Microsoft cofounder and Chief Executive Officer William (Bill) H. Gates III (born 1955) became the wealthiest man in America and one of the most influential personalities on the ever-evolving information superhighway and computer industry.
William (Bill) Henry Gates III became the most famous businessman in recent history. His supreme accomplishment was to design and develop innovative software for the personal computer, making PCs universally popular machines. In user-friendly language, communicating with computers is a matter of "translating" a person's native language into the codes that a computer understands. The easier this translation is to make, the easier it is to work with the computer and the more accessible and widely used the computer becomes. Gates' gift for software design, as well as his skills in business, made Microsoft, the company he co-founded with a high school friend in Richmond, Washington, a multi-billion-dollar empire.
Gates was born on October 28, 1955 in Seattle, Washington. He was the second child and only son of William Henry Gates Jr., a prominent Seattle attorney, and Mary Maxwell, a former school teacher. Gates had two siblings. His sister, Kristi, one year his senior, became his tax accountant. Libby, nine years his junior, lived in Seattle raising her two children. Although Gates' parents had a law career in mind for their son, he developed an early interest in computer science and began studying computers in the seventh grade at Seattle's Lakeside School. Lakeside was a private school chosen by Gates' parents in the hopes that it would be more challenging for their son's intellectual drive and insatiable curiosity. At Lakeside Gates became acquainted with Paul Allen, a classmate with similar interests in technology who would eventually become his business partner.
Gates' early experiences with computers included debugging (eliminating errors from) programs for the Computer Center Corporation's PDP-10, helping to computerize electric power grids for the Bonneville Power Administration, and founding with Allen a firm called Traf-O-Data while still in high school. Their small company earned them $20 thousand in fees for analyzing local traffic patterns.
While working with the Computer Center's PDP-10, Gates was responsible for what was probably the first computer virus, a program that copies itself into other programs and ruins data. Discovering that the machine was connected to a national network of computers called Cybernet, Gates invaded the network and installed a program on the main computer that sent itself to the rest of the network's computers and crashed. When Gates was found out, he was severely reprimanded, and he kept away from computers for his entire junior year at Lakeside. Without the lure of computers, Gates made plans in 1970 for college and law school. But by 1971 he was back helping Allen write a class scheduling program for their school's computer.
Gates entered Harvard University in 1973 and pursued his studies for the next year and a half. However, his life was to change in January of 1975 when Popular Mechanics carried a cover story on a $350 microcomputer, the Altair, made by a firm called MITS in New Mexico. When Allen excitedly showed him the story, Gates knew where he wanted to be: at the forefront of computer software design.
Gates and Allen first wrote a BASIC interpreter for the Altair computer. BASIC was a simple, interactive computer language designed in the 1960s. "Interpreter" describes a program that executes a source program by reading it one line at a time, performing operations one line at a time, and performing operations immediately. MITS, which encouraged and helped Gates and Allen, finally challenged them to bring their software in for a demonstration. Because they did not own an Altair (nor had they seen the 8080 micro processing chip that was at the heart of the machine), Gates had to write and test his BASIC interpreter on a simulator program which acted like the 8080. Nonetheless, their BASIC ran the first time it was tested at MITS.
Gates dropped out of Harvard in 1975, ending his academic life and beginning his career in earnest as a software designer and entrepreneur. At this time, Gates and Allen cofounded Microsoft. They wrote programs for the early Apple and Commodore machines and expanded BASIC to run on microcomputers other than the Altair. One of Gates' most significant opportunities arrived in 1980 when he was approached by IBM to help with their personal computer project, code name Project Chess. Eventually asked to design the operating system for the new machine, Gates developed the Microsoft Disk Operating System, or MS-DOS. Not only did he sell IBM on the new operating system, but he also convinced the computer giant to shed the veil of secrecy surrounding the specifications of its PC so that others could write software for the machine. The result was the proliferation of licenses for MS-DOS as software developers quickly moved to become compatible with IBM. Over two million copies of MS-DOS were sold by 1984. Because IMB's PC architecture was opened up by Gates, MS-DOS and its related applications can run on almost any IBM-compatible PC. By the early 1990s, Microsoft had sold more than 100 million copies of MS-DOS, making the operating system the all-time leader in software sales. For his achievements in science and technology, Gates received the Howard Vollum Award in 1984 by Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
In 1987 Gates entered the world of computer-driven multimedia when he began promoting CD-ROM technology. CD-ROM is an optical storage medium easily connected to a PC, and a CD-ROM disc has an incredibly larger capacity that can store encyclopedias, feature films, and complex interactive games. Gates hoped to expand his business by combining PCS with the information reservoirs provided by CD-ROM and was soon marketing a number of multimedia products.
