History in the House
How a humble Pacific Grove property changed the course of computing.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
T here is a decent case to be made that much of the fate of the modern world can be traced back to a modest Victorian in Pacific Grove.
That’s because the computer operating systems that billions rely on today—and often take for granted—got their start here. Or at least some say.
It’s not just the technology that’s having a massive impact, either. The money that technology earned is having quite an effect: The man credited with bringing those systems to market, Bill Gates, is now crazy silly rich, and using his wealth to take on the world’s education gap, HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio.
But the operating system, and Gates, might not have changed the world if it hadn’t been for what happened at 801 Lighthouse Ave., which could be the most important historical geek building that few know exists.
Late, longtime local Gary Kildall was the founder and CEO of a software company called Digital Research Inc. (DRI), the first crucial company in the “microcomputer” era, when machines were no longer the size of a building.
Chris Garcia, curator of Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum, credits Kildall with changing how people worked with now-ubiquitous technology.
“Kildall figured out an easy way to interact with computers,” Garcia says.
He had developed an operating system called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers). IBM grew interested. When IBM came to visit, though, the parties didn’t exactly hit it off; IBM’s proposed non-disclosure agreement and royalty rights proved significant stumbling blocks, and Kildall figured he could do alright on his own. Other accounts suggest Kildall was out flying a plane and missed his appointment. Bloomberg BusinessWeek, for example, calls it “the day Gary Kildall went flying.”
“While he’s revered for his technical innovations,” write Steve Hamm and Jay Greene, “many believe Kildall made one of the biggest mistakes in the history of commerce.”
Then IBM turned to Gates, who hired a computer programmer who based DOS (Disk Operating System) partly on CP/M.
Most everyone knows the rest. IBM licensed DOS from Gates, and he made multiple mints when software took off.
Today, depending on who you ask, that makes Gates a better businessman—or an intellectual property thief.
Jeffrey Van Middlebrook worked with Kildall in the late ’70s. He did the carpentry, plumbing and electrical work for Kildall’s home-turned-office on the corner of Lighthouse and Willow. Today Van Middlebrook works as an inventor—his creations include chainsaw safety shields and backpacking gear—so he’s familiar with patents and IP.
According to Van Middlebrook and Kildall’s business partner, Tom Rolander, before IBM came to either whiz, Kildall befriended Gates. They say Kildall revealed information freely.
“If I come up with an idea but someone beats me to punch on getting the patent,” Van Middlebrook says, “then it leaves the door open for theft.”
Back then the law of intellectual property was a fairly new concept.
“Nobody really knew how to apply [the law],” Van Middlebrook says.
Seaside Computer Works sales associate Kenny Allison is among those who say talk of theft overstates things.
“Stealing is a harsh term,” he says. “But I do think Microsoft adapted the Kildall idea and used it as a backbone.”
The Computer History Museum’s Garcia has heard Kildall lost out big, but doesn’t know precisely how.
“It’s never been clear,” Garcia says. “[But] there was something there.”
He’s not alone in his ignorance. Even Kildall’s story on the IBM rift shifted, Van Middlebrook says: “He had different versions of his own story.”
One thing seems less debatable: Kildall didn’t realize what he had.
“Kildall didn’t see the importance of providing CP/M to IBM,” Garcia says. “So few people knew that IBM would change the 20th century, computation, the way we live our lives.”
Like Middlebrook, Dag Spicer, senior curator at the museum, feels Kildall deserves more credit.
“Digital Research was the Microsoft of its time,” he says. “A gold standard.”
Later gold standards like Hewlett Packard and Apple were born in NorCal garages, which have been converted into historical landmarks. The Victorian in Pacific Grove has not. Garcia, for one, thinks that should change.
“Kildall made such an impact on the world of personal computers,” he says.
The house where he made it happen, interestingly enough, is currently for sale. No word on whether Gates is interested in making it his.