William H. Bridge
2000 Computer Pioneer Award Recipient
“For the marrying of computer and communications technology in the GE DATANET 30, putting terminals on peoples desks to communicate with and timeshare a computer, leading directly to the development of the personal computer, computer networking, and the internet”
William H. (Bill) Bridge began his engineering career during the seminal years of digital computer technology. He joined the SEAC computer project at the National Bureau of Standards in 1950, immediately after receiving his Batchelor of Electrical Engineering degree, Cum Laude, from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC. The following four years at NBS provided an education in computer science unrivalled at that time.
This was the era of vacuum tube computers. Delivery of the first commercial computer, UNIVAC I, with its 5,400 vacuum tubes, was a year away. NBS developed SEAC to train engineers and programmers for government agencies that ordered the first few UNIVAC systems. During its first year of operation, SEAC was the world’s fastest, fully operational computer. During 14 years of operation, SEAC served far beyond its role as a training device. The Atomic Energy Commission commandeered it for designing the hydrogen bomb. The National Security Agency applied SEAC technology on larger faster computers. Some of the earliest software assemblers and compilers were developed on SEAC. Experiments were conducted on SEAC in remote computing, advanced peripheral devices, and air traffic control tracking with radar.
In 1954, Bill Bridge joined ACF Electronics, Inc., to do research on logic machines, artificial intelligence, and advanced transistor circuitry. A year later he moved from this academic activity to Airtronics, Inc., where he developed magnetic memory devices and one of the early transistor driven ferrite core memories.
In 1957, Bill joined the General Electric Computer Department in Phoenix, Arizona. GE had contracts to develop and manufacture the first check processing systems for the Bank of America, and the NCR 304 general-purpose computer for the National Cash Register Company. Bill spent the next three years as Manager of Systems Engineering for the 304.
By 1960, the GE Computer Department was producing those two computer systems and a third proprietary system, the less costly GE 225. The sales force was flooding engineering with requests for special features on all three product lines. Bill Bridge was selected to form Special Systems Engineering, to service these inquiries. The requests ranged from custom colors and small wiring changes to major system attachments including analog instrumentation and data communications. A few of the custom designs became standard features. The GE DATANET 30 evolved into a new product line and established the computer timesharing industry.
In response to many special requests for data communications, a small stored-program processor was designed for servicing data communication lines. The prototype could handle 15 lines and occupied a rack the size of a large refrigerator.
The first firm order for this controller was for a stand-alone application that did not include a main computer. The requirement was for an automatic teletype message switching center to replace a manual system.
The customer, Chrysler Corporation, had a nationwide private network of over 100 teletype terminals connected by 36 party lines to a switching center in Detroit. Incoming messages were punched on paper tape and picked up by an operator who read the destination address and carried the tape to a paper tape reader on another line in the same room.
For this task, a second rack was added to the controller to accommodate more communication lines and a larger magnetic core memory. A third rack held the host controller for a large external disk drive that stored incoming and outgoing messages. That large disk was state-of-the-art in 1961, and could store 19 megabytes. With its electronics, it occupied as much floor space as the three-rack communication controller. The system was named the DATANET 30.
The success of the Chrysler system in 1962 led to orders for several more message switching systems and networks for computer systems. A system consisting of a GE 235 computer attached to a DATANET 30 via a dual access disk controller was delivered to Dartmouth University in February 1964. The BASIC computer language was developed at Dartmouth as a simple tool for teaching computer programming. Teletype terminals scattered around the University allowed students to enter programs written in BASIC onto the disk via the DATANET 30. The GE 235 computer acted as a server that responded to student requests to execute programs stored on the disk. The 235 interpreted the BASIC code, executed the program, and returned the results to the disk.
The BASIC code remained on disk where the student could debug the code and resubmit the corrected program. This model of a front-end interactive processor and batch processor server formed an efficient timesharing system. The demands of teletype message switching had refined the DATANET 30 in function and reliability. The marriage of two systems with complementary hardware and software led to sales far in excess of expectations. The combination was named the GE 265.
Bill Bridge left GE shortly after the first GE 265 was shipped to Dartmouth. At that time, the sale of a total of only 25 DATANET 30's was forecast. The GE 200 series computers were soon to be replaced by newer faster designs. However, the demand for timesharing systems and the cost effectiveness of the GE 265 led to the sales of hundreds of systems. It was estimated that GE produced between 500 and 1,000 DATANET 30’s.
Bill continued his engineering career, developing other leading edge systems. In 1964 he moved to Silicon Valley to join the founding team of Data Pathing, Inc., as Engineering V.P. There he led development of a factory data collection system utilizing some of the first integrated circuits. Within a few years, this system captured the majority of that market from the leading suppliers, Friden, Control Data, and IBM. The key elements of this system were electronic terminals, a stored program controller, and a local area network.
Other accomplishments include a computer timesharing system for the California Highway Engineering Department, communication processors and terminals developed at Memorex, and a large semiconductor memory developed at Intel for sales as a high speed disk for IBM computers. He worked several years with laser optical mass storage systems. Between major development projects, Bill often consulted with large and small companies on computer systems architecture, integrated circuits and business plans. He retired in 1992.
Bill and his wife Gloria live in Arizona on part of a 160 acre ranch they acquired in 1979 and developed to fund their retirement. They have four adult children, 14 grand children and 4 great grandchildren.