"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." RIP Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation
February 8, 2011 10:39 AM   Subscribe

"Kenneth Olsen, the computer industry pioneer who co-founded and led minicomputer king Digital Equipment Corp. for 35 years, died at the age of 84 on Sunday in Indianapolis."

Another obit from Gordon College (more links) where Olsen was an alum and benefactor, and ones from the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Some nice memoriams over at The DEC Connection, Mass High Tech and some DEC memories at Slashdot.

To learn more about Olsen, you might enjoy this interview the Smithsonian did with him in 1998.
DKA: You mentioned awhile ago growing up, Ken, [about] machine shop practices. I wondered if that began to pay off in your work in the Navy and later on.

KO: My father was a machine designer. He said it was okay to go into radio but it was a business you went into because you loved and therefore you starved. People in the radio business or electronics then really didn't make a reasonable living. So he insisted I learn machine shop practice first, and I did that afternoons when I was in high school. It paid off very well, in the Navy, because I was the only one who could sharpen a drill and do simple things like that. [And] when we started Digital I was the closest thing we had to a toolmaker, not a good one, but I made the original tools. We used cutting sheet metal in making parts. I can at least carry on a conversation with people today.
[source for title quote]
posted by jessamyn (28 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

I've seen that quote in a thousand powerpoint presentations as evidence of "failure to see the obvious" or some such garbage. And yet 95% of those presenters probably never backed up a hard drive in their lives and have their nterns get the pictures out of their cellphones. In fact he was exactly right, just a hardware guy who had too much faith too soon in the abiliyt of the Gateses of the world to make computers easy to use. I hate that I have a computer in my house, and I can't wait until Olsen's vision is realized. RIP, one of the true pioneers of American business.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

...... ...... ...... ...... ...... .....

because the PDP-10 was a 36 bit machine

In fact he was exactly right, just a hardware guy who had too much faith too soon in the abiliyt of the Gateses of the world to make computers easy to use.

Exactly. How many SF authors predicted cellphones, and how common they'd be?
posted by eriko at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A PDP-8 was the first computer I ever wrote a program on, and I saved the code on a small roll of punched paper tape via the unit attached to the side of the teletype. Good times.
posted by aught at 11:00 AM on February 8, 2011

Mr. Olson lived where I grew up, in Lincoln, Mass., a small suburb of Boston. His house was on a slight hill that led up to one of the very few main intersections in town (when I lived there we didn't have a single stoplight). During a blizzard one year, my Mom got stuck on that slight hill in her blue Volvo station wagon right outside of Mr. Olson's house. He tried to help my Mom dig her car out of the snow, and when that didn't work he drove her home to where my house was, about five minutes away (and a half-mile away from Walden Pond). My Mom has probably reminded me of that story upwards of fifty times.

During college I landscaped all over Lincoln, and my crew eventually picked up his house. It took me a while to realize whose house it was, but once it clicked I always took extra care not to burn out his lawn.
posted by pwally at 11:01 AM on February 8, 2011

My own personal rememberance of Olsen was that my dad, after getting a rejection letter from DEC, went on to work for a "rival" technology corporation in the same general area and the breakfast table at my house was full of stories about what Olsen was or was not doing. The high school I went to had a VAX (a donation from DEC) and I learned how to do some rudimentary programming on it back in the 80s. When I moved to Romania in 1994 with my academic husband, I got a job working at a Freedom Forum library in Bucharest. They had few desktop computers that were all on a network connected to a VAX that someone had donated to them. Me and the IT guy there were the only people who really knew how to use it, to get online with it at 2400 bps and check football scores at the local tech college's gopher server. I never met Ken Olsen but the work he did indirectly changed my life.
posted by jessamyn at 11:03 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Does anyone remember there was a warehouse that had a ton of DEC Multia's that they liquidated around 2000?
posted by wcfields at 11:03 AM on February 8, 2011


my world and the world in general would be very different without him.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:04 AM on February 8, 2011


Thanks for posting this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:05 AM on February 8, 2011

The start of my professional career coincided with the release of the VAX. It's hard to convey what a game-changer it was (as were the PDPs that preceded it). The concept of your very own computer began with Olsen and DEC and just look where it's taken us.
posted by tommasz at 11:08 AM on February 8, 2011

Indianapolis will do that to you...


The first computer I ever worked on (as in, suddenly there was a computer in my office) was a chunky beige DEC box. Out IT manager was a huge DEC guy.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:16 AM on February 8, 2011

I still mourn for what could have been had Ken not been ousted. VAX, ALPHA, VMS, Clustering, IPX/SPX...

