Learn about PC and OS pioneer Gary Kildall, from the inside

In my classes and on this site, I talk a lot about history. To me, it isn’t possible to be genuinely good at something unless that skill is accompanied by a respectful understanding of what came before. Otherwise, how could true knowledge be claimed?

I hold that true for everything. For example, if one claims to be a guitar player but knows nothing about Les Paul or The Beatles, they’re not really a guitar player. They may play guitar, but guitar player they aren’t. Similarly, if one is a physician, but doesn’t know the groundwork laid by Louis Pasteur or Florence Nightingale or how they treated injuries during the Civil War, then I would question their qualifications and their true interest in the field; after all, if they don’t know the history of medicine, how interested in medicine could they really be? A true passion for something necessarily results in learning *about* that thing, and that includes history.

That’s why I talk about it so much. I’m always excited to learn a new little piece of computing history no matter how small; everything helps piece together the puzzle. It’s also why I’m a member of the Computer History Museum, and they recently released a heretofore unknown piece of history that is quite major. It’s the ‘first portion’ (about 78 pages) of an unpublished autobiography of one of the founders of the modern home-computing movement, Gary Kildall. You can read about it and download it here.

Gary Kildall developed the first true OS for what would become business and home computers, and he called it CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers, and you can download the source code from the CHM here). There are many stories about him and his place in the early days of computing. The most common, the one his kids claim is false but has persevered and taken on a life of his own is that when IBM showed up at his front door to license his OS for use in their new line of PCs, he was out flying his plane and his lawyers advised him to not sign the NDA that was provided. IBM, not being a company to wait around, instead went right down the street to Microsoft and signed up with them instead. ironic, because they had approached Microsoft first who sent them to Kildall in the first place! Needless to say, the rest is history.

If you look at the screen of a PC running CP/M, you’ll notice that, and this isn’t a surprise, MS-DOS looks very much like it.



The truth to that story has always been questioned, but it is generally accepted as what happened. Microsoft had no OS when IBM first approached, which is why they recommended Kildall. However when IBM returned to Microsoft after the failed meeting, Bill Gates jumped at the opportunity and it was all over for CP/M. Gates became the richest person on earth, and Gary Kildall, sadly, faded into comparative obscurity. The fact is, for all his contributions to computing, there just isn’t very much known about him as a person. Even finding a decent header image was difficult.

That’s why it was very surprising to see the Computer history Museum recently make available a copy of the autobiography. Apparently, he had written it sometime back in the 70s and handed a copy of it out to a few friends and family noting it was intended to be published the following year. Needless to say that never happened, and the fact it existed remained a buried treasure ever since.

Being written by his own hand, and talking about the events behind the urban legend of IBM, Kildall, and Gates, it is a really fascinating read, giving insights into how things worked back at the dawn of the personal computer age. I found it especially interesting that even though he had once created a BASIC compiler, he – in his own words – detested BASIC. I didn’t know it was possible to feel that way about a computer language, but apparently he did. I was also struck that in the introduction to the memoir, Kildall’s children mention their father’s later struggle with alcoholism, and apparently that manifested in the writings and is the reason that those sections of the writings were not included in the release.

I am more than ok with that, though. What has been provided in this first portion is a fascinating narrative and perspective, one not seen before, into the mind of someone who deserves much more credit than he gets.

A couple of side notes: You can see Gary in many episode of The Computer Chronicles, an 80’s – 90’s show about technology that is a really interesting and compelling look into the what consumer technology used to be, and  if you haven’t been to the website of the Computer History Museum, you really should give it a look. There is so much there to see; it’s incredibly informative.

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