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2/8/2011
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DEC Co-Founder Ken Olsen Dead At 84

Tech industry pioneer who built global company long maintained he was misunderstood after famously stating computers were not needed in the home.

Ken Olsen, a computing visionary who co-founded one of the industry's first great companies, Digital Equipment Corp., has died at the age of 84.

Word of his death, which occurred Feb. 6, was officially announced Tuesday by Gordon College, where Olsen was a trustee. The Wenham, Mass.-based institution did not disclose the cause of death.

Olsen was born Feb. 26, 1926 in Bridgeport, Conn. to parents of Scandinavian origin and served in the U.S. Navy before his 20th birthday. After the end of the Second World War, he left the armed services to pursue graduate and post-graduate electrical engineering studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Five years after graduating, Olsen and colleague Harlan Anderson procured venture capital money to launch DEC, which turned out to be a seminal company in what was then the fledgling commercial computer industry.

DEC was ultimately bought out by Compaq in 1998 after growing to a worldwide corporation that employed 125,000 workers. It was known mostly for its PDP (Programmed Data Processor) and VAX (Virtual Address eXtension)-based machines—touted by many as the industry's first commercially viable mini-computers. DEC marketed them primarily as systems for scientists, engineers, researchers, and other professionals who needed to crunch numbers in the office.

"There is no need for any individual to have a computer in his home," Olsen was famously quoted as saying in a 1977 Time article.

While some say the statement belied a lack of larger vision about the personal computing industry's potential, Olsen later clarified that he was referring not to the desktops that are common in most homes today, but to Jetsons-style systems that would control all aspects of individuals' lives.

The quote "is, of course, ridiculous because the business we were in was making PCs, and almost from the start I had them at home," Olsen told author Edgar Schein, for his book "DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC." (Berrett-Koehler, 2003)

"I did make a number of statements and still make statements that people don't understand about computers, or delight in misquoting. A long time ago when the common knowledge was that PCs would run our lives in every detail, I said that if you stole something from the refrigerator at night you didn't want to enter this into the computer so that it would mess up the computer's plans for coming meals," Olsen told Schein.

Gordon College opened the Ken Olsen Science Center in 2008. In a letter to the college to mark the occasion, Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates called Olsen "one of the true pioneers of the computing industry" who was "a major influence in my life and his influence is still important at Microsoft."

Olsen's wife, the former Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Valve, died in 2009. Gorden College plans to hold a memorial service for Olsen on May 14.

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