Ken Olsen

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Kenneth Harry Olsen
Born (1926-02-20)February 20, 1926
Bridgeport, Connecticut
Died February 6, 2011(2011-02-06) (aged 84)[1]
Indianapolis, Indiana
Nationality American
Alma mater Massachusetts Institute of Technology (B.S., 1950; M.S., 1952)
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 who co-founded Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1957 with colleague Harlan Anderson.[4]


Kenneth Harry Olsen was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut and grew up in the neighboring town of Stratford, Connecticut. His father's parents came from Norway and his mother's parents from Sweden. Olsen began his career working summers in a machine shop. Fixing radios in his basement gave him the reputation of a neighborhood inventor.

After serving in the United States Navy between 1944 and 1946, Olsen attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned both a BS (1950) and an MS (1952) degree in Electrical engineering.[5]


During his studies at MIT, the Office of Naval Research of the United States Department of the Navy recruited Olsen to help build a computerized flight simulator. Also while at MIT he directed the building of the first transistorized research computer. Olsen was an engineer who had been working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the TX-2 project.[6]

In 1957, Ken Olsen and an MIT colleague, Harlan Anderson, decided to start their own firm. They approached American Research and Development Corporation, an early venture capital firm, which had been founded by Georges Doriot, and founded Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). 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. (Note that MIT professor Jay W. Forrester is generally credited with inventing the first practical magnetic core memory).

Ken Olsen was known throughout his career for his paternalistic management style and his fostering of engineering innovation. Ken Olsen's valuing of innovation and technical excellence spawned and popularized techniques, such as engineering matrix management, that are broadly employed today throughout many industries.[7]

He was inducted as a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 1996. He was awarded the Vermilye Medal in 1980. He was inducted as an Honorary Member of UPE (the International Honor Society for the Computing and Information Sciences) on October 8, 1975.

In 1986, Fortune Magazine named Olsen "America's most successful entrepreneur",[8] and the same year he received the IEEE Engineering Leadership Recognition Award.[9] Olsen was the subject of a 1988 biography, The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation written by Glenn Rifkin and George Harrar.

In 2011, he was listed at #6 on the MIT150 list of the top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.

Later career history[edit]

In 1987 he gave the first of his infamous "snake oil speeches", taken by some to be referring indirectly to the "Unix Conspiracy".[10] While Olsen believed VMS was a better solution for DEC customers and often talked of the strengths of the system, he did approve and encourage an internal effort to produce a native BSD-based UNIX product on the VAX line of computers called Ultrix. However, this line never got enthusiastic comprehensive support at DEC.[citation needed]

Olsen was forced to retire from DEC in 1992.[11] He subsequently became the chairman of Advanced Modular Solutions. Olsen was also a major contributor to The Family, a religious and political organization.[12]

Olsen was a trustee of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.[13] There, the Ken Olsen Science Center was named after him in 2006,[14] and dedicated on 27 September 2008. Its lobby features a Digital Loggia of Technology, documenting Digital's technology and history, and an interactive kiosk to which former employees have submitted their stories.


Olsen died while in hospice care in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 6, 2011, aged 84. Gordon College, where he was a trustee and board member, announced his death, but did not reveal the cause of death.[3][15] His family also did not comment on any details surrounding his death.[2]


In 1996, the Computer History Museum named him a Museum Fellow "for his introduction of the minicomputer and co-founding of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)." Awarded the IEEE Founders Medal in 1993.


Two quotes of his are frequently taken out of context:

  • from 1977: There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.
    Referred to having the computer run the house, with automated doors, voice-activated faucets et cetera. He had a computer in his home for general use.[16]
  • from 1992: People will get tired of managing personal computers and will want instead terminals, maybe with windows.
    Anticipated thin clients and the general client-server model of the web. Indeed, most of the "thinking" now happens "out there," as with a mainframe and an office full of terminals way back when. Note that by "windows" he was not referring to Microsoft Windows, but rather to a windowing capability in a general sense: subdividing the screen so that more than one program can display its output at the same time.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Krazit, Tom (February 7, 2011). "Ken Olsen, founder of DEC, dead at 84". CNet News. 
  2. ^ a b Rifkin, Glenn (February 7, 2011). "Ken Olsen, Founder of DEC, Dies at 84". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ a b Associated Press (February 8, 2011). "Computer Pioneer Ken Olsen Dies at Age 84". ABC News. 
  4. ^ National Inventor's Hall of Fame profile
  5. ^ Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, Shaping the Waves: A History of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, p. 108. ISBN 978-1-59139-813-4.
  6. ^ Biography Overviews of Prominent Individuals
  7. ^ See remarks by Win Hindle about Ken's leadership.
  8. ^ The war lost, Digital surrenders Boston Globe, January 27, 1998, p.c1.
  9. ^ "IEEE Ernst Weber Engineering Leadership Recognition Recipients". IEEE. Retrieved November 21, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Unix Conspiracy". The Jargon File. 
  11. ^ "Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC Into a Power, Dies at 84". The New York Times. February 2011. 
  12. ^ Sharlet, Jeff (March 2003). "Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats". Harpers Magazine. 
  13. ^ The Salute to Ken Olsen June 17, 2006
  14. ^ "Salute to Ken Olsen — Gordon Hosts Tribute to Massachusetts Technology Icon". Gordon College. 
  15. ^ Albanesius, Chloe (February 8, 2011). "Computing Pioneer Ken Olsen Dead at 84". 
  16. ^ Snopes' account of Olsen's "computer in his home" remark

Further reading[edit]

  • Earls, Alan R. Digital Equipment Corporation. Arcadia Publishing, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7385-3587-6
  • Schein, Edgar H. DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004. ISBN 978-1-57675-305-7

External links[edit]