I never spent any time with the towering figure behind Digital Equipment Corp., but I remember seeing Ken Olsen speak on several occasions. Sadly, the details of those talks are vague. But certainly the story of Kenneth H. Olsen, who died on Sunday, Feb. 6, at age 84, is the story of the pre-PC computer industry.
Olsen founded Digital Equipment Corp. in 1957 with $70,000 in seed money. From there, he turned it into one of the powerhouses of the computing industry. He took on International Business Machines on many fronts, and pummeled other minicomputer makers like Data General, Prime, Wang and others that circled around mighty IBM in the 1970s.
DEC’s computers were brilliant. While most of my own early computing career was centered on IBM 370-series mainframes, I also had access to smaller systems, such as DEC’s 16-bit PDP-11 and 32-bit VAX systems, for projects that focused more on scientific and mathematical computation instead of data processing. But even on the mainframe, I was as apt to access the system with a DECwriter II printing terminal as an IBM 3278 display terminal. I loved those old DECwriters.
And of course, anyone who worked in computing during that era has read Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine,” which chronicled attempts by Data General engineers to build a computer to compete against DEC’s mighty VAX. If you haven’t read it, you should to get a flavor of that wonderful era of glass-house innovation.
Ken Olsen left DEC in 1992—nearly 20 years ago—amid the company’s faltering fortunes. Despite its advances with RISC chips like the Alpha, DEC was already turning into a living fossil. The company’s demise came only a few years later, when Compaq purchased DEC in 1998. The minicomputer era was officially over.
We owe Kenneth H. Olsen a tremendous debt for creating Digital Equipment Corp., one of the greatest innovators in the high-tech industry.