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Ken Olsen

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Kenneth Harry Olsen
Born(1926-02-20)February 20, 1926
Bridgeport, Connecticut
DiedFebruary 6, 2011(2011-02-06) (aged 84)[1]
Indianapolis, Indiana
Alma materMassachusetts Institute of Technology (B.S., 1950; M.S., 1952)
Known forFounding Digital Equipment Corporation with Harlan Anderson
Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Olsen
(m. 1950; died 2009)

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 and his brother Stan Olsen.[4][5]


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.[6]



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.[7] Also while at MIT, he directed the building of the first transistorized research computer, the TX-0. Olsen was an engineer who had been working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the TX-2 project.[8]

Olsen's most important connection to Project Whirlwind was his work on the Memory Test Computer (MTC), described as "a special purpose computer built to test core memory for the Whirlwind."[9] Unlike the 18-bit TX-0, which was "designed to be a predecessor for a larger 36 bit machine, the TX-2," Whirlwind and the MTC used 16 bits.[9]

Digital Equipment Corporation[edit]

In 1957, 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) after receiving $70,000 for a 70% share. 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.[citation needed] (The MIT professor Jay W. Forrester is generally credited with inventing the first practical magnetic-core memory).

Olsen was known throughout his career for his management style and his fostering of engineering innovation. 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.[10] Olsen valued humility, driving an economy car and keeping a simple office in an old mill building. He also was an accomplished pilot and flew his own plane.[11]

In 1977, referring to computers used in home automation at the dawn of the home computer era, Olsen is quoted as saying "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."[12][13][14][15][16] Olsen admitted to making the remark, even though he says his words were taken out of context and he was referring to computers set up to control houses, not PCs.[14] According to Snopes.com, "the out-of-context misinterpretation of Olsen's comments is considered much more amusing and entertaining than what he really meant, so that is the version that has been promulgated for decades now".[17]

In 1986, Fortune Magazine named Olsen "America's most successful entrepreneur",[11][18] and the same year he received the IEEE Engineering Leadership Recognition Award.[19] 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 1993, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers awarded Olsen their IEEE Founders Medal.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

In 2011, he was listed at #6 on the MIT150 list of the top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT for his work on the minicomputer.[20]

Later career history[edit]

Commencing in 1987, Olsen in public appearances described UNIX as "snake oil".[21] Some believed he was making a general characterization of UNIX, while others believed he was specifically referring to its marketing exaggerating its benefits.[22] 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, stepping down as president in 1992.[23][24] He subsequently became the chairman of Advanced Modular Solutions. Olsen was also a major contributor to The Family, a religious and political organization.[25]

Olsen was a trustee of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.[26] There, the Ken Olsen Science Center was named after him in 2006,[27] 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.[3][28] His family also did not comment on any details surrounding his death.[2]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Krazit, Tom (February 7, 2011). "Ken Olsen, founder of DEC, dead at 84". CNet News. Archived from the original on October 30, 2013. Retrieved February 8, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Rifkin, Glenn (February 7, 2011). "Ken Olsen, Founder of DEC, Dies at 84". The New York Times.
  3. ^ a b "Computer Pioneer Ken Olsen Dies at Age 84". ABC News. Associated Press. February 8, 2011.
  4. ^ "Digital Equipment Corporation. Nineteen Fifty Seven To The Present" (PDF). Digital Equipment Corporation, 1978. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
  5. ^ National Inventor's Hall of Fame profile Archived 2010-12-05 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, Shaping the Waves: A History of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, p. 108. ISBN 978-1-59139-813-4.
  7. ^ The citation says Air Force/back then was part of something else. "NIHF Inductee Kenneth Olsen Invented Magnetic Core Memory". The National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF). Retrieved August 17, 2021. While at MIT, Olsen was recruited by the Air Force to help build a computerized flight simulator
  8. ^ Sito, Tom (2013). Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 38. ISBN 9780262019095.
  9. ^ a b Larry Watkins (May 1982). "A DEC History of Minicomputers". HARDCOPY. pp. 12–19. Whirlwind ... from a historical standpoint .. people are a very important factor .. Ken Olsen .. Ben Gurley
  10. ^ See remarks by Win Hindle about Ken's leadership.
  11. ^ a b Petre, Peter. "AMERICA'S MOST SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEUR". CNN FORTUNE Magazine archive. CNN. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  12. ^ "10 Most Memorable Tech CEOs of the Digital Era". PCMAG. Archived from the original on 12 March 2016. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  13. ^ Jack Schofield (9 February 2011). "Ken Olsen obituary". the Guardian. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  14. ^ a b Alex Bracetti (14 January 2013). "The Spam Crisis Solved? - The 25 Craziest Things Ever Said by Tech CEOs - Complex". Complex. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  15. ^ "Quote Details: Ken Olsen: There is no reason... - The Quotations Page". The Quotations Page. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  16. ^ Ashley Lutz (2 May 2012). "False Predictions - Business Insider". Business Insider. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  17. ^ "Ken Olsen". Snopes.com. Snopes. 27 September 2007. Retrieved 14 January 2019.
  18. ^ The war lost, Digital surrenders Boston Globe, January 27, 1998, p.c1.
  19. ^ "IEEE Ernst Weber Engineering Leadership Recognition Recipients" (PDF). IEEE. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
  20. ^ "The MIT 150". Boston.com. Retrieved 2017-04-10.
  21. ^ Gibson, Stanley (April 4, 1988). "Olsen Poses Slick Question". ComputerWorld. Vol. XXII, no. 14. p. 43. Retrieved 2017-08-06.
  22. ^ Johnson, Maryfran (February 11, 1991). "UNIX: DEC's Flavor of the Year". Computerworld. Vol. XV, no. 6. p. 91. Retrieved 2017-08-06.
  23. ^ Marquard, Bryan; Bray, Hiawatha (2011-02-08). "Computer pioneer Ken Olsen dies". Boston.com. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  24. ^ "Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC Into a Power, Dies at 84". The New York Times. February 2011.
  25. ^ Sharlet, Jeff (March 2003). "Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats". Harpers Magazine.
  26. ^ "Digital". decconnection.org. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
  27. ^ "Salute to Ken Olsen — Gordon Hosts Tribute to Massachusetts Technology Icon". Gordon College.
  28. ^ Albanesius, Chloe (February 8, 2011). "Computing Pioneer Ken Olsen Dead at 84". PCMag.com.
  29. ^ CHM. "Ken Olsen — CHM Fellow Award Winner". Archived from the original on April 3, 2015. Retrieved March 30, 2015."Ken Olsen | Computer History Museum". Archived from the original on 2015-04-03. Retrieved 2015-03-30.
  30. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved August 17, 2021.

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]

Archives and records[edit]