Ken Olsen, the MIT engineer who co-founded Digital Equipment Corp., has died at the age of 84

February 7, 2011 - 10:01 P.M.

Kenneth Olsen, the MIT engineer who co-founded Digital Equipment Corp., has died at the age of 84, according to local sources.

Massachusetts-based DEC was key in moving corporate computing away from sole reliance on mainframes. In today's era of notebooks, netbooks and tablets, it may not sound like much to talk about the shift from mainframes to bookcase-sized minicomputers. However, the rise of DEC was the critical first step for enterprise computing's move away from sole residence in the data center -- despite doubters who said those "small" machines couldn't handle serious tasks. It's fair to say that most IT professionals who were working in the 1980s came in contact with a DEC system, be it a PDP-11 or a VAX.

The company, the world's second-largest computer maker at its peak, helped put the Rte. 128 corridor west of Boston on the map as one of America's premier high-tech centers.

Olsen was known locally as an engineer's engineer, a man who believed if you built a quality product, it would have buyers. While DEC certainly wasn't without marketing prowess in its heyday -- it held part of its DECworld customer meeting one year on the QE II cruise ship -- the company in general took on the personality of its founder: substance over style.

Olsen, a multi-millionaire in an era where there were far fewer such wealthy entrepreneurs than there are today, was known to drive a modest car around town and do his own grocery shopping. I also recall him having a surprisingly plain office for a man who was leading a technology revolution; and being gracious enough to carve out time to speak with young local reporters like me as well as the national business press.

A former colleague at the MetroWest Daily News found an interview I did with Olsen 20+ years ago, in which he explained the value of his low-key style with the story of explorers racing to reach the South Pole.

Norwegian Roald Amundsen didn't talk about himself much but "always worried about the details," Olsen told me.

England's Robert Scott, on the other hand, was "show. Flair. Parties. Announcements. Bragging."

Which style won out? Amundsen arrived at the pole first and returned safely. Scott got there a month later but never made it back.

Olsen's conclusion: "No one is productive, no one is creative without extreme discipline."

Olsen became somewhat unfairly known for a quote in which he supposedly claimed he couldn't see any need for a computer in the home. Others argue those words were taken out of context; and that he was talking about a computer to run your home (turn on and off lights, etc.), an interpretation that makes sense to me.

Whatever the backstory on that, though, it's true that he missed the desktop computing revolution. Unlike, say, Steve Jobs, Olsen's entrepreneurial genius didn't transcend computing generations. And it's hard not to see irony in the fact that the PC/desktop industry did to DEC what DEC (and other minicomputer makers) did to mainframe companies like IBM. While DEC finally did attempt a desktop system -- anyone else remember the Rainbow? -- it was far too late and without the necessary marketing muscle behind it.

However, it's also fair to say that the pendulum is swinging back somewhat toward Olsen's vision of more centralized computing (compared to desktops, that is, not mainframes). We're not moving back to the days of VAX terminals; but the days of early stand-alone desktops are just as over as the minicomputing era.

It's asking a lot to expect one engineer to be ahead of multiple technology curves, especially one who came of age when the computer industry wasn't expected to move quite so quickly. Even though Digital Equipment Corp. is no longer around, Kenneth Olsen had a lasting impact on the computer industry.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:


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