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Ken Olsen

February 9, 2011

Kenneth H. Olsen, an electrical engineer who was co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (a.k.a. DEC), died on Sunday, February 6, 2011, at age 84.[1-6] Olsen was born on February 20, 1926, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As a young man, Olsen and his younger brother would fix radios and experiment with electronic circuits in a basement workshop. Olsen states that since the local library had very few books about electronics, his main information sources were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines.[7] He built crystal radios and a one-tube radio that he constantly modified in order to improve.[7]

It was in the US Navy that Olsen got his first formal electrical engineering education, working with radio equipment. The shipboard routine also gave him a lot of time to experiment with electronic circuits.[7] After two years in the US Navy, Olsen attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At MIT he obtained not only a Bachelor's (1950) and a Master's (1952) degree in electrical engineering, but an early introduction to computing machines. He was privileged to work with Jay Forrester at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.[1] Olsen's Master's thesis was entitled, "A Magnetic Matrix Switch and Its Incorporation Into a Coincident-Current Memory."[8] Said Olsen of his MIT experience,
"The electrical engineering laboratory experiments took a lot of time. Many nights we literally stayed all through the night working on the experiment, writing up the experiments. So you never went and did any more of those than you had to because they were so time consuming."[7]

Olsen and Harlan Anderson, backed by a $70,000 venture capital investment, founded Digital Equipment Corporation in 1957 in an old woolens mill in Maynard, Massachusetts.[2] Olsen took the CEO position, eventually building it to a $14 billion company of 120,000 people in more than 95 countries.[1] Their first computer product was the 18-bit PDP-1, but it was the PDP-10, a 12-bit computer, that established DEC as a major computer manufacturer. One memorable feature of this computer, and all of DEC's computers, was the colorful and stylish front panels that contained the many toggle switches that were de rigueur.[4] This was quite a change from the industrial strength front panels that were fielded in those days (for an example of DEC styling, see the the PDP-11/70). The PDP-10 ran in real-time, and it didn't need the environmental infrastructure needed for computers of the day. It was just laboratory equipment, not a monster that demanded its own space.[4]

Olsen remarked that the PDP name, Programmable Data Processor, was designed to circumvent the government bureaucrats. Government scientists wanted to buy computers, but there was a law that no new computers could be purchased until all current machines were 100% utilized. So, DEC purposely avoided using the term, computer, as a designator.[7] The 12-bit PDP-10 was soon joined by the 16-bit PDP-11, a great commercial success. The PDP-11 had both single-user (RT-11) and multiuser (RTTS) operating systems, a real-time operating system (RSX-11), and a single bus with all CPU, memory, and I/O lines.[4]

Many other companies tried to emulate DEC's success. These included Burroughs, Data General (subject of Tracy Kidder's, "The Soul of a New Machine"), Honeywell and Wang; and this was the start of the Route 128 technology corridor around Boston.[1-2] The Heathkit H11 Computer kit was a popular hobby version of the PDP-11, although its price ($1,295 in 1977) was somewhat out of my league.

I've seen PDP-11s - It would have been difficult avoiding them - but I never programmed one. I did work with the successor minicomputer, the 32-bit VAX, which ran a variety of high level languages, including Fortran and Pascal. After introducing the VAX, DEC started to face serious competition from other 32-bit systems fielded by Data General and IBM.[4] Moreover, the world was moving towards personal computing, an idea that Olsen couldn't compute, and he resisted DEC's entry into personal computing. DEC's board forced him to resign in July, 1992.[1]

DEC's personal computer, the DEC Rainbow 100, with dual Z80 and 8088 CPUs, ran CP/M, CP/M-86 and MS-DOS. However, in what might be one of the first attempts at DRM, or an early example of company contempt for the end-user, the Rainbow would not format blank floppy disks. You needed to purchase formatted disks from DEC. The Rainbow was easily outclassed by the IBM Personal Computer and IBM PC compatibles from Compaq.[4] Compaq eventually bought DEC, and Compaq itself was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002 for $25 billion.

Figure five from US Patent No. 2,937,285

Fig. 5 from an Olsen patent (Kenneth H. Olsen, "Saturable Switch," US Patent No. 2,937,285, May 17, 1960)

There's no question that Olsen was a successful executive. Fortune named Olsen "America's most successful entrepreneur" in 1986. Still, Olsen was an engineer at heart who was always excited by technology. He dressed more like an engineer than a millionaire, and he drove a 1963 Ford Falcon because he liked its design and maintainability.[2] I'm reminded of another MIT engineer with whom I worked who saw bringing an automobile to 200,000 miles as an adventure. Well into his career at DEC, Olsen thought of himself as a scientist first and an entrepreneur second.[5]

An engineer's reasoning can be seen in Olsen's management style. He delegated responsibility and decentralized management. He also tried to model his business based on mathematics; viz.,
"You never talk of business in terms of calculus, but it sure is a handy way to look at it because the balance sheet is an inner glow of the P&L statement. You really have to look at the derivative of the P&L statement in order to gain knowledge. And sometimes a second derivative. All of this helps in looking at phenomena we work with every day outside of the academic world."[7]

There have been many accolades for Olsen. Said Gordon Bell, a former DEC employee, "We all remember him as a great leader... I certainly learned a lot and was very honored to work for him."[2] Bill Gates, who started Microsoft with software he and Paul Allen developed on a DEC PDP-10 computer,[1] wrote in 2006,
"As an inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur, Ken Olsen is one of the true pioneers of the computing industry... He was also a major influence in my life and his influence is still important at Microsoft through all the engineers who trained at Digital and have come here to make great software products."[7]

Olsen, who was raised by a father who taught Bible classes and a mother who played piano at a local church, was a devout Christian. He was a Trustee of Gordon College (Wenham, Massachusetts), a nondenominational Christian college. The Ken Olsen Science Center of Gordon College is named after him. Olsen summarized his beliefs in the following quotation:
"Science is more than a study of molecules and calculations; it is the love of knowledge and the continued search for the truth... The study of the sciences promotes humility, leaving us with a clear sense that we will never understand all there is to know."[6]

A public memorial service for Olsen will be held on May 14, 2011, at 2:00 P.M. at Gordon College, 255 Grapevine Road, Wenham, MA (Exit 17 from Route 128).[6]


  1. Glenn Rifkin, "Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC Into a Power, Dies at 84," New York Times, February 7, 2011.
  2. Bryan Marquard and Hiawatha Bray, "Computer pioneer Ken Olsen dies," Boston Globe, February 8, 2011.
  3. Bob Brown, "DEC founder Kenneth Olsen mourned by computer industry," Network World, February 7, 2011
  4. Chris Mellor, "DEC founder Ken Olsen is dead," Channel Register (UK), February 8, 2011.
  5. Jo Kadlecek, "Kenneth H. Olsen, Digital Computing Pioneer, Entrepreneur and Gordon Board Member, Remembered," Gordon College Press Release, February 7, 2011.
  6. Gordon College, "About Ken Olsen."
  7. David Allison, Interviewer, Transcript of a Oral History Interview with Ken Olsen, Digital Equipment Corporation, Digital Historical Collection Exhibit, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, September 28, 29, 1988.
  8. Kenneth H. Olsen, "A Magnetic Matrix Switch and Its Incorporation Into a Coincident-Current Memory," Thesis, Digital Computer Laboratory, MIT, May 15, 1952 (Published June 6, 1952).
  9. Kenneth Harry Olsen (February 20, 1926 – February 6, 2011) on Wikipedia.
  10. Kenneth H. Olsen, "Saturable Switch," US Patent No. 2,937,285 (May 17, 1960).

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