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Kenneth Olsen, MIT Corporation life member emeritus, dies at 84

Institute alum, computer pioneer was co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp.
Kenneth Olsen, life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation and co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp.
Kenneth Olsen, life member emeritus of the MIT Corporation and co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp.

MIT Corporation Life Member Emeritus Kenneth H. Olsen ’50, SM ’52, who co-founded Digital Equipment Corp. in 1957 and grew it into the world’s second-largest computer maker in the 1980s, died on Feb. 6. He was 84.

After working at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s, Olsen and his Lincoln Lab colleague Harlan Anderson started Digital in an old mill building in Maynard, Mass., which remained the company’s home base until Compaq acquired the company in 1998. Olsen remained chairman of the company from its founding until 1992. By the time he stepped down, the company he helped start with $70,000 of venture capital financing had grown to one with a greater value — adjusted for inflation — than those of Ford, U.S. Steel or Standard Oil at the time their founders, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, left the companies they started, according to a 1986 profile in Fortune magazine that called him “arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.”

The key to Digital’s success was the pioneering creation of a class of computers much smaller than those being built at the time by IBM and other major companies. The smaller machines, known as minicomputers, were the first computers with a price easily accessible to companies and scientific laboratories, and they proliferated rapidly. Digital, along with later minicomputer companies Wang and Prime, were major contributors to the “Massachusetts Miracle,” a period of rapid business expansion in the state during the 1980s, and during that decade Digital became the second-largest employer in the state (next to the state government). At its peak in the mid-1980s, the company had annual sales of $14 billion.

Paul Gray, former president of MIT and professor emeritus, said that Olsen was always very supportive of MIT. Back in the 1980s, Olsen was instrumental in the creation of Project Athena, a pioneering effort to provide computer access to all students. He made major donations of equipment to the project, Gray said.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in a letter in 2006 to Gordon College, where Olsen was a trustee, that Olsen was “one of the true pioneers of the computer industry,” and called him “a major influence in my life” whose influence is still felt at Microsoft through the many former Digital engineers who ended up working there.

Olsen was elected to the MIT Corporation — the Institute's board of trustees — in 1971, serving two terms before his election as a life member in 1981. He became the chair of the electrical engineering visiting committee in 1973, serving in that capacity until 1978 and during the department’s evolution into the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He rejoined the EECS committee in 1982. He also served six years on the aeronautics and astronautics committee (1978-1984), and 11 years on both the libraries visiting committee (1971-1982), and the visiting committee for linguistics and philosophy (1986-1989, and 1993-2001).  

Olsen received the Institute’s Corporate Leadership Award in 1976 for his exemplary contributions to corporate enterprise. His and Digital’s participation and support of the Institute’s Microsystems Industrial Group enabled MIT to construct in 1985 the MIT Microsystems Technology Laboratories, a world-class research facility in integrated systems.

Olsen was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on Feb. 20, 1926, and grew up in nearby Stratford. His wife, Aulikki, died in 2009, and he is survived by two children. A memorial service will be held at Gordon College on May 14.

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