I will have an ALPHA to run OpenVMS on... I swear it... it your honor, Ken.

posted by PROD_TPSL at 11:20 AM on February 8, 2011

I remember hearing about how DEC was run by engineers whereas IBM was run by business people. It's typically related as a tragic parable about why we have to (grudgingly) respect business people.

One instance of this is how late DEC came to the PC party, and even then only halfheartedly. The engineers scoffed at these new "bit boxes" that only had 1/100th of the power of the minicomputers they were used to working on. Meanwhile, IBM jumped in -- albeit belatedly -- because they smelled money.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2011

TOPS-20 was a hoot

posted by mikelieman at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2011

Loved the mill in Maynard.
posted by grounded at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

> ... my dad, after getting a rejection letter from DEC, went on to work for a "rival" technology corporation

and someone won a Pulitzer for the book they wrote about it.

. (despite having part of my first job being a half-hearted VMS admin)
posted by scruss at 12:33 PM on February 8, 2011

Growing up in the Boston 'burbs, Digital was everywhere around here. We even had a building in my town back in the 70s (I learned to drive in the parking lot) and lots more in the surrounding towns. At my high school (Quinobin RVTS, RIP) we used a PDP-11 and somewhere I still have a giant magnetic tape with all my programs on it. I wonder if it's possible to read it on anything.
posted by bondcliff at 12:43 PM on February 8, 2011

PKO3 and MRO1-3 represent.

RIP Ken.
posted by Spatch at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2011

It interests me that his great failure (to recognize the personal computer revolution before IBM did) is talked about much more than his great success (to recognize the minicomputer revolution before IBM did). The PDP-10 was a machine every lab wanted, and you could run it yourself. I did my thesis in Emacs on a Dec-20. It was a miraculous step up from a typewriter.
posted by cogneuro at 1:52 PM on February 8, 2011

Many of us who went to college in the 1970s and 1980s worked on PDP or VAX computers. I personally worked on PDP-8, PDP-11, PDP-24, and VAX-11/780 computers. The hardware architecture was clean and beautiful. The VMS operating system was a marvel of well designed software. Although DEC is now gone, its legacy lives on, as much of the current design of both hardware and software is done by people who learned the trade on DEC equipment.

With Ken Olsen's passing, another of the pivotal characters of computer history is lost to the ravages of time.
posted by Xoc at 2:09 PM on February 8, 2011

In the 80s, I worked for a startup which ran Unix on a Vax. When we had hardware problems the DEC repairman didn't want to hear anything about Unix so we'd have to load VMS before he'd look at the machine, swapping boards in and out until it would work. We used to tell the following joke:
How does a DEC repairman change a flat tire?
Ans. He replaces the tires one at a time until he finds the one that's flat.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

someone won a Pulitzer for the book they wrote about it.

There's actually pretty interesting part of that book that talks about the rivalry with DEC that the Atlantic excerpted which is now online.
West was the leader of a team of computer engineers at a company called Data General. The machine that he was disassembling was produced by a rival firm, Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC. A VAX and a modest amount of adjunctive equipment sold for something like $200,000, and as West liked to say, DEC was beginning to sell VAXes "like jellybeans." West had traveled to this room to find out for himself just how good this computer was, compared with the one that his team was building...
apologies for threadsitting but I love this story.
posted by jessamyn at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


My only tangential relation to DEC is that I used to work for Compaq's Alpha microprocessor division, which used to be part of DEC, and am still a member of the Digital credit union.
posted by gyc at 3:30 PM on February 8, 2011

Control-G, control-G on the DECwriter sounded just like the "beep, beep" in Tainted Love.
posted by rfs at 6:21 PM on February 8, 2011

posted by Mitheral at 6:32 PM on February 8, 2011


I had a co-worker who worked for DEC for years, he absolutely hated my black windows desktop background because supposedly that's what the DEC machines did when they hung.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:09 PM on February 8, 2011


Ken Olsen donated the piece of endowment that, among other things, created my job at MIT. I never had a chance to meet him -- by the time I started, he was already getting too sick for casual visitors -- but all I heard about him was that he was a good guy who wanted us super-nerds to get our heads out of the sky and go build stuff. There are now a lot of people with that same message but he was out beating the drum early. For 7 years I've written a little report -- mostly pictures -- addressed just to him, showing him all the cool stuff our undergrads were able to build with his help. Thanks again, Ken.
posted by range at 7:39 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by iviken at 1:59 AM on February 9, 2011

posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:21 PM on February 9, 2011

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