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DEC Founder Ken Olsen Dies at 84

There was a time when Route 128 right here in Greater Boston was the hub, so to speak, of the technology industry. Before any number of areas with the name "Silicon" in them popped up in a significant way and pushed Massachusetts aside, Boston was the place where technology originated and lived.

Many of technology's greatest innovations and most significant ideas came to life here, and behind many of them was Ken Olsen, cofounder of Digital Equipment Corp. (Yes, we know --"digital" spelled it with a small "d.") Olsen died this week at age 84 and left behind a legacy as one of the great entrepreneurs in American history. (Incidentally, he was a tremendous supporter of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., which is the fine alma mater of your editor's lovely wife.)

Olsen envisioned the incredible shrinking computer when most machines still filled entire rooms and required experts to run them. Digital's minicomputer revolution put computing in the hands of regular workers, not just technical experts, and cleared a backlog for what we would call IT departments these days.

Olsen, of course, was known for saying that there was no reason for an individual to have a computer in his home -- a quote taken badly out of context, given that Olsen was talking about a "computer" in the room-filling machine sense and not in the PC sense. If Digital missed the PC revolution, it wasn't because Olsen didn't see it coming. Quite the contrary -- he played an enormous role in creating it. We can thank Olsen for much of the "personal" computing we do today.

Almost as a metaphor for the industry as a whole, Digital slowly declined in the '90s as it did struggle to crack the PC market, and its remnants moved west -- first, when Compaq bought the company and then when HP bought Compaq a few years later. Like the days of computing dominance on Route 128, Digital's influence is only historic now, but in an industry that always looks forward it's worth looking back on one of the great stories of success and innovation in American business and one of the executives who did the most to change people's lives in a positive way. Ken Olsen will be missed.

Posted by Lee Pender on 02/09/2011 at 1:23 PM


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