Gates' competitive drive and fierce desire to win has made him a powerful force in business but has also consumed much of his personal life. In the six years between 1978 and 1984 he took a total of only two weeks vacation. In 1985 a popular magazine included him on their list of most eligible bachelors. His status did not change until New Year's day 1994 when he married Melinda French, a Microsoft manager, on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. The ceremony was held on the island's Challenge golf course, and Gates kept it private by buying out the unused rooms at the local hotel and by hiring all of the helicopters in the area to keep photographers from using them. His fortune at the time of his marriage was estimated at close to seven billion dollars. By 1997 his worth was estimated at approximately $37 billion, earning him the "richest man in America" title.
In Hard Drive, James Wallace and Jim Erickson quote Gates as saying, "I can do anything if I put my mind to it." His ambition has made him the head of a robust, innovative software firm and the richest man in America.
In the years that followed, Gates emitted the same competitiveness, drive, ambition, and need to win that was present when he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft. But some of the players changed. Allen left Microsoft to become one of the country's most successful hi-tech venture-capital investors and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team. However, he returned to serve on Microsoft's board. Gates considered Steve Ballmer, a former Harvard classmate, his best friend and closest advisor. He hired Ballmer away from Procter & Gamble in 1980 with the lure of a $50-thousand-a-year salary and a share of the business. In an interview with Newsweek, Gates is quoted as saying, "I think it's a phenomenal business partnership … And within the company, everyone has understood that we work very closely together and have a very common view of where we want to go." Gates shared his vision for the future of Microsoft with Information Outlook. Gates said, "We're in four businesses today, and in ten years we'll be in the same four businesses; desktop operating systems, productivity applications, server software, and interactive content business." Even in the 1990s, he believed that speech recognition, natural language understanding, automatic learning, flat screen displays, and optic fiber would have the greatest technological impacts on the industry.
In 2000, Gates announced he would retire from the daily operation of Microsoft but would continue as chief software architect. He stayed on in this role for eight years and stepped down from full-time work in 2008 so he could devote more time to philanthropy.
Bill Gates now devotes much of his time to philanthropy work. Bill and Melinda Gates combined a few smaller family foundations and donated $38 billion of their own funds to create the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. The Foundation is dedicated to helping young people thrive, empowering those in poverty, and fighting infectious disease. In his work with the foundation in 2017, Gates identified chronic disease and infectious disease as the two biggest challenges the world would face in the decade to come.
The Gates Foundation is committed to helping control and treat disease. The Foundation often does this by providing grants to researchers in important fields. In 2017, the Foundation created the Dementia Discovery Fund, which pledged up to $100 million to start-ups working to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases. In 2018, Gates worked with the Foundation to donate $12 million to spur the creation of a universal flu vaccine.
As early as 2015, Bill Gates spoke in a TED Talk about the world’s lack of preparedness for a respiratory pandemic. At the time, he urged governments to prepare for an upcoming global pandemic, saying, “There’s no need to panic...but we need to get going, because time is not on our side.”
In 2020, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, and the Gates Foundation stepped in to help where it could in each area where scientific and technological developments could change the course of the pandemic. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up with other organizations to donate $125 million dollars to slow and control the outbreak of Covid-19. They are working on funding vaccine development, facilitating new testing discoveries, supporting the development of new treatments, and more. Gates has revealed that the Foundation is prepared to donate billions of dollars to help retrofit or build factories to produce the coronavirus vaccine when it is discovered.
Since 1981 business magazine articles have described aspects of Gates' career. Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews (1994) is an authoritative and detailed biography. Big Blues, The Unmaking of IBM by Paul Carroll (1993) favorably compares Gates' entrepreneurial approach to business to IBM's management by committee approach. "E-Mail From Bill" by John Seabrook, New Yorker magazine (January 10, 1994) provides insight to Gates' goals and personality. Architects of the Future, Microsoft Corporation 1993 Annual Report contains product descriptions and market share analysis along with income statements and a discussion of litigation and federal agencies' inquiries. PC Week provides updates on the latest Microsoft products.
For books about Bill Gates see: Encyclopedia of Computer Science, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993 p 519. Gates, Bill with Nathan Myhevrold and Peter Rinearson, The Road Ahead. Ichbiah, David and Susan L. Knepper, The Making of Microsoft, Prima, 1991. Manes, Stephen and Paul Andrews, Gates, Doubleday, 1993. Slater, Robert, Portraits in Silicon, MIT Press, 1987. Wallace, James and Jim Erickson, Hard Drive, Wiley, 1992.
For periodical articles about Bill Gates see: The Future of Microsoft. Economist, V327, May 22, 1993, pp. 25-27. Information Outlook, May 1997. National Review, January 27, 1997. New York Times, January 3, 1994. New Yorker, January 10, 1994, pp. 48-61. Newsweek, June 23, 1997. PC Magazine, March 25, 1997. Time, January 13, 1997. □
Also check out GatesNotes, the personal blog of Bill Gates. He updates it regularly with information about what the Gates Foundation is supporting, as well as his take on current events.
Updated by Kate Miller-Wilson