There is No Reason for Any Individual To Have a Computer in Their Home

Ken Olsen? David H. Ahl? Gordon Bell? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I was looking through a collection of woefully inaccurate pronouncements delivered by experts, and I saw a remark attributed to Ken Olsen, a prominent computer industry pioneer who founded the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) which built minicomputers. DEC was perfectly positioned to create a personal computer for the home. Yet, the company delayed, and competitors filled the rapidly expanding niche. Ultimately, the IBM PC architecture became dominant.

Apparently, in 1977 during a crucial period for the emergence of the microcomputer Olsen attended a convention of the World Future Society and said:

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.

Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the April 1980 issue of “Creative Computing” magazine which was founded and edited by David H. Ahl who worked at DEC during the 1970s. Ahl was part of a group that was constructing a computer for the home in 1974, but Olsen refused to support the full development and marketing of the system. Ahl later recounted his unhappy experience. In 1980 he published in “Creative Computing” his conversation with Gordon Bell, an important innovator in the computer field employed at DEC. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Dave: Just prior to the time I left DEC in 1974 I remember Ken Olsen (president of DEC) saying that he couldn’t see any need or any use for a computer in someone’s home and, as I recall, at the time you took some issue with that. Then he repeated it several years later at the World Future Society meeting in Boston and some people in the audience took issue with that.

The passage above did not employ quotation marks, but Ahl later presented a verbatim version. The accuracy of the statement and its attribution to Olsen is based on the testimony of Ahl. QI has not yet found a direct citation in the proceedings of the World Future Society.

To understand the mindset of this period it is important to recognize the distinction between a computer terminal and a free-standing computer. Some experts believed that individuals would have terminals at home that communicated with powerful remote computers providing utility-like services for information and interaction. These experts believed that an isolated computer at home would be too under-powered to be worthwhile.

Nowadays, a single person often owns several home computers, e.g., a desktop, a tablet, a cellphone, a game console, a cable-TV box, a watch, a thermostat, and a voice assistant. These devices can connect to a vast network of computers providing myriad services.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1966 George W. Mitchell who was a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System testified before a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee about the future of banking. Mitchell envisioned a home telephone terminal that communicated with a remote computer to accomplish banking transactions: 2

You are not going to have a computer in your home, but you are going to have a telephone, and attached to the telephone will be a little keyboard, and that is the point at which it will go into computer language right there.

In 1976 “Science Digest” published “Computers in Your Home: A Space-Age Hobby for Do-It-Yourselfers”. The article quoted Stan Veit who operated a groundbreaking computer store in New York City and who later became a top computer magazine editor. Veit described a man whose computer “runs his whole house”: 3

“If he’s away, it turns the lights on and off in random patterns. It gives water to his dog, it lets the dog go in and out through a little trap door. Others use them for security systems, for bookkeeping.

Veit also described a task that became fundamental to the success of personal computers: word-processing:

“You could put your writing on the computer,” he replied. “As you get a piece of a job, you could sit down at a terminal, exactly as you do at your typewriter, and write it into a file where, with the proper programming, it could be merged with other existing texts. It would be completely edited.”

The article author, Marvin Grosswirth, suggested other nascent applications:

It is already possible with existing technology to set up a computer in your home that, given the necessary information, could prepare your income tax return. It could, eventually, also make your daily newspaper obsolete, provide an electronic funds transfer terminal in your home so that you need never again touch cash, and provide you with a wider variety of entertainment.

Thus, by 1976 visionaries were extolling the value of home computers, but there were also skeptical voices.

In 1977 the convention of the World Future Society was held in Boston, Massachusetts, and according to David Ahl a presentation by DEC president Ken Olsen included this remark: 4

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.

The above statement appeared in the 1984 compilation “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation”. A footnote stated that the quotation information was supplied by Ahl to the authors of the reference work during an interview in 1982.

