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2/13/2009
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Updike's Passing Recalls Brush With Murdered Computer Designer

The murder of Ben Gurley, a computer pioneer at MIT, inspired late writer John Updike to pen one of his most popular stories.

The death last month of one of America's greatest writers, John Updike, recalled his real-life relationship with a brilliant computer designer -- some say the most brilliant designer of all. Updike's brief relationship with Ben Gurley formed much of the narrative in one of Updike's most popular stories, "The Music School."

The story had a tragic side as Gurley, who designed early computers at MIT and Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), was murdered in 1963 by a single rifle shot as he sat down to dinner with his wife and children at their home in Concord, Mass.

"This morning I read in the newspaper that an acquaintance of mine had been murdered," wrote Updike in the fiction piece that appeared in The New Yorker. "The father of five children, he had been sitting at the dinner table with them a week after Thanksgiving. A single bullet entered the window and pierced his temple; he fell to the floor and died there in minutes, at the feet of his children. My acquaintance with him was slight. He has become the only victim of murder I have known "

The narrator of Updike's story in the early 1960s went on to say that he had planned to write a novel about a computer programmer, but never did. He saw the murdered computer expert as an example of a "new human species that thrives around scientific centers." Updike's narrator saw a computer programmer representing "the most poetic and romantic occupation I could think of." Of course, "The Music School" is fiction, but so much of the story paralleled Updike's social meetings with Gurley and the events surrounding his murder that there's little doubt of the connections.

Gurley never got the recognition he deserved as a computer designer, largely because much of his work was carried out under tight government security at MIT and at the Lincoln Laboratory, which MIT operated for the Air Force during the Cold War. Later, he designed DEC's first computer, the PDP-1, and completed the work in just 3-1/2 months, a remarkable achievement at a time when it typically took years to design and build a computer. His designs helped lead to breakthroughs in time-sharing and display technology.

While Gurley's TX-0 and TX-2 government computers were built and used under tight government security, the PDP-1 was publically unveiled in 1959 at the Joint Computer Conference in Boston to consternation by rival companies and to the amazement of users. The machine was also pioneering because it placed a single user before a cathode-ray tube display. The entire configuration was priced at just $120,000 -- low enough to make computing accessible to a whole new generation of users.

DEC engineering VP Gordon Bell, who went on to become a celebrated computer designer in his own right, compared Gurley's machine to the Volkswagen Beetle.

Not long after meeting Updike at some social gatherings on the North Shore of Boston, Gurley left DEC for Information International, another computer firm. After he was killed in 1963, a disgruntled former co-worker was arrested and charged with the murder. The accused killer was sent to a Massachusetts state institution for the criminally insane where he died several years ago.

Updike died on Jan. 27.

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