Ken Olsen, founder of DEC: RIP — A personal reflection

Unless you’re an old geek (graybeard) like me, this news might have escaped your notice:  Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (or DEC to all of us who knew and loved it), passed away this last Sunday, Feb. 6th, 2011, at age 84.  Obits, bios and history here:

Ken Olsen obituary (The Guardian, Wed. 9 February 2011)
Ken Olsen, Who Built DEC into a Power, dies at 84 (NYTimes, Mon. 7 February 2011)
Ken Olsen, co-founder of DEC, died at 84 (Mass High Tech, Mon. 7 February 2011)
Wikipedia article: Ken Olsen Wikipedia article: Digital Equipment Corporation

Some of the younger technology-loving folks may not recognize his name at all — that’s a shame, because he founded, guided and drove the second wave or generation of computing, inventing the inevitable evolution from mainframes to minicomputers, which defined and led to where we are now.  Linux, Android, Unix, Mac and yes, even Windows, are all beholden to Olsen’s legacy and pioneering in that grand old company called DEC.  He certainly ranks in the pantheon of the great leaders, inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs of the industry that began with IBM’s Watsons (father and son, Thomas J. and Thomas J. Jr.), and continues with Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), and Linus Torvalds (Linux).  

Many of us computing industry graybeards (anyone involved in computing prior to 1990) grew up with Alphas, VAXen, and the whole PDP family, from the venerable PDP-11 — upon which C (the programming language) was invented, and Unix evolved (it actually debuted on a PDP-7) — and the ever-astonishing PDP-10 and DECSystem-20 (successors to the PDP-6), and especially the first-ever RISC machine, the PDP-8 (with exactly eight… count ’em… 8 machine instructions), the first real minicomputer, with models at a price tag of less than $10,000… a really big deal in those days!

Old geeks: Remember sitting at your first Teletype connected to a PDP-6, almost certainly at an early university computer center, puzzling out your first BASIC program?  You toggled in the bootstrap program on the PDP-8’s front-panel switches (“piano-keys”) to get it to boot from DECtape…  Remember why DECtape was unique?  Ever have a spool of DECtape accidentally jump off its hub while seeking a data block, spinning madly, only to skitter away across the computer room floor?  How many times did you “go to DECUS”?

Graybeards: Remember when RAM was “core,” and came in chunks of 18-bit, 12-bit or 36-bit words?  Remember when we all pretty much decided that 16-bits were “not enough”?  What side did you take in the Unix vs. VMS wars?  Did you ever use RT-11 for real-time process control, or login to RSTS/E, RSX-11M, TOPS-10 and TOPS-20, or VMS?  Remember what a Flip-Chip was?  How about a LINC?  What did “PDP” actually stand for?  Remember sitting down at your first VT100, or even your first VT52?  How about TECO?… was it your first “real” text editor?  Remember your PIP switches?  Command line recall & completion control-characters?  Fast-forward to Clusters.  RAID.  Virtual memory.  64-bit RISC architecture.  DEC spanned all of this, and so much more.

Arguably, things we take for granted in modern computing, like multitasking, time-sharing, process management, virtual memory management and protection, threads, multiprocessor architectures, relational databases, X11/GUI, and so much more, came of age under DEC’s vast product development efforts.  IBM, ever so blue-suited and buttoned-down, probably won more awards and industry recognition, but it seemed to those of us who knew the real action that DEC was where it’s at…

Old-timers: Did you send your first “e-mail” more than 30+ years ago, and then “didn’t get it” when email became the killer app of the ’90s Internet?… You sent that first email on some kind of DEC computer system, right?  Chatting/IM (now texting/SMS) was the Phone program.  And the notion of “copying a file over the network” via DECnet from, say, a PDP-11 to a VAX, or to TOPS-10, was no big deal, right?  DECnet was inextricably intertwined with (D)ARPAnet, and we linked computers across the country when the Internet was still but notional.  As the Internet became the reality, “” was the fifth(!) Internet domain name registered in the world — that domain still works, points to HP’s website (Hewlett-Packard now owns all of the old DEC assets that weren’t sold off piecemeal in the late 1990s).  DEC also held Class-A IP address block, one of the first allocated.

Mr. Olsen was responsible, mostly directly, sometimes indirectly, for all of this.  An MIT graduate, and a denizen of its famed Lincoln Laboratory, he was, like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, one of the original hardware engineers in the early computer industry — soft-spoken, understated, often misunderstood, and as DEC’s founder and fearless leader, he was certainly misquoted and misrepresented even more often (e.g., “Questionable Quotes: Ken Olsen” — read the whole thing)!  But he was a pioneer, a leader for over 35 years, founding the number-two computer company in the world, taking on IBM on its own turf, while simultaneously forging new directions for the entire industry.

He was famous among his employees for “managing while walking around” (likely where Tom Peters got the idea for his then-popular business management books) — my own former business partner, Rick, who worked for DEC during the 1970-80s, recalls several late nights at his engineering bench or cubicle, only to turn his head to see Olsen appear, just to chat and check in.  He was hands-on without being meddlesome, maintaining his technical edge to ask the right questions at the right time, to encourage the best ideas on the way to becoming solid, sometimes revolutionary, technical products.

At peak in the late 1980s, DEC employed over 120,000 people worldwide, and generated $14B in annual sales — it was a huge, and hugely talented, group of hardware engineers, manufacturing wizards, researchers, technologists, process/fab experts, software gurus, technical writers, and the folks who supported them.  Any trip to visit DEC at “The Mill” in Maynard (and surrounding towns) was impressively memorable — I’ll never forget my own trips there as a young engineering manager, with red-carpet access and hospitality, replete with helicopter rides to-&-from Logan International.  Who knows how many people outside of DEC proper, whether customers, users, engineers and others, had their own careers productively affected by association with DEC… it was a lot of us!

I never got to meet him in person — I would have liked to have shaken his hand, to have said thanks for a great ride.  For those who knew Ken Olsen only from a distance, as customers, engineers, coders, hackers, early computer enthusiasts, and fellow infantry in the pitched battles between VMS and Unix, minicomputers and PCs, he was admired, even revered, as one of the true old lions, a visionary in the business.

Truly, one of the great ones.  With the passing of this old lion, an era is surely gone.
Kenneth Harry Olsen, RIP.

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8 Responses to Ken Olsen, founder of DEC: RIP — A personal reflection

  1. Pingback: Portfolio | The Rockjack

  2. Pingback: Max Mathews, electronic music pioneer: RIP | The Rockjack

  3. smabbargy says:

    большое спасибо было интересно читать
    (“Thanks a lot, it was interesting to read”)

    • Lorin says:

      спасибо back to you — Thank you! It’s always gratifying, and amazing – and humbling – to find that someone from across the world is interested in what I’m writing!

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