Personal computer pioneer Gordon Bell dies aged 89

22 May 2024

Gordon Bell. Image: Queensland University of Technology

Bell was a famous figure in the computing sector and worked for various organisations throughout his life, including Microsoft in the 90s where he began working on an ambitious digital archive.

Chester Gordon Bell, a veteran engineer whose work helped create personal computers, has died aged 89.

Bell died at his home in California due to pneumonia, according to a statement from his family seen by The New York Times. One of his key focuses in his career was to create smaller interactive computers. The New York Times says Bell was among a handful of engineers who helped bridge the gap from room-sized machines to PCs.

Bell worked in many organisations throughout his career, including MIT, the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and his own start-up called Encore Computer. During his time at DEC, Bell invented the first UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter) for serial communication, Ars Technica reports.

He is also the namesake of the Gordon Bell prize awarded by the Association for Computing Machinery. This award is given for outstanding achievements in high-performance computing.

In the 90s, Bell joined Microsoft Research and later began working on an ambitious project to digitally archive every minute detail of his life in a digital format. Bell and his colleague Jim Gemmell set about developing MyLifeBits – software that facilitated this recording.

Following the news of his death, various members of the tech industry have shared condolences, including Microsoft CEO and chair Satya Nadella.

“Rest in peace, Gordon Bell,” Nadella said. “Thank you for all of your impact at Microsoft and our industry. You will be missed.”

Ray Ozzie, the founder of Blue Wireless and a former chief software architect of Microsoft, said he “could never have survived or made any kind of impact [as a tech leader]” without the help of figures such as Bell, Jim Gray and Butler Lampson.

“I can’t adequately describe how much I loved Gordon and respected what he did for the industry,” Ozzie said. “So brilliant, so calm, so very upbeat and optimistic about what the future might hold.

“The number of times Gordon and I met while at Microsoft – acting as a sounding board, helping me through challenges I was facing – is uncountable.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic