DEC’s Ken Olsen: 1926-2011

February 8, 2011, 4:10 PM UTC

“They were the Apple of their day” — Dan (“VisiCalc”) Bricklin

Source: Fortune Archive

From the Oct. 27, 1986 Fortune cover story that named Olsen America’s Most Successful Entrepreneur:

THOUGH he has not yet become a household name, Kenneth Harry Olsen is arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business.

In 29 years he has taken Digital Equipment Corp. from nothing to $7.6 billion in annual revenues. DEC today is bigger, even adjusting for inflation, than Ford Motor Co. when death claimed Henry Ford, than U.S. Steel when Andrew Carnegie sold out, than Standard Oil when John D. Rockefeller stepped aside.

Olsen, 60, belongs to the lucky generation of entrepreneurs who experienced hard knocks as kids during the Depression and benefited as businessmen from the surge in prosperity that followed World War II. A few, like Teledyne’s Henry Singleton and Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, have done better for their shareholders or made themselves richer than Olsen (see box, page 29). But none has created as mighty or important an industrial enterprise as DEC. And on that basis FORTUNE considers him the greatest success.

Aimed at engineers and scientists, DEC’s minicomputers changed the way people compute. Before DEC, all computers were big mainframes housed in special centers, mollycoddled by experts, and used to process large batches of data; DEC’s small, rugged, inexpensive machines let individuals apply computing to an endless variety of everyday tasks. DEC laid the groundwork for the personal computer revolution, and many of the revolutionaries discovered the technology’s possibilities on DEC products. — By Peter Petre. Research Associate Alan Farnham

You can read the full story here, with apologies for the formatting.

On a personal note, the first computer I owned was Apple’s (AAPL) Apple II, but the first computer I used was a DEC PDP 10. I loved them both.

Also on

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]