Ken Olsen And His Beautiful Machines

Published February 8, 2011


DEC PDP-1 (Marcin Wichary/Flickr)

How important was New England native Ken Olsen? Consider this tweet from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen:

Condolences to DEC Founder Ken Olsen’s family. BillG & I wrote Microsoft BASIC on DEC PDP-10 mainframe. Ken’s work was vital to our success.

But the real measure of this man is found in the outpouring of support from ordinary people who worked for Olsen.

“DEC and Ken Olsen’s style and vision allowed me to reach my potential and fostered independent thinking,” writes Richard Green in the comments on our obituary. “I started as a lowly break/fix tech. I never felt that I WASN’T a part of DEC. If you wanted to learn something or do something new in your career, DEC was the place to be.

“If you never worked there, it is hard to appreciate what is was like. There were long hours, many all-nighters and we weren’t getting rich, but I couldn’t wait to go to work everyday.”

A colleague of mine said Digital Equipment Corporation is the reason a lot of people are in Massachusetts today. Olsen co-founded DEC in Maynard in the 1950s, building the company into a giant. At its apex, only IBM was a bigger tech company. When DEC began disintegrating in the 90s, some Massachusetts towns were devastated.

“I’m so sad to learn that Kenneth Olsen, the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, has died,” writes WBUR’s Curt Nickisch on his personal blog. He continues:

When I arrived in Massachusetts to report business and technology for WBUR, I started hearing the lore of the golden days of the Bay State computer corridor. Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC, dominated for decades. It was the poster child of the “Massachusetts Miracle.” It was the Google of its day, the cool company you wanted to work for.

Curt interviewed Green, the commenter I quoted, for a remembrance on WBUR’s All Things Considered. A year ago, Curt produced an interview with DEC’s other co-founder, Harlan Anderson.

What strikes me about DEC’s machines is how pretty they were. IBM, the rival that would win the personal computing wars, defined the beige box. Long before Apple’s candy-colored iMac, DEC computers were little pieces of art. Photographer Marcin Whicary posted some beautiful photographs of the PDP-1 on Flickr.

Olsen died Sunday in Indianapolis. He was 84.