Rest in Peace, Kenneth Harry Olsen


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Feb 07, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


I just learned that Kenneth Olsen, one of the founders of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), died on February 6th, 2011 at the age of 84. From now on I will refer to him in this article as “KO”, as did most people who worked at DEC. At DEC no one had to ask who you were talking about when you said “KO”.


Readers of my blogs and columns know of my very long association with DEC. It started in 1969 when I was a college student, and one of the first computers I ever programmed was DEC's PDP-8. I taught myself how to program the PDP-8 in machine and assembler language based on the information from two paperback books that Digital published at the time. Each book cost five dollars, which was a lot of money back in those days for a college student, but the books were given to me by a DEC salesman.


As a college student I also joined DECUS, and I have often stated at conferences how the free exchange of programs from the DECUS library helped me on my path to computer science by exposing me to many programs that I could never have afforded if they were commercial software. "Free Software", in 1969.


I interviewed DEC at the end of college hoping to get a job, and while my career path took a different turn, I once again experienced DEC's hardware and software when I taught at Hartford State Technical College (HSTC).


At Hartford State we had two of DEC's machines, a PDP-11/70 with RSTS/E as a time sharing system (and 13 terminals), and a PDP-11/34 with RT-11 for “real time” work.


We had no budget for a hardware support contract, so we depended on “time and materials” for fixing issues that came along. Fortunately for us the machines were fairly solid, but one day the PDP-11/70 started crashing periodically, and over time we had to call in the local, the district, the regional and eventually a corporate field service person to try and find the problem. As I saw more and more effort being put into finding and fixing the problem, and more and more “time and materials” going into it, I knew that our minuscule budget would not pay for this.


When they finally did find the problem (a very intermittent problem in TWO circuit boards), I said to the corporate field service representative: “I do not know how we are going to pay you for this.” He looked at me, gave me a crooked smile and said “Yes, it was a hard one to find, wasn't it?” And the school never received the bill. DEC believed in supporting education.


After leaving HSTC I went to Bell Laboratories. There I had a chance to be a systems administrator for a CDC Cyber machine. I found out that they also had a set of DEC's machines running this strange operating system called “Unix”, and I fought to be the administrator of the DEC machines, to the point of almost turning down the job offer, both because I wanted to learn Unix and because I wanted to be working with the DEC equipment again.


Finally, when I had the chance, I left Bell Laboratories to work at DEC, helping to create their Unix products, first the line of products called “Ultrix”, then “Digital Unix”.


I did not meet Ken Olsen for a couple of years, but one day he arrived at the DEC facility where VMS was created. A few of our engineering staff decided to travel south a few miles from where we were stationed to hear the great man speak. KO was in the cafeteria, and he spoke for about a half-hour about how great VMS was, how great DECnet was, and how our philosophy of “One operating system, One architecture” was going so well. Then he paused, and told the audience that DEC could afford to step back and think about other things “like Unix....and of course we all love Unix!” Almost everyone in the cafeteria laughed at that statement, since almost everyone was from VMS. Then KO quickly finished his talk and people went up to shake his hand.


Our little group started back to our facility, and one person was griping that “KO had made fun of Unix”. I told them that KO had only been to “VMSland” once before, and now, on this second visit KO could have mentioned any of the other products instead of Unix...but he had singled out that one product. KO was sending them a very direct message.


My friends did not believe me, so I suggested that we go ask him. “ASK KO? TALK TO KO?” “Yes. He puts on his pants one leg at a time.” I said.


We approached him and I said “Mr. Olsen, we are from the Ultrix group, and we heard what you said. We would like to know exactly how much you love Unix.”


KO thought for a moment, then said, “Last year we were a 11 billion dollar company, and six hundred million dollars of that was Unix and Unix-related products, so I guess I love Unix six hundred million dollars worth.”


I thanked him for that assurance of his love, and that assurance kept me going for the next few years.


There were other things he said that caused controversy and consternation in our little product group, often taken out of context by the press (and by our competitors):


They sell Unix like they sell Snake Oil” and “I find standards as interesting as a Russian Truck


The first was an allusion to the fact that Unix vendors told their potential customers that Unix was “good for everything”, when Unix at that time was not real-time or highly available nor highly scalable. Today KO would probably agree that Unix (and Linux) have the facilities to be “good for everything” or at least “most things”, and today he would not accuse us of “selling Linux like people sell snake oil.”


The statement about standards was a personal statement. KO did not like working on standards committees because he hated to “nit-pick” (as he put it), but as an engineer (once the standard was developed), it was his job to implement it in the best possible way, and he enjoyed doing that. He did not mean by his statement that standards were not important, and in fact Digital supported many standards activities, but that he just did not like to be on standards committees.


Both of these he explained at the opening of the Open Software Foundation (OSF), and I rewarded him with a bottle fillled with mineral oil and labeled:


'“Uncle Ken's Snake Oil”: for refill see the Digital Unix Group'


KO's secretary told me that he kept that bottle on a shelf in his office until he left the company.


It was Ken Olsen who decided to fund a project to put Ultrix onto the MIPS processor, thus creating the first mainstream DEC system not based on a chip designed by DEC, that eventually turned into the “DECstation” line of products.


And it was KO who wore a button I gave him that said “I was Ultrix when Ultrix was not cool.”

It was to KO's private email that I sent a message complaining that an educational customer on the west coast had a system which had been crashing every day for a year, and the field service people were dragging their feet on repairing it. I told him that I was ashamed of that type of service, and (for the first time in my life) ashamed to be working for DEC. I never heard back from that email, but the next day there was a corporate "trouble shooter" flying out to the west coast on a corporate jet, and after landing he stabilized the problem in less than one day. I could be proud of DEC again.


There were many stories about KO and how he would wander through Digital's buildings at night, often looking into what the engineers were doing, giving suggestions on even the most minute things. There have been many things written about Ken Olsen and how he started DEC with a small amount of money which he carefully built up over time. Those people starting companies in the “dot-com boom” should have taken a page from how Digital make every dime of investment count.


KO and DEC gave many, many people the chance to contribute to computer science, to raise families and to have a good life. I always found him to be a fair and thoughtful man. If I have tried to pattern myself after any one person I have known in my professional career, it was after KO.


Rest in peace, Kenneth Harry Olsen.


  • Unix vs VMS

    With UNIX, if you’re looking for something, you can easily and quickly check that small manual and find out that it’s not there. With VMS, no matter what you look for — it’s literally a five-foot shelf of documentation — if you look long enough it’s there. That’s the difference — the beauty of UNIX is it’s simple; and the beauty of VMS is that it’s all there.
  • To sum it up

  • Mr. Kenneth Harry Olsen

    In my basement I still have a working H11 (LSI-11 based) system that I assembled in 1978, in large part because I couldn't get enough time on the VAX systems at school. I treasure it because it reminds me of the power of enthusiastic pursuit of a compelling interest. I will always have a place in my heart for DEC and the people who built it. Rest in Peace Mr. Olsen.
  • R.I.P. Ken Olsen

    , ,
    I went to work for DEC in their Small Systems Group right after college in 1972, writing/enhancing the multi-user BASIC interpreters DEC was selling to high schools. Nowadays when a typical laptop has 4 GB memory or more, it's hard to imagine that there was a time when 12 KB was a typical memory size. But DEC's EDU20 and EDU25 BASIC running on a PDP-8 with only 12 KB could support 8 users editing and running their own (admittedly small) BASIC programs.

    Although I worked at DEC for 5 years, I never personally met Ken Olsen. But I think I know something about what sort of person he was from the corporate culture he created. DEC was a place that valued and respected engineers. There was a policy that there were two tracks for advancement, managerial and technical, and neither was to be favored over the other. Ken Olsen recognized that different people have different skills, and creative engineers aren't necessarily endowed with people skills any more than natural managers are necessarily endowed with technical genius. It was a shock when I discovered that the rest of the business world didn't operate that way.

    During the 1973 oil crisis, fuel was rationed. You could only buy gas for your car on alternate days. Companies were required to cut their electricity usage. DEC headquarters was in a complex of buildings that had been an old woolens mill, with a mill pond on one side, and the Assabet River on the other. Olsen had somebody get one of the old millwheels working and hooked up to a generator, and that's what powered DEC's Christmas tree that year.

    That was also the era of Nixon's notorious "stagflation", when the economy stagnated even as inflation ran rampant. Orders had slowed and lots of other companies were laying people off. Olsen announced that he was proud that DEC had never had a layoff, and he wasn't going to start laying people off now. But in order to make it through the economic downturn, he'd have to impose a wage freeze. The feeling that the head of our company was doing everything he could to take care of us actually boosted morale in spite of the tough economic times.

    And that's how you build a great company: Let your employees know that you're looking out for their interests, and they'll repay you in kind.

    R.I.P. Ken.

    unfortunately i have never worked for DEC. we had a couple od VAX/VMS machines back in the 90's, running in coal powerplant where i was working. mostly for some COBOL programs utilizeing Rdb databases. also the computation of the salary was done on them machines.
    i have some expirience with the DCL and i find the commands the most powerful, useful and clever from all command line interfaces i have ever seen.
    funny how it seems that persons in the business from the begining of the computer era were competent techniciants, maybe even scientists, and nowadays they seem more like economic folks and charlatans...

    RIP KO
  • Good Bye KO

    I was a DEC sales rep in the Cleveland/Akron area during the 80's and into the 90's. The experience of working with customers who were devout 'DECees' was one of the most rewarding phases of my professional career. The products were literally absorbed into the customer base with relish. It was almost not selling but delivering pearls of delicious candy to folks who could not wait to get them into their system. I met KO several times during training session at the corporate offices in the Boston area and just thought he was wonderful. I have always missed the company, the people, and its founder very much and am sadden to hear of KO's passing.
  • He touched my life at a time when I need help...

    Not exactually sure how we became friends, he befriened me... Had no idea who he this playful man was before today... We talked about my life and ambitions of building the next generation of Photonic computer chips and his skills as an engineer distilled enough of my concepts that gained me enthuseasic his encouragment to move forward and build it. Well on that design the Isralies heard wind of the idea and had a working demo 2 mo. later. So now four generations past the simple insight I had that lead to major scientific descovery validates that I'm exotic brianstoms I receive from outerspace; it seems at times, are nothing more then 20 years of R&D arriving at the 'end-game' chip that will require a special responibility to use for the next for decades. E-Flops on a single die, sitting on the desktop... Well many would never need it, our scientists need it, but I doubt that they will really understand that it requres new math, a more 'back-to-basics' understanding and understanding of the new computer code that runs it's quantumly perdictable and benificial ability to open a window and look into the quantum reality, the one which is not understood or accepted as aq science that can be tamed into a reliable replacement for 'the modern turring' model.
    Enogh EGO boasting from me, he touched me with laughter, and guadance with the things I hold mosst dear, the love of my life... While he admited he was no expert, I real shock to me... It was his comiseration and comfort that help me along in restoring that which we had lost...
    I will take his interest in my plight to create that which I have given my life to, and if the day comes, I will decorate his name with honor and inspirational words, that show how small of a world we live in after all! (My favorite Disney ride!)
    God Bless all who felt the pings and pangs of sorrow sending shivvers and goose bums and of'Corse tears of saddness after learing of this loss...
    Today, I will find something special to buy for myself to member his touching and intimatly helpful words and inspiration... I'm thinking sunglasses...

  • I miss DEC & will miss KO

    DEC was my first job out of college.
    Great times I will always miss.
    I started work in PDP-10's doing FORTRAN compiler work.
    Soon after, KO called our customers religious fanatics (when VAX was going to replace PDP-10's).
    Moved on to VAX, doing Ada compilers for many DEC platforms.
    More stuff in VMS group...
  • KO rest in peace

    I worked for DEC in Ottawa at the FA&T plant where they assembled the PDP 11's.
    My first experience with DEC was at Hatfield Polytechnic in UK where I studied Computer Science on the newly installed DecSystem 10. I still remember meeting KO on one of his visits to the Ottawa plant.
    A great man who will be missed, rest in peace.
  • KO and PDP-11's

    I had a long and satisfying experience programming and repairing PDP-11/45's. They were used on our (Singer-Link) flight simulators. One of our simulators used 13 PDP-11/45's "tied" together via Unibus Windows, a relatively obscure peripheral in the PDP lineup. Some of those computers used core, MOS, and Bipolar memory in the same machine.

    All the software was done in assembler without the floating point option. Realtime navigation, radar, weapons, etc. We used what was called "Q" and "B" scaling. We also troubleshot "down to the chip" and made our own repairs.

    A highlight for me was the day I saw Admiral Hooper's eyes light up when she saw our row of DEC products -- the lights flashing on the pink and purple front consoles!

    I never did meet KO, but he must have been quite an innovator. That instruction set was so simple but powerful. Want to make a program run backwards? Key-in an octal 014747 (that's a mov -(R7), -(R7) and run it.
  • Passing of KO

    I programmed my first computer long ago and it was a PDP 8A thence upgraded to the PDP 8I version. It had a total of 8k of 12bit CORE memory. To this day the DIGITAL logo reminds me that individuals like KO with a dream build historical keystones and provide giant shoulders for us to stand upon. I still have an old DIGITAL laptop that I use daily. I will keep it functioning as long as possible to remind me of folks like KO who touched many more than he realized in his lifetime! LRU>
  • Thank you Ken Olsen

    I used to work for 14 years at DEC in Geneva, Switzerland late in the eighties until may 2000 .
    I was proud of it, DEC and all the colleagues, this was a family for me.
    I was very impressed that DEC was one of the first to use the word OPEN for the product line clearly stating interoperability.
    I never met Ken Olsen but I always heard about him and he was present by his philosophy: bring technology to the customer and help him to operate it to solve his problem and to fulfill his needs.
    I left DEC when Compaq arrived, since then, there are a lot of gadget around us in the IT world, and I am still looking around for a REAL cluster ...

    Ken, with all my best regards, rest in Peace.
    P. Boulmier
  • Who said he died?

    Rest in peace.
    You are one of those great people who contributed in building future.
    This name and other names as well will stay alive with us and will not be forgotten... He is still alive and he is not died
  • Still very relevant

    I worked for a company that to this day still uses PDP 11s and MicroVax cluster to control aluminum smelter pot lines. While the hardest part of it now is finding people and parts to support the systems, the operation runs 24 x 7 for the foreseeable future. KO made a great contribution.
  • DEC and KO

    I worked at DEC in Colorado Springs, CO for 17 years, first as a support specialist for VMS, FORTRAN and Pascal. I then worked in software engineering for the storage organization. DEC was a great company until it was bought by Compaq. Ken was a legend and created a wonderful company. He'll be missed!
  • Great designs

    As a former DEC employee in the Netherlands I have many fond memories of DEC. I started as a student programming on a PDP 11/70 with the RSX-11M-PLUS operating system. Then VMS came, I studied its internals thoroughly. I think it is still one of the best designed operating systems ever, when it comes to its structure. It was the most consistently built OS I've ever seen. Other system designers learned a lot from VMS.

    Although VMS is still around, since the acquisition by HP (via Compaq), the era of VMS is over. But KO has definitely had a great contribution to the IT world.
  • I also worked for DEC

    I also worked for DEC and was in the VMSCluster Group in New Jersey. I installed VMSClusters and wrote Device Drivers(remember them?). It was a wonderful experience and DEC was HOME when you worked for them. I installed many clusters around the New York, New Jersey area and the support from DEC was unbelievable. I remember, when I was a Customer, I had the service technician on the phone from Friday at 4PM until Sunday morning at 7:30 AM when we upgraded our, then state-of-the-art, Cluster. We were upgrading from 4.2 to 4.4. Anyone remember that debacle? Well, anyway, Thank You, Mr. Ken Olsen for a wonderful operating system. I just wish it had survived. Makes all other operating systems look stupid by comparison.

  • VMS Still Great?

    VMS is still a great OS technology-wise. Unfortunately it appears doomed to market obscurity due to fuster cluck at HP.
  • Good old days at DEC...

    Hi Jon,

    I was the head guy at the Ultrix Porting and Consulting Center in Munich for several years (1987 - 91 ) - and still have my blue Ultrix mug. You and I met several times, mostly at DEC-internal events, where the Ultrix guys were never really trusted. There is still nothing that compares to DEC as a company, VMS, and Ultrix, and especially DECnet. And even today, if you open up a HP box and compare it to the insides of a DELL box, you see who has the designs and experience from DEC. Most of the DECies I know are still looking for something similar. Anyway, nice to see this tribute to an amazing guy and a cool company.

  • Rest in Peace, Kenneth Harry Olsen


    Thanks for a warm story that evokes many personal memories of hours (lots of them!) spent in front of PDP-11's making them exercise control over a multitude of automated warehousing equipment.

    My first reaction to the PDP-11 was "Finally, a computer whose (assembly language) instruction set was designed to be programmed!". DEC was a stellar company and an outstanding corporate citizen. I have personal experiences with support personnel going above and beyond to ensure that the hardware and software worked for me as it should. I remember a visit I made to Maynard in 1973 to get a first-hand sense of whether I would be able to use RSX-11D (then as-yet unreleased) on my project as had been promised to my customer. I can still clearly see in my mind's eye the wooden beams that supported the floors of the old mill building and recall the sense of awe I felt at being there, in the Holy Sepulcher of my programming world.

    To me and my peers Ken Olsen was a larger-than-life figure who had been elevated to nearly god-like status. Thanks for sharing a bit of his humanity with us.

  • Rest in Peace, Kenneth Harry Olsen

    Wasn't VMS grand.
  • KO; rest in peace and thank you for the opportunity afforded me by you and DEC

    I met KO while working at Digital's Marlboro plant on TOPS-10 and KL systems. He made it a practice to come and meet new engineers and would say "Hi Carlos, I'm Ken Olsen, welcome to our family...". That's how he was, prepared to meet you and call you by your given name....

    Rest In Peace Mr. Olsen, you gave a lot to the world and I personally owe you a debt of gratitude....

    L. Carlos Rodriguez
    a proud ex-DECKY....
  • A great man that will be missed

    A visionary and passionate leader, I was proud of working for DEC on the Alpha Servers, VMS, DECnet, and working with the staff .. such brain power at work... going to work everyday at DEC was like going to school. So many engineers with such talent in the software and hardware technologies .. it was better than a classroom.

    RIP KO

  • Thanks!

    Maddog -

    Thanks for the article. Unfortunately, I never got to meet KO ever, and I think that is a loss on my part. I did, however, get to work on a Vax 11/70 running RSTS/E in 1981 at my school in Singapore Polytechnic. It was my very first "big computer" that I worked on and still holds fond memories.

    A few years later, when I was finishing up grad school at Oregon State, I had an opportunity to be a Instructor/Teaching Assistant along with my major prof who landed a "retraining" gig during the summer of 1988 at Dec's Semiconductor University in Massachusetts. That was also when I was finally able to use VMS' DECnet networking stuff (set host xxx, I think) and how "archaic" it appeared to me compared with TCP/IP.

    Anyway, that for triggering some fond memories of DEC. And thanks, KO for making it happen.

  • KO


    Wonderful recollection.

    thanks very much.
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