Wednesday, 9 February 2011

In Memory of Ken Olsen

Ken Olsen passed away on February 6th, 2011 after a long and productive life as an entrepreneur, scientist, philanthropist and educator. Unfairly if he's remembered at all, it's primarily for having said that that there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home. He said that in 1977. Even having the thought in 1977 was radical when you think about it.

Without Ken Olsen there would have been no Digital Equipment Corporation, and without Digital, the whole shrinking, connected computer might not have happened, certainly not as quickly as it did.

While Digital's computers might seem laughably enormous to us now, they were actually very small for the time, heralding in a completely new era of computing where users actually got to see and touch the computer they were using. Prior to that you had to submit your supplication to the great machine in its temple via the priests of data processing.

I never had the privilege of meeting Ken when I worked at Digital although those who did had many stories. I'll leave them to tell those tales. I have two favourite memories. The first was Ken's belief in doing the right thing. It's a shame that that ethos was lost in the myriad layers of self-aggrandising middle management.

Finally, my favourite memory of Digital computers was the clock speed control on a relic we had at the University. I think it was a PDP-7 which was already 15 years old or so when I was a student. To help debug your programs you could turn a knob to slow down the clock from the breath-taking top speed of 8khz (yes, kilohertz) so that you could see the registers changing as the instructions were executed. Brilliant.

No comments:

Post a comment