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Ken Olsen, founder of DEC, dead at 84

An important figure in computing history, Olsen founded and led Digital Equipment Corporation, the firm most associated with the minicomputer era.

Ken Olsen, co-founder of the defining technology company of a bygone era, Digital Equipment Corporation, has died. He was 84.

DEC co-founder Ken Olsen
DEC co-founder Ken Olsen Gordon College

A spokeswoman for Gordon College in Massachusetts, where Olsen was a trustee and prominent donor, confirmed Monday evening Twitter reports of his death on Sunday. Olsen's company dominated the minicomputer era of the tech industry from the 1960s through the 1980s with the PDP and VAX series computers, and was a key part of the famed Route 128 technology corridor just outside Boston, along with companies like Data General and Wang.

"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," wrote Dan Bricklin, co-creator of the landmark VisiCalc spreadsheet software, former DEC employee and fellow New Englander, on his Twitter feed.

Olsen led DEC--later to wind up as part of Compaq and then Hewlett-Packard--during an era in which computing advanced from huge expensive room-sized mainframes produced by companies like IBM to what were called minicomputers, although they were enormous refrigerator-sized cabinets. They were, however, a much more affordable alternative to mainframes and ushered in an era in which computing grew to dominate back-office functions in even small businesses.

Olsen's PDP computers kick-started the era, and later DEC's VAX machines, powered by the VMS operating system, became nearly ubiquitous, supporting a company that at one point employed over 100,000 people. The company was the starting point for many an East Coast technology worker, and Olsen was known for a management style that encouraged autonomy and responsibility.

"Ken was brilliant, bold, incredibly lucky, impossibly successful, clearly flawed, and delightfully unique. Of all the companies that stood in opposition to IBM in the '70s and '80s, his stood tallest and straightest," Jonathan Eunice, principal advisor at Illuminata and a CNET Blog Network contributor, wrote in an e-mail.

DEC's decline in the early 1990s came as minicomputers were squeezed by powerful Unix and RISC servers and eaten away at the low end by PCs. Olsen famously once said "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," which has been cited as an example of DEC's myopia but appears to have been taken out of context over the years.

DEC did, however, squander its position near the summit of the tech industry with infighting and indecision as smaller and more powerful computers arrived, taking Boston's role as a technology hub along with it as the tech industry headed west to Silicon Valley. The company tried to regain prominence as a chipmaker with the Alpha processor in the 90s, but despite Alpha's technical prowess it was never a big seller. The technology wound up as part of Intel's Itanium chip--also not a big seller--through partnerships between Intel, Compaq, and HP.

Gordon College is home to the Ken Olsen Science Center and is the curator of his archives. Friends, colleagues, and well-wishers are being invited to submit remembrances of Olsen here on Gordon's site.