In 1979 “New York Magazine” published “A Computer of One’s Own” by Ned Potter who doubted the value of some computer applications: 5

What can you do with it once you have got it? Well, uh, you can do your taxes on it. But it’s easier to hire an accountant. You could balance your checkbook with it. But that’s a little like killing a fly with a cannon. You could play games with it. But there are video Pong sets now that sell for $25.

Yet, Porter still believed that computers would prove useful. He suggested that they would be able to list every movie in town together with reviews; teach children French; pay your bills; control your house lights; plan your meal menus; and perform other miscellaneous tasks.

In April 1980 Ahl published in “Creative Computing” a conversation with Gordon Bell who was the Vice President of Engineering at DEC. This was the first published instance of Ahl crediting the provocative criticism of home computers to Ken Olsen. This citation appeared at the beginning of this article:

Dave: Just prior to the time I left DEC in 1974 I remember Ken Olsen (president of DEC) saying that he couldn’t see any need or any use for a computer in someone’s home and, as I recall, at the time you took some issue with that. Then he repeated it several years later at the World Future Society meeting in Boston and some people in the audience took issue with that.

Gordon Bell’s response was quite illuminating. He perceived the desirability of computers; however, he advocated terminals at home instead of computers. Interestingly, Bell also stated that Olsen had a computer terminal at home:

Gordon: We have a word processing terminal at home, and it also runs the payroll and the accounts payable. I’ve had a terminal at home for at least ten years, probably more. Right now we do a lot of word processing, a little computing for accounts payable but fundamentally the real computing is somewhere else. We use it 10 to 20% of the time as a terminal to the electronic mail system. Ken also has a terminal at home. I personally wouldn’t recommend anything other than a terminal for home because microcomputers aren’t big enough.

In September 1981 “Creative Computing” published a short piece by Ahl about the possibility of a home computer produced by DEC. Ahl mentioned again the statement he ascribed to Olsen: 6

Despite Ken Olsen’s 1977 presentation to the World Future Society in which he declared he could see no possible reason to have a computer in the home, DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) seems to be on the verge of introducing a low-end product. Ken Olsen, founder and president of the giant Maynard, MA. based minicomputer manufacturer may have changed his mind when his daughter begged for a computer at home.

DEC eventually did release a personal computer called the Rainbow, and in 1982 “Infosystems: The Magazine for Information Systems Management” printed a short piece about the ill-fated system. Olsen asserted that DEC had made a massive investment in its new system, and he attempted to explain the long delay before market entry: 7

He stressed that DEC is not really late in bringing out a personal computer noting that it has always appeared the company lags behind the marketplace . . .

Olsen said that during the 70s DEC, which reported $3.2 billion in sales last year, had several tabletop computer models with TV screens demonstrated within the company. “A couple of years ago there were six or 12,” he said.

Before turning any of them into products, however, they had to meet a number of characteristics Olsen insisted upon. First is quality. “The story is that half of the home computers are in closets unused,” he commented. “That’s not the business we’re in. We build products to be used everyday.”

In 1983 “BusinessWeek” magazine published a cover story about DEC’s strategy in a dangerous and changing market: 8

Olsen is gambling that if DEC can get all of its new products to work together effectively, it can enter the growth markets late and still succeed. “The personal computer will fall flat on its face in business because users want to share files and want more than one user on the system,” he asserts. “Under those circumstances, the minicomputer becomes more important than ever. Our strategy emphasizes the mini.”

In 1984 David Ahl published an article in “Creative Computing” that described his experiences while employed at DEC in 1974. His group wanted to sell a smaller less-expensive computer that could be purchased by an individual, but according to Ahl the plan was blocked by Olsen: 9

Ahl presented a plan for further development of these products to DEC’s operations committee on May 17, 1974. “The managers were divided right down the middle. The engineering guys loved it, but the sales people were afraid it would disrupt DEC’s normal sales patterns. It fell to Ken Olsen (president of DEC) to make a decision. I’ll never forget his fateful words, ‘I can’t see any reason that anyone would want a computer of his own.’ In all fairness, Ken’s thoughts were that anyone could have access to a powerful timesharing system and thus didn’t need an individual PDP-8.”

