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STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/06/2011


Kenneth H. Olsen: A Technology Pioneer's Life and Legacy

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s leading computer industry pioneers, passed away February 6. Gordon’s Ken Olsen Science Center stands as a legacy both to Olsen’s faith and to his tireless commitment to the sciences.

“An inventor, scientist and entrepreneur, Ken Olsen is one of the true pioneers of the computing industry,” said Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, in a letter to Gordon College. “He was also a major influence in my life, and his influence is still important at Microsoft through all the engineers who trained at Digital and have come here to make great software products.”

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Olsen developed a love and curiosity for electronics at a young age. After an enlistment in the Navy during World War II, he attended MIT for both undergraduate and graduate degrees. While at MIT, he worked on a team that developed air defense technology and core memory, the precursor to today’s RAM. He married Aulikki Valve in Finland on December 12, 1950.

In 1957 in Maynard, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, he cofounded Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in a refurbished mill—a company that grew to over 125,000 employees in 86 countries. Countless CEOs, engineers and inventors recognize Olsen’s technological innovations, leadership style and entrepreneurial philosophies as the foundation for today’s information and computer networking industry.

“Ken Olsen was a pioneer of the computer age, but beyond that he was a good man. He was a major philanthropist who did his giving quietly, never seeking recognition or thanks. Ken’s many contributions to business, leadership and technological innovations were unmatched,” said Tom Phillips, former chairman of Raytheon and fellow board member at Gordon College since 1970. “He cared deeply about his family, his faith and, of course, his work, and sincerely expected that each would help make the world better.”

Under Olsen’s 35-year leadership tenure, DEC pioneered the concepts behind interactive computing. Creating one of the first digital computers for commercial use, DEC marketed the minicomputer and set records in size and affordability. The company also set industry standards in program languages, operating systems, networking architectures, applications software, computer peripherals, component and circuit technology, manufacturing processes and business practices.

In 1986 Fortune Magazine named him the “most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.” He was also inducted into multiple halls of fame including the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (1990) and the Computer History Museum (1996). He served on the boards of several prestigious organizations including the Computer Science and Engineering Board of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., and as a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1993.

Olsen had a particular fondness for Christian higher education. As an active member of Park Street Church in Boston, Olsen joined the Board of Trustees of Gordon College in 1961 along with fellow trustees Tom Phillips and Billy Graham. Olsen admired Gordon’s openness to scientific inquiry and commitment to the Christian faith, and provided both spiritual and business input for the next 50 years. He supported numerous capital and building projects in all areas of academics, athletics, music and the arts, and moved the College towards greater efficiency in technology by donating his time, expertise and company equipment.

In his early leadership at DEC, Olsen often visited Gordon’s campus to meet informally with science students or professors about specific developments in computing. Sometimes he would drop off his latest prototype for Gordon scientists and challenge them to “play around with this in the lab and let me know what you think.” Because of his involvement, Gordon was a natural recipient for his archives.

“Ken Olsen made a lasting impact on generations of science students at Gordon College. He took his leadership role seriously, not just attending meetings but also helping to design new computer labs, giving of his own resources for the College to meet its financial goals, and asking the tough questions that a growing institution needed to answer,” said President Jud Carlberg. “Ken never saw a conflict between his Christian commitment and his embrace of scientific methods; it was up to us, he believed, to understand how science and the Bible were two expressions of God’s creativity. And we are still pursuing that task.”

Through all of his accomplishments, Olsen’s family and friends defined him by his humble commitment to loving God, loving excellence and loving others. His character in and out of the workplace reflected his lifelong belief that values, business ethics and scientific inquiry should coincide with faith in God.

“Science is more than a study of molecules and calculations; it is the love of knowledge and the continued search for the truth,” Olsen once wrote. "The study of the sciences promotes humility, leaving us with a clear sense that we will never understand all there is to know. At the same time, science provides a defense for truth, authenticates Christianity and stems from the nature of God."

Timeline:

1950 Ken Olsen and Aulikki Valve married in Finland.
1957 Digital Equipment Corporation founded by Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson.
1959 First PDP-1 (Programmable Data Processor) released—DEC's first computer, and the first computer to focus on interaction with the user.
1961 Impressed with the way science is taught at Gordon, Olsen joins the Gordon College Board of Trustees.
1965 PDP-8 Introduced—first commercially successful minicomputer.
1970 PDP-11 first sold—a series of 16-bit minicomputers.
1977 VAX-11/780 Introduced—first "superminicomputer" and the first to implement VAX (Virtual Address eXtension) architecture.
1985 DEC becomes the fifth company to register a ".com" domain name.
1986 Olsen described by Fortune magazine as the "most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business."
2008  Ken Olsen Science Center dedicated.

 

A public memorial service will be held at Gordon on May 14 at 3:30 p.m.
www.gordon.edu/kenolsenmemorial

NEXT: John D. Mason: A Beloved Professor's Address to Graduates

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