Incompatible Timesharing System for the legendary PDP-10.

Dubbed ITS (its name is a play on an earlier MIT project, the Compatible Time Sharing System) was created because of dissatisfaction with Multics...

However, there's at least one ITS characteristic that stands out: the creation of virtual devices running as user processes, which supported using the then-ARPAnet for distributed computing, with connected machines able to treat each others' storage as if it were local.

This might seem trivial to some, but in the 60s, it was revolutionary and well ahead of its time.

The GitHub PDP-10 ITS project says that MIT shut down its ITS in 1990, but “enthusiasts continue to operate ITS systems to this day”.

And the original source code is still available, even if Nocrew.org's repository hasn't changed in about fifteen years.

Then in 1977, PDP-10s were big on the ARPAnet. If you happen to have the SIMH emulator (maintained by ex-DEC engineer and vice president Robert Supnik, available at the Computer History Simulation Project or KLH10), you can experience the joys of running up an ITS.

Even to someone too young to be sentimental about the PDP-10, ITS isn't completely useless: it includes TCP support, a Telnet and Supdup (RFC 734) server and clients; as well as FTP and SMTP mail support. Primitive, yes, but still very functional and dependable, even after all these years.

Source: MIT.


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