The 2003 book “DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation” included an instance of the quotation together with the claim that it appeared in “Time” magazine in 1977. But researchers have been unable to find matching text in the “Time” magazine digital archive: 10

It is in this context that Olsen’s famous quote in a 1977 Time article must be understood. Olsen was quoted as saying that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home,” which was allegedly an explanation of DEC’s later failure to capitalize on the rapidly growing personal computer market and the company’s failure in the 1980s to develop any products that could compete with IBM’s PC.

In the book Olsen discussed how he and his family used computer systems at home long before the advent of the mass-marketed personal computer. Yet, the examples were based on timesharing computers and networked computers:

This [the quoted comment in Time magazine] is, of course, ridiculous because the business we were in was making PCs, and almost from the start I had them at home and my wife played Scrabble with timesharing machines, and my sixth-grade son was networking the MIT computers and the DEC computers together, hopefully without doing mischief, using the computers I had at home. Home computers were a natural continuum of the “personal computers” that people had at work, in the laboratory, in the military.

In conclusion, there is evidence that Ken Olsen did doubt the need for computers in the home, but the evidence is based primarily on the testimony of David Ahl who was perturbed when the personal computer project he championed at DEC was not supported by Olsen in 1974.

Olsen’s resistance may have been similar to that expressed by another DEC executive, Gordon Bell. In 1980 Bell thought home terminals would act as gateways to remote computers which would provide appropriate services.

Image Notes: Picture of the IBM Personal Computer XT from the German Federal Archive; photographer: Engelbert Reineke; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to correspondent John Wesley who shared his research on this topic with QI and others. Wesley located the valuable citations in “Creative Computing”. Also thanks to Stephen Goranson who located the July 1982 citation. Additional thanks to mailing list discussants including Bill Mullins, Donna Halper, John Cowan, Charles Early, John Sleasman, Ivan Van Laningham, Brian Whatcott, and Luke Owens. Further thanks to Snopes researcher David Mikkelson.)

Notes:

  1. 1980 April, Creative Computing, Volume 6, Number 4, Interview with Gordon Bell by David Ahl, Start Page 88, Quote Page 89, Column 1, Creative Computing, Morristown, New Jersey. (Verified with scans at archive.org)
  2. 1966, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, Eighty-Ninth Congress, Second Session, Federal Reserve System — Check Clearance Float, February 9, 1966, Statement of George W. Mitchell, Member, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Start Page 2, Quote Page 12, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1976 December, Science Digest, Volume 80, Number 6, Computers in Your Home: A Space-Age Hobby for Do-It-Yourselfers by Marvin Grosswirth, Start Page 34 to Page 39, The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1984, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, Quote Page 209 and 338, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1979 May 7, New York Magazine, A Computer of One’s Own by Ned Potter, Start Page 59, Quote Page 59, (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1981 September, Creative Computing, Volume 7, Number 9, Dateline: Tomorrow by David H. Ahl, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Creative Computing, Morristown, New Jersey. (Verified with scans at archive.org)
  7. 1982 July, Infosystems: The Magazine for Information Systems Management, Volume 29, Number 7, Section: Inside Information, DEC personal computer has architecture of ‘forever’ by WLR, Start Page 22, Quote Page 22, Hitchcock Publishing Company, Wheaton, Illinois, a subsidiary of American Broadcasting Companies. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1983 May 2, BusinessWeek, A New Strategy for No. 2 in Computers, Start Page 66, Quote Page 68, McGraw-Hill. New York. (Verified with microfilm)
  9. 1984 November, Creative Computing, Volume 10, Number 11, Dave tells Ahl – The History of Creative Computing by John J. Anderson, (David Ahl’s personal narrative), Start Page 66, Quote Page 72, Column 2, Ahl Computing, Los Angeles, California; Subsidiary of Ziff-Davis Publishing. (Verified with scans at archive.org)
  10. 2003, DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation by Edgar H. Schein with Peter DeLisi, Paul Kampas, and Michael Sonduck, Quote Page 38 and 39, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper)