Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans—Bill Gates

Aug 30, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans—Bill Gates 

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) As we finish our series of interviews on great Americans, we now turn our attention to Bill Gates. What do we know about the early years of this influential innovator? 

William Henry Gates III was born in Seattle, Washington on October 28, 1955. His father was a lawyer, and it seems that he hoped that his son and namesake would follow him into that profession. When he was 13, he began attending the private Lakeside School.

During his 8th grade year, proceeds from a school rummage sale were used to buy an ASR terminal for the students to use, and time for them on a GE computer was also purchased.

This clearly was a turning point in the life of Gates, as he demonstrated a keen interest in learning how to do computer programs on that device. Recognizing his affinity for programming, the school allowed him to Math class so that he could spend more time engaged in that activity. Funds from the rummage sales eventually ran out, and Gates was forced to purchase time on his own. One company that he did business with was the Computer Center Corporation. This arrangement was briefly terminated when the firm found out that Gates had found flaws in its operating system that allowed him to use its computers without paying. After a few months, however, Gates approached the business with an offer: if he was allowed to use its computers again, he would help Computer Center Corporation detect other flaws in its programming.

When Computer Center Corporation ceased operations in 1970, Gates was immediately hired by Information Services, Inc. to perform a similar function. Learning of his computer prowess, the Lakeside School hired him to write a computer program for arranging student schedules. This arrangement is thought by many to have provided the inspiration for a scene from the movie “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off” where the protagonist alters his school attendance record from his home computer.  

2) As was the case with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates never finished college. How important were those years to him?

By the time Gates graduated from high school, he had compiled an impressive resume that he could use when applying for admission into colleges. Not only had he been a National Merit Scholar, but his score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was a 1590 out of a possible 1600. Not surprisingly, when he applied to Harvard he was accepted without having to be placed on a waiting list. As a student at Harvard, Gates tried to spend as much time as possible using the university’s computers. He also remained in contact with Paul Allen, who was one of his closest friends from his Lakeside School days. The two had shared an abiding interest in computers, and they continued to discuss their mutual focus while Gates attended Harvard. These conversations would lead to the two forming a partnership, and as a result Gates would put his college education on hold. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Gates benefited greatly from the educational experiences that his time at the university had afforded him.

3) Bill Gates will always be associated with Microsoft. How did this corporation come into existence?

As previously noted, Bill Gates had maintained his friendship with Paul Allen while he attended Harvard. In 1975, the two gradually came to a realization that a potential business opportunity existed in the computer realm. In that year, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), a firm based in Albuquerque, introduced a new computer that it called the Altair 8800. Gates and Allen believed that they could write programs for the new computer, and they approached MITS about that possibility.

Impressed with the two, MITS immediately hired Allen. After taking a leave of absence from Harvard, Gates also joined the firm. After deciding to form a business partnership, Gates and Allen initially decided to call their venture Micro-Soft. When they officially registered the company in New Mexico in January of 1976, they shortened the name to Microsoft. From these humble origins, Microsoft eventually became the dominant software company in the world. 

4) What role did Gates play in the eventual triumph of Microsoft as a software provider?

Although it dominates the field today, Microsoft got off to a fairly rocky start in the computer world. Gates and Allen had envisioned Microsoft as a business venture, and believed that they would be able to sell their software to computer users. Unfortunately, it turned out that a number of individuals in their target audience were able to copy and share the BASIC software that Gates and Allen had developed. In an unusual step, Gates wrote what has become known as The Open Letter to Hobbyists, asking that computer users respect patent law regarding his company’s products.

To help secure the financial viability of their work, Gates and Allen ended their relationship with MITS in 1976, and three years later relocated the business in Bellevue, Washington. Their big break came in 1980, when IBM discussed the possibility of Microsoft providing software for a personal computer that it was going to introduce. Microsoft was able to develop an operating system that became known as MS DOS. This proved to be very popular with computer users, and helped to enhance the stature of Microsoft. After this success, Gates became the president and CEO of the firm in 1981. With the introduction of Microsoft Windows in 1985, the company that Gates and Allen had founded only a decade earlier had become a highly respected part of the business community.  

5) While the success of Microsoft is undeniable, it has not been without controversy. How did Bill Gates help his firm navigate its way through legal and business difficulties?

By the 1990s, it was apparent that Microsoft had become the most widely used purveyor of software. The question then became one involving whether the company was using its economic clout to gain an unfair competitive advantage. In 1991, the Federal Trade Commission became the first government agency to examine that possibility, initiating an investigation into Microsoft’s business practice. Two years later that inquiry ended when the commissioners split 2-2 on the issue of further pursuing the investigation, but a short while later the US Department of Justice began its own inquiry of the firm. This resulted in an agreement between the two sides in July of 1994 in which Microsoft pledged that it would not directly link the sale of Microsoft Windows and other products of the firm. In the years after the ruling, however, disagreement developed between Microsoft and the Department of Justice regarding whether the firm’s Internet Explorer was a product or not. Unconvinced by Microsoft’s explanation, the Department of Justice became the lead plaintiff in a suit against the company that became known as United States v. Microsoft.

As part of the trial, Bill Gates was deposed by the government. By most accounts, his testimony was couched in vague terms, and he generally tried to deflect any suggestions that he had attempted to create a monopoly. Prosecutors countered with evidence that refuted many of his statements to that effect, and when the judge handed down his decision in 2000 he ruled against Microsoft. Ordered to split itself into essentially two different businesses, Microsoft appealed the judge’s decision. At this level, US Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the judge in the case had essentially committed judicial overreach. At that point, the Department of Justice decided that it would no longer pursue its efforts to break up Microsoft. While still committed to reining in Microsoft, it would instead seek a less drastic solution.

As a result, the Department of Justice worked out a compromise through which Microsoft would agree to stop tying the use of Windows to the exclusivity of its other products for a period of 10 years. Since the arrangement ended, Microsoft has never engaged in practices that could be deemed monopolistic. 

6) Bill Gates is well known for his philanthropy. How did he become involved in this pursuit?

There seem to have been two factors that have influenced Bill Gates in his philanthropic endeavors, and both of them can be traced back to 1994. On January 1st of that year, he married Melinda French. By all accounts, she

helped her husband select worthy causes that they could contribute money to. It also appears that Gates had looked at the lives of other individuals of great wealth, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who had committed significant portions of their wealth to charitable causes. This led him in 1994 to create the William H. Gates Foundation, an entity that a few years later would be renamed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Increasingly, Bill and Melinda Gates looked at the Rockefeller Foundation as a template for structuring their charitable works. And while the generosity of Bill Gates has been extremely noteworthy to this point, it will increase significantly in the future because of a decision that he made in 2010. For a few years prior to that point in time, Gates had been contemplating what portion of his estate to leave to charity, and began discussing that subject with fellow billionaires Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg. Eventually, the three decided that they should all agree to donate half of their estates to charity. This arrangement is known as the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge. Clearly, by the time that Bill Gates passes away, he will be the world’s most generous benefactor. 

7) What have I neglected to ask about the contributions of this individual?

Bill Gates is a fitting individual for us to focus on as the final person included in our look at famous Americans, as he represents many of the themes that we find present throughout this volume. Much of what Gates has done has come through his own hard work and brilliance, and thus he stands as a shining example for those who extoll the virtues of rugged individualism in American life. But Gates also demonstrates the importance of a support network. He received educational opportunities that allowed him to fully realize his potential, and had people like Paul Allen that gave him valuable help along the way.

In a similar fashion, Gates can come across as aloof to those who work for and with him, but he can also poke fun of himself (as he famously did in a 2008 ad in which he displayed an ID with a mug shot of his arrest in Albuquerque in the 1970s for a traffic violation). We are not, and never have been, a perfect group of people, but Bill Gates and the other figures that we have examined show the tremendous up-side that our country has offered for our talented and ambitious citizens.

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