Home   About   Timeline   The Book

Computers Essay


William H. Gates III
Chairman and Chief Software Architect
Microsoft Corporation

For me the personal computer revolution started in the mid-1970s, when my friend Paul Allen and I saw a magazine article about the MITS Altair 8800. The Altair was the first build-it-yourself computer kit for hobbyists. For a few hundred dollars, MITS would mail you a few bags of parts and some photocopied instructions. After some careful soldering, you had your own computer, roughly the size of a bread box, with rows of switches and blinking lights.

It wasn't much to look at and it wasn't terribly useful, but it felt like the start of a revolution. Until then computers were used mostly by technicians in air-conditioned rooms. Few people had the opportunity even to see a computer and even fewer got to use one. But the Altair was a computer that people could put on their desks, and what they could do with it was limited only by their imagination—and the modest capabilities of Intel's 8080 microprocessor.

We knew that microprocessors would become cheaper and more powerful, making personal computers increasingly capable. We also knew those computers would need software to make them do useful things. So Paul and I founded a company we called Microsoft that we hoped would meet this need.

Our first product was a version of the BASIC programming language that could run on the Altair. Unlike many other languages available at the time, BASIC was relatively simple to use. After a few minutes of instruction, even a nontechnical person could start writing simple programs. Actually developing this product, however, was not very simple. First, it was challenging to come up with a BASIC that could run in the Altair's limited memory and still leave room for people to write programs. Second, we didn't have an Altair to work with. Only a few prototypes were available at the time.

After writing software that would mimic the Altair's functions on another computer and spending nearly all our spare time writing code—some of it on paper notepads-we managed to create a BASIC that worked. For its time the Altair was a huge success, and thousands of programmers used our software to make it do interesting and useful things. Since then the PC has evolved from a hobbyist's toy into a powerful tool that has transformed how we work, learn, play, and keep in touch. And it has created an industry that employs millions of people and plays a leading role in our global economy.

Computing has made many evolutionary leaps over the decades-from the command line to the graphical user interface, from stand-alone PCs to a globally connected Internet. But we're now seeing an even more fundamental change. We're in what I call the "digital decade," a time when computers are moving beyond being merely useful to becoming an essential part of our everyday lives. Today we use computers for discrete tasks—like doing e-mail and paying bills—but in the years ahead they'll play a key role in almost everything we do. We'll rely on them to run our lives and businesses. We'll want them to keep us informed and entertained. We'll expect them to be wherever we need them. It will be an era of truly personal computing.

Many of our early dreams for the PC have already come true. They can recognize speech and handwriting, create realistic animation, and enable people to collaborate, communicate, and find information around the world. But we've barely scratched the surface of the PC's potential, and I'm incredibly excited about the amazing innovations that are just over the horizon.


     1 - Binary Computer
     2 - EDVAC
     3 - UNIVAC
     4 - Applications
     5 - Personal Computers
     Essay - William H. Gates III

Copyright © 2017 by National Academy of Engineering. All rights reserved. Printer-Friendly Version. Text-Only Version. Contact Us.