Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation – Origins

Prior to 1987 the DEC logo was with blue rectangles. In 1987
it retained the font but the color became a dark red.
The rise and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation, often referred to as Digital or DEC, was a 41-year arc that started with a bit of rented space in the mill buildings in 1957, peaked in size and sales in 1990 with the mill complex being the world headquarters of a 125,000 employee empire that reached $14 billion in annual sales, then as a result of management and technology missteps, repeatedly downsized, had a fire sale of assets, and was finally sold to Compaq Corporation in 1998 (in turn, in time, acquired by  Hewlett-Packard Company in 2002).

In the beginning, there was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kenneth “Ken” Olsen – born in 1926 – had done a stint in the Navy right out of high school, then attended MIT as undergraduate and then graduate student, completing a Master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1952. Then and now, this was the study of electrical equipment and computing. After graduating, Olsen moved to Lincoln when he took a job at Lincoln Laboratory, a MIT-affiliated facility focused on military research. It was at Lincoln Labs that the first transitions were made from vacuum tube to transistor-based computers. Olsen oversaw the development of a machine called the TX-0. Much of the design, improved, was incorporated into DEC’s first computers. It was at DEC that the crucial first steps were taken for commercializing real-time computing involving a keyboard and a video monitor.

Harlan Anderson badge for
DEC, identifying him as
employee #2.
In late May 1957, Olsen and Harlan Anderson, a colleague at Lincoln Labs, approached a venture capitalist company with a proposal. They got an investment of $70,000 for a 70 percent share in the company. There was pushback from the investors about “computer” being in the company’s name, because at the time computers were large, expensive, mostly unprofitable machines – think IBM and UNIVAC – hence the name became Digital Equipment Corporation.   

The situation in Maynard was this: The American Woolen Company had a last burst of busy-ness at the mill during the first years of the Korean War, but those contracts ended in late 1950. A group of local business people tried to arrange financing to buy the property in 1950. That failed. Not until July 1953 did a group from Worcester, calling itself Maynard Industries Incorporated, close a deal. By 1957 the mill complex was almost entirely rented out to dozens of businesses. Only because of a timely bankruptcy of a small company named Maynard Mill Outlet did space open up when Olsen and Andersen came calling on July 9th. After a few visits they signed a three-year lease on August 27th for 8,680 square feet at $300/month. They and Stan Olsen – Ken’s younger brother – spent weekends painting the space themselves, then bought office furniture from Gruber Brothers on credit.

For the first three years they were producing electronic test modules for engineering laboratories, meantime working on Phase II of their plan: Digital's first computer, named the PDP-1. By October 1961 the company had grown to 265 employees and annual sales were approaching six million dollars. In time, DEC made Maynard "The mini-computer capital of the world."

Wedding photo of Kenneth Harry ("Ken") 
Olsen and Eeva-Liisa Aulikki (“Aulikki”) 
Valve. December 12, 1950.

There is a great personal story of how Ken pursed his wife. On vacation from graduate school and visiting his parents in Connecticut, he was smitten with a woman, Aulikki Valve [full name: Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Valve], from Finland who was visiting the neighbors for a week. Nothing came of it at the time, but after she returned to Finland and he to MIT, he could not stop thinking about her. Olsen wrote a letter, asking if he might visit. Her reply? “Don’t bother.” Not taking no for an answer, he left MIT, took a ship to Europe, bicycled to Denmark, then ferried to Sweden, where he got a job as an electrician at a Swedish ball-bearing factory. This journey to Sweden was perhaps not entirely crazy. His mother’s parents had come from Sweden (his father’s from Norway), so it is possible that he had relatives there.

Once settled in, Olsen wrote Aulikki again. This time she agreed to see him. Olsen quit his job, traveled to Finland, arrived at Aulikki’s parents’ house, and proposed marriage. The response was “No”, from both Aulikki and her parents. Did Olsen return to the U.S.? No. He continued to court Aulikki. After two months, the answer became “Yes.” They married, in Finland, December 12, 1950, then returned to Massachusetts where he competed his graduate degree.

Olsen had always said that the reasons he started the company in Maynard was the low rent and the availability of an under-employed, factory-skilled work force, but an unspoken reason might have been the presence of a Finnish-speaking population, to help his wife be a bit less homesick. Although the Olsens lived in Lincoln, there are many mentions of Aulikki and their three children visiting Ken at the mill. Aulikki died in 2009, after 59 years of marriage. Ken two years later.

This is the beginning of a series of columns about DEC. If there are errors, send corrections to damark51@gmail.com. And send interesting anecdotes. Particularly interested in learning about the impact of DEC on life in Maynard.

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