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.
- 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) ↩