Micro History Part 3

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 3 - The Washington State Connection

In 1968 a mother's group at a private Seattle High School- Lakeside School - decided to raise money for a mathematics class project. They wanted to give their children access to the fast-emerging technology of computers, and with the $3,000 these raised they arranged to buy some time on a computer for the math class. This was a common situation called time-sharing. The school installed an old teletype machine hooked up to a telephone, and they were able to access a DEC Minicomputer owned by General Electric located in downtown Seattle. The school dialed into this computer at a scheduled time, and they were charged for their usage.

2 of the gifted students in this math class became instantly obsessed with this amazing concept of being able to dial in to a computer located miles away, type in commands, and have the computer instantly type back the answer, right there in their classroom. The younger student, an 8th grader, was a boy named Bill Gates, and his friend - 2 years his senior - was a boy named Paul Allen. In an instant 2 math class nerds turned into 2 computer nerds. They began learning how to program the computer - make it follow their instructions - in a computer language named BASIC which had been developed at Dartmouth College in 1964. BASIC stood for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. The boys quickly mastered this language, and began delving deeper in the computer; getting their hands on any manuals they could find. They quickly knew more than their instructor and most of the people in charge of this computer.

Computers became such a passion in their lives that they quickly depleted the $ 3,000 the mothers had raised for the project, but another door opened for them when another private computer time-sharing company named Computer Center Corporation offered the school a similar agreement. This company had been founded by UW graduates and was located in Seattle's University district, much closer to the boy's homes.

The company immediately realized that these whiz kids could be useful to them by detecting problems in the company's software, and began giving them free computer time on the company's DEC PDP-10 computer in exchange for the kid's finding bugs in the programs that caused crashes. The boys would make notes in a log of what they had done to cause a program to crash, and the company's programmers would fix the problem. The boys also began to learn about the DEC computer's operating system. Free computer time was absolute heaven to them, and they came in contact with many interesting and talented people. One was a programmer named Gary Kildall who would later play an important part in their future.

Computer Center Corporation unfortunately went bankrupt in 1970, causing the boys to lose their free computer access, although by this time their expertise was well known enough to provide other computer time opportunities they were able to hustle up for themselves. They also got valuable experience with different languages and operating systems.

Bill Gates continued his studies to ready himself to attend Harvard, and his friend Paul Allen planned to enroll at Washington State University for the Fall quarter of 1971. Paul was an avid reader of electronic magazines, and the Announcement of the Intel 4004 caught his eye. We'll hear about this next week.

On to Segment 4, "High School Kid's Computer Company"

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