Ken Olsen

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Kenneth Harry Olsen
Born February 20, 1926(1926-02-20)
Bridgeport, Connecticut
Died February 6, 2011(2011-02-06) (aged 84)[1]
Indianapolis, Indiana
Nationality American
Occupation Engineer
Known for Founding Digital Equipment Corporation with Harlan Anderson

Kenneth Harry Olsen (February 20, 1926[2] — February 6, 2011[3]) was an American engineer and entrepreneur. He started Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1957 with Harlan Anderson.[4]

Background[change | edit source]

Olsen was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He grew up in nearby Stratford, Connecticut. His father's parents came from Norway and his mother's parents came from from Sweden. Olsen began his career working summers in a machine shop. Olsen fixed radios in his basement as a child.

He served in the United States Navy between 1944 and 1946. Then Olsen studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He earned a Bachelor of Science in 1950 and a Master of Science degree in 1952. Both degrees were in electrical engineering.[5]

Career[change | edit source]

Digital Equipment Corporation employee coffee mug

While he was studying at MIT, the Office of Naval Research of the United States Department of the Navy asked Olsen to help build a computerized flight simulator. Also while at MIT, Olsen directed a project to make the first transistorized research computer. Olsen also worked as an engineer at MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the TX-2 project.[6]

In 1957, Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, decided to start their own company. Harlan was also at MIT. They asked American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC) for money. ARDC was an early venture capital company started by Georges Doriot. In the 1960s, Olsen received patents for a saturable switch, a diode transformer gate circuit, an improved version of magnetic core memory, and the line printer buffer. Their company's headquarters was in an old wool mill in Maynard, Massachusetts.[7] In 1992, the company had their best sales of $14,000,000,000.[7] DEC was sold to Compaq for $9,600,000,000 in 1999.[7] It later became a part of Hewlett-Packard.[7]

Ken Olsen was known throughout his career for his fatherly management style and for supporting new ideas in engineering. He thought new ideas and technical excellence were very important. He used engineering matrix management. This management approach is used throughout many industries today.[8]

He was awarded the Vermilye Medal in 1980.

In 1986, Fortune Magazine named Olsen "America's most successful entrepreneur",[9] and the same year he received the IEEE Engineering Leadership Recognition Award.[10]

Later career history[change | edit source]

In 1987 he gave the first of his "snake oil speeches". Some people thought he was talking about the "Unix Conspiracy".[11] Olsen believed VMS was a better operating system for DEC customers than UNIX. He said why VMS was good. Yet, he did approve and encourage a plan inside DEC to make a UNIX for VAX computers based on BSD. This version of UNIX was called Ultrix. However, Ultrix never got good support from within DEC.[source?]

Olsen retired from DEC in 1992.[source?] He then became the chairman of Advanced Modular Solutions.[source?] Olsen was also a major contributor to The Family, a religious and political organization.[12] Olsen also was a trustee of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.[13] The college named a science center after him.[14]

Death[change | edit source]

Olsen died while in hospice care in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 6, 2011, aged 84. The cause of death was not announced.[3][15] His family also did not speak publicly about how he died.[2][7]

Quotations[change | edit source]

Two things Olsen said are often repeated but without information to help people understand what he really meant.

  • There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home. (1977) This was about having a computer run the house including opening and closing doors and turning water on and off automatically He had a computer in his home for general use and wanted people to use home computers.[16]
  • People will get tired of managing personal computers and will want instead terminals, maybe with windows. (1992) This predicted thin clients and the client-server model of the Internet. When Olsen said "windows" he was not talking about Microsoft Windows, but about showing more than one program on a screen at the same time.[source?]

Further reading[change | edit source]

  • Earls, Alan R. Digital Equipment Corporation. Arcadia Publishing, 2004. ISBN 978-0738535876
  • Rifkin, Glenn and George Harrar. The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation. 1988.
  • Schein, Edgar H. DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004. ISBN 978-1576753057

References[change | edit source]

Other websites[change | edit source]