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Data General's Tom West dies

The man who put the soul into a new machine

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Obit Tom West, who created Data General's Eclipse 32-bit mini and was immortalised in Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Soul Of A New Machine, has died.

Credited with helping to save Data General (DG) after DEC announced its VAX supermini in 1976, Joseph Thomas West III was born on 22 November 1939 and died at his home on 19 May 2011, aged 71. It is thought that he suffered a heart attack.

West was the son of a business executive, and the family moved quite often - he attended four schools and then studied at Amherst College.

He was a folk singer towards the end of the 1950s and worked at the Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, Mass, before returning to Amherst and gaining a bachelor's degree in Physics. He continued working at the Smithsonian, going to other observatories and ensuring that the time was precisely synchronised.

West then joined the RCA corporation and learned about computers, being largely self-taught, and then joined Data General and worked his way up the engineering ladder.

DEC shipped its VAX 32-bit supermini in 1978. This was in the era well before Intel's X86 desktops and servers swept the board, when real computer companies designed their own processors. The 16-bit minicomputer era had boomed and DEC was the number one company. DG was the competitive number two sometimes known as 'the bastards' after a planned newspaper ad that never ran, and was a Fortune 500 company worth $500m. But 16-bit minis were running out of address space (memory capacity) for the apps they wanted to run.

The Eagle skunkworks

DG launched its own 32-bit supermini project known as Fountainhead. It wasn't ready when DEC shipped the VAX 11/780 in February 1978 and suffered from project management problems, so it is said. West, far from convinced that Fountainhead would deliver the goods, started up a secret back-room or skunkworks project called Eagle to build the Eclipse MV/8000, a 32-bit extension of the 16-bit Nova Eclipse mini.

He staffed it with an esoteric mixture of people, some of them recent college graduates, and motivated them not with cash, shares or external incentives but by the sheer difficulty of what they were trying to do. It was described as pinball game management. If you got to succeed with this project or pinball game the reward was that you got to work on the next, more difficult pinball game.

Towards the end of 1979 it became clear that West's team was going to bring its project to fruition before Fountainhead. DG customers were increasingly buying DEC VAXs and DG, running out of cash, experienced tense internal competition as the Fountainhead and Eagle development teams fought for limited development funding. The 16-bit Eclipse was a problem-strewn product and its reputation was bad. Nevertheless West's decision to extend the Eclipse architecture and his intense management style proved to have the edge over Fountainhead.

West's skunkwork staff knew that were working at the frontiers of supermini development, and the organisation, atmosphere and personalities of the protagonists were captured by Kidder in his book. One of the most memorable characters was the man responsible for the microcode who produced nothing for weeks and then, in an outstanding burst of concentrated creativity, produced it all in a very short time.

The MV/8000 was launched in 1980 and fuelled a turnaround in DG's revenues. It was hailed as miraculous and West became an engineering god who could do no wrong. Unfortunately, he never again achieved this level of success, and the Eagle project proved to be his finest work. MV/8000 sales roared ahead and DG passed a billion dollars in annual sales in 1984.

But the workstation era, started and boosted by Sun and Apollo, passed DG by. So too did the PC, with the DG-1 PC being a poor product, and the firm on a downwards track. Microcomputers entered the supermini market - remember MicroVAX? - and DG found it could no longer afford to develop its next-generation processors, not having the revenue strength of DEC.

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