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Obituary: C. Gordon Bell Built the Foundation for Modern Computing

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Aaron Aupperlee
School of Computer Science
Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

C. Gordon Bell, a visionary designer of computer systems and former Carnegie Mellon University faculty member whose work helped shrink computers from room-filling mainframes to more compact, affordable and practical machines, died May 17 at his home in Coronado, California. He was 89.

"Most people consider Gordon the father of computer architecture," said Daniel Siewiorek(opens in new window), the Buhl University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science Emeritus at CMU and Bell's close friend and colleague.

"Gordon laid the foundation for modern computing and transformed how people interact with technology," said CMU President Farnam Jahanian(opens in new window). "His infectious curiosity will continue to inspire — both in the world at large and here at Carnegie Mellon University, through the alumni who benefited from his wisdom during his tenure on our faculty and through his generous support of our computer science students and faculty today. Our thoughts are with Gordon's family and loved ones as we remember his remarkable legacy and celebrate his many contributions to society." 

Bell had already established himself as one of the preeminent computer architects in the world by designing minicomputers for the Digital Equipment Corporation when, in 1966, he went looking for a change of scenery and a new project. He found it at CMU.

"Gordon had great admiration for the scientific mind of Allen Newell, and it was Newell who convinced him to go to Carnegie Mellon," said Edward Feigenbaum(opens in new window) (ENG 1956, TPR 1960), Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University and a friend and colleague of Bell. "It was a hotbed of new ideas, and Newell agreed to collaborate with him."

Professorship was a jump for Bell, who had only a handful of scholarly publications and no Ph.D. when he arrived on campus. He had started doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but abandoned it soon after.

"I didn't really­­ want a P­­h.D.," Bell said in a 1991 interview. "I wanted to build things."

"The computers that Gordon built were his publications," Siewiorek said. "CMU was very broad in recognizing contributions and things that can have an impact."

At CMU, Bell and Newell teamed up to write "Computer Structures: Readings and Examples," a nearly 700-page tome that established a taxonomy for computer architecture and became an essential text in the field.

"It basically legitimized the study of computer structures," Siewiorek said. "It really taxonomized and organized the field, and had a lot more value than just citations in the publication."

Chester Gordon Bell was born in Kirksville, Missouri, on Aug. 19, 1934. His mother, Lola, was a school teacher and his father, Chester, was an electrician. Bell showed an early predilection toward technology, spending hours in his father's shop taking apart and reassembling various home appliances.

After earning both a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering from MIT, Bell went on to the University of New South Wales as a Fulbright scholar. In 1960, he began designing minicomputers for the Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). He was the primary architect of the PDP-8, a 12-bit machine that became the first commercially successful minicomputer.

"Gordon was a master of systems, but he also had an aesthetic about systems," Feigenbaum said. "They had to be not just functional, but beautiful."

After six years at CMU, Bell returned to DEC where he remained until 1983, when a heart attack prompted him to step away from the company.

Bell went on to found a pair of startups and invest in more than 100 others. In 1987, he joined the National Science Foundation to help build the National Research and Education Network — a supercomputer networking project that produced an early iteration of the internet. That same year, he sponsored the creation of the ACM Gordon Bell Prize(opens in new window), which is given annually to recognize achievement in high-performance computing.

Bell served as an adviser to Microsoft in the early '90s before joining the company's Silicon Valley Research Lab in 1995, where he worked until 2012. He returned to Microsoft in an emeritus role in 2015.

An avid collector of historical pieces of computer hardware, Bell and his first wife, Gwen, co-founded the Digital Computer Museum, now known as the Computer History Museum(opens in new window).

"He started collecting items in his house, and when it started overflowing, he got DEC to offer up some space," Siewiorek said.

Once the museum outgrew the DEC lobby, it moved to a dedicated space in the Museum Wharf in Boston. The museum is now located in Mountain View, California.

In 2010, CMU recognized Bell with an honorary Doctor of Science and Technology degree. Additionally, the fifth floor conference room in the Gates-Hillman Centers is named in his honor.

"He was just amazing," said Raj Reddy(opens in new window), the Moza Bint Nasser University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at CMU. "Gordon was a master organizer, but he was also incredibly friendly, collegial and supportive."

"He was always encouraging. His attitude and approach really rubbed off," Siewiorek said. "He inspired and enabled a lot of people."

Bell is survived by his second wife, Sheridan Sinclaire-Bell; a son, Brigham, and daughter, Laura, both from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Logan Forbes; a sister, Sharon Smith; and four grandchildren.

C. Gordon Bell

C. Gordon Bell, a visionary designer of computer systems and former Carnegie Mellon University faculty member, died May 17. He was 89.