Sunday, March 6, 2011

The computer pioneer who left a lasting legacy in Ireland

This is a tribute to Ken Olsen written by Mike Mulqueen who had the distinction of being the first employee employed by Digital Equipment Corporation in Ireland:

Ken Olsen, engineer, entrepreneur, computer designer, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and friend died Sunday February 6, 2011.

I first met Ken in the early ‘70s and found him to be a very modest private person who spoke little of himself, other than to say that he was a Christian and a scientist. He described himself many times in this way.

This gentle giant socialised very little, he was a non-smoker, didn’t drink or swear. He was a religious man who once devoted a lot of his time to a Sunday School in Boston.

After a spell in the US navy, he studied at MIT Boston where he graduated with BSc and MSc. He also spent time there directing their Lincoln Laboratory. I believe this was where he got the idea of setting up his own company.

In 1957 Ken and another engineer from MIT set about founding the company of which he had dreamed. He knew what his product would be, not an IBM or Honeywell type but something much smaller, about the size of a filing cabinet. They both set out to find a workshop, not in a major city but, as Ken would have it, in some rural area. Their search was complete when they visited a small town called Maynard in Massachusetts. There they rented space in an old woollen mill. They had no money but eventually overcame that difficulty with the help of Georges Doriot, head of American Research and Development. This came at a price. In return for $70,000 ARD got 70% of their company.

They started preparing their ‘workshop’ which had no furniture or rooms or anything they could use. Ken found an old desk which was left behind by previous tenants.

Their first product was not the mini-computer he had planned but instead they started designing and producing logic modules. The first computer, the PDP1, was born in 1959. The computer industry was changed for ever. In less than ten years he led his company to become the second most powerful in the computer industry. Doriot’s $70,000 investment had grown to about €500,000 in 15 years. The PDP1 was replaced by others such as the PDP5, PDP8, PDP11 and so on to the VAX.

In addition to being a computer pioneer Ken was also a management innovator. In Digital facilities throughout the world he created a working environment that allowed the reticent to blossom and the confident to excel. The atmosphere his style created was key to Digital's global success and ultimately had a transformational effect on industrial development in Ireland. Few would question that this country's current reputation as a centre of excellence in the ICT field can be traced back to the decision to set up the Digital plant in Galway in 1971.

When we met the first time he looked anything but the kind of CEO I had experience of before. He wore casual clothes, flannel shirt, ill-fitting jacket and pants, and boots. When we sat down to talk I first noticed his big hands and then his piercing eyes. He spoke a lot in parables which at first was difficult to follow, but as one got to know him better it became easy.

During our conversations any time I met Ken, either in Ireland or in his office, the subject was always about our employees. When we talked about Ireland, a place he considered special, he was always concerned about how we were viewed by the community, State bodies and Government. I believe that no matter where DEC had facilities, he was concerned about such matters.

For Galway’s Quincentenary in 1984 DEC developed a park in Salthill for use by senior citizens. When completed, and on one of Ken’s visits to Galway, I took him to see it. I told him that people knew it as Digital Park. Again the humble and private Ken, who never expected acknowledgements or thanks for any DEC contribution, made it very clear the site should be known by what it was intended for – “The Senior Citizens’ Park”. To him Digital had made a contribution and had no further claim to it.

On one of his early visits to Ireland he was looking for somewhere to spend a few days in privacy and focus on some thoughts and ideas. I recommended Connemara and after his first visit he returned several times, once bringing his wife Aulikki with him.

Ken first met Aulikki, from Finland, while she attended college in the US. After graduating she returned home but not before Ken had fallen for her. She was not aware of this. After Ken had graduated from MIT he went on vacation to Scandinavia. After some searching he was eventually to meet up with Aulikki in Sweden. The romance blossomed, Ken took a job in Sweden and they later became engaged. They were married in December 1950 by Aulikki’s father who was a Lutheran minister. After that Ken brought his wife back to the US. Ken’s father was Norwegian and his mother Swedish.

In 1986 Fortune Magazine listed Ken Olsen as the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Reluctantly, Ken resigned from DEC in 1992, having changed the world of computers forever.
In 2006 Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, is quoted as referring to Ken Olsen as “one of the true pioneers of computing”, and added, “He was also a major influence in my life”.

The last time I met Ken some years ago, he said he wanted to bring his grandchildren to Ireland in the spring. He didn’t get an opportunity.

He was a legend who impacted many lives. I think it is safe to say we all owe a lot to Ken, directly or indirectly.

He has gone to his reward to be reunited with his beloved Aulikki, who predeceased him in March 2009.

Ar Deis de go rabh a anam dilis.
Ken Olsen: Born February 20, 1926; died February 6, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Ken Olsen is a legend, and it's a good thing that he retired in peace and satisfaction befitting his legacy.