Kenneth Olsen, the computer industry pioneer who co-founded and led minicomputer king Digital Equipment Corp. for 35 years, died at the age of 84 on Sunday in Indianapolis.
As DEC's leader, Olsen oversaw the company's epic battles vs. IBM and its mainframes for the hearts and business of IT shops – a fight DEC eventually lost as the era of fast, cheap and networked PCs took hold in the 1980s and 1990s. During its heyday, DEC's PDPs, VAXes and and DECnet network technology became staples in many organizations and today's IT industry remains filled with companies whose founders were among the 125,000 people who once worked at DEC around the world. Digital was acquired in 1998 by Compaq.
Before DEC, Olsen worked at MIT on air defense technology and core memory that was a precursor to today's RAM. Even after years at DEC's helm, Olsen still said he considered himself a scientist first and an entrepreneur second.
Dan Bricklin, co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet and DEC alum, tweeted: "Ken Olsen is in the elite club of tech founders w/Gates & Jobs, and set the stage for them. What he did we take for granted today."
Olsen's achievements have been recognized many times over. He was inducted into the Computer History Museum's Hall of Fellows in 1996 and also received a National Medal of Technology in 1993.
He was revered by other computer industry leaders.
"An inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur, Ken Olsen is one of the true pioneers of the computing industry," said Microsoft's Bill Gates in a letter to Gordon College of Wenham, Mass., in 2008 when the Ken Olsen Science Center was dedicated . "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."
Olsen's DEC co-founder, Harlan Anderson, published a memoir in 2009 in which he said that "one of the things that was not uppermost in our mind [when starting Digital Equipment] was not going out and making lots of money." DEC's biggest contribution, he said, was bringing "man/machine interaction to the commercial world."