As an engineer working at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s, Ken Olsen noticed that students lined up to use an outdated computer called the TX-0, even though a much faster mainframe was available. The difference? The mainframe ran batch jobs, while the TX-0 (which Olsen had helped develop as a grad student) allowed online interactivity.
In 1957, Olsen and a colleague, Harlan Anderson, took that insight and $70,000 in venture capital money and started Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) to make smaller, more interactive machines. The company's PDP minicomputers were inexpensive enough that a corporate department could own one (a PDP-7 was used to develop the first version of Unix at Bell Labs).
Olsen's management approach as CEO -- hire very smart people and expect them to perform as adults -- helped DEC become the second biggest computer maker after IBM. But Olsen was also opinionated and sometimes stubborn. He publicly grumbled about Unix (calling it "snake oil") even as his company sold lots of Unix workstations, and DEC was late to join the move to PCs. DEC's sales declined, and in July 1992, Olsen was forced to resign from the company he founded. DEC was sold to Compaq six years later.
April 1926 - March 2011
Working to make electronic communications bulletproof at the height of the Cold War, Paul Baran developed what would eventually become a core technology of the Internet: packet switching. Baran was a researcher at the Rand Corp. think tank in 1961 when he suggested that messages could be broken into pieces, sent to a destination by multiple routes if necessary and then reassembled upon arrival to guarantee delivery.
Baran wasn't the only one to think of the idea -- U.K. researcher Donald Davies came up with a remarkably similar idea at about the same time and gave it the name "packet switching." But the U.S. Air Force liked Baran's version of what was essentially an inexpensive, unreliable network with intelligence at the edges. AT&T, the dominant U.S. telephone company, didn't -- it had an expensive, reliable network, and company engineers publicly scoffed at Baran's idea.
However, packet switching was adopted for Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet, and eventually for local-area networks in the form of Ethernet. Today, even phone calls are typically sent in digital packets. (This hour-long video interview shows Paul Baran receiving a 2005 Computer History Museum Fellow Award.)
Last of the First Programmers
December 1924 - March 2011