Kenneth Harry Olsen was the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). He was born on February 20, 1926 and he died on February 06, 2011. One former employee of DEC wrote: “It is with great regret that I inform you that our beloved CEO Ken Olsen passed away, yesterday in Indiana, with his immediate family all around him. Ken had been in ill health for the last few months and was in Hospice care. Sad time for their family now, but Ken and Aulikki had a wonderful life. It’s sad to know that they both have now passed.”
Ken Olsen was born in Bridgeport, CT. After enlisting in the Navy during World War II, he attended MIT for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. While at MIT, he worked on a team that developed air defense technology and core memory, the precursor to today’s RAM. He married Aulikki Valve in Finland on December 12, 1950.
In 1957, he co-founded DEC with MIT colleague, Harlan Anderson in a refurbished mill in Maynard just outside of Boston. After going to the Small Business Association for a loan, they approached American Research and Development Corporation, an early venture capital firm, which had been founded by Georges Doriot. In exchange for 70% equity, they got the funding they needed to start DEC.
Digital Equipment Corporation was a leading vendor of computer systems, software and peripherals from the 1960s to the 1990s. DEC’s PDP and VAX products were arguably the most popular minicomputers for the scientific and engineering communities during the 1970s and 1980s.
A press release from Gordon College, where Ken Olsen served as a long-time trustee, included this quote from Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, in a letter to Gordon College:
“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.”
In 1986 Fortune Magazine named him the “most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.” He was also inducted into multiple halls of fame including the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (1990) and the Computer History Museum (1996). He served on the boards of several prestigious organizations including the Computer Science and Engineering Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; and as a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1993.
NOTE: The authors of this blog were very involved with the autobiography of DEC’s “missing” co-founder Harlan Anderson. We’d love to read your comments about Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation.
Here are the links to some of the obituaries for Ken Olsen:
Boston Globe: “Computer Pioneer Ken Olsen Dies“
New York Times: “Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC Into a Power, Dies at 84“
Boston Herald: “Digital co-founder Ken Olsen dies at 84“
Computerworld Blog: “DEC co-founder, Ken Olsen dies at 84“
Mass High Tech News Blog: “Remembering Ken Olsen and some thin ice“
TechCrunch: “What Ken Olsen Meant to Me“
Xconomy San Francisco Blog Post by Gordon Bell: “Remembering Ken Olsen (1926-2011): A Sense of Pride and a Sense of Humor“
Innovation Economy: “DEC co-founder Ken Olsen: Obituaries, reminiscences, and video“