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Kenneth Olsen, pioneering founder of computer company, dies at 84

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By Joelle Tessler
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 8:23 PM

Kenneth Olsen, 84, a computer industry pioneer and co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp., died Feb. 6. The place and cause of death were not disclosed.

DEC, which Mr. Olsen launched in 1957, attracted top engineers and helped usher in a technology revolution that changed the way people interact with computers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, DEC played a central role in creating the market for "minicomputers," powerful, refrigerator-sized machines that appealed to scientists, engineers and other number crunchers who did not need the bigger, multimillion-dollar mainframes used by big corporations.

At its peak in the 1980s, DEC was the second-largest computer maker behind IBM.

Ultimately, DEC lost its way in the Internet-era transformations of the technology industry, which shrank computers to pocket-sized gadgets.

In 1977, Mr. Olsen was quoted as saying: "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."

He later insisted that the quote was taken out of context and that he simply meant he could not envision a day when computers would run people's lives.

Kenneth Harry Olsen was born Feb. 20, 1926, in Bridgeport, Conn. His father designed machine tools, and Mr. Olsen and his brothers spent hours tinkering with gadgets in the family basement.

During World War II, he maintained radar, sonar and navigation systems in the Navy. He went on to earn undergraduate and master's degrees in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, Mr. Olsen worked in a research center to develop technology to track and intercept enemy aircraft.

In 1957, Mr. Olsen teamed with MIT colleague Harlan Anderson to start Digital Equipment Corp. The company's headquarters was in an old wool mill in Maynard, Mass.

The company's PDP-8 data processor, which was introduced in 1965 and became a building block for computer systems made by other companies, helped establish minicomputers as a major new industry.

The company was also a pioneer in the use of networking technology to link its computers together and enable DEC engineers around the world to communicate electronically almost instantly.

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