Gary Kildall: In Memorium

“He saw the future and made it work. He was the true founder of the personal computer revolution and the father of PC software.”

This story is reprinted from Life in Pacific Grove, California published in September 2017. Copies available from Amazon and local stores.

As a technology historian, I’m semiconductor curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, I was aware that something important to the industry transpired in Pacific Grove in the 1970s. So when I moved to town several years ago I decided to research the details. Following is a brief history of the development of the first commercially-successful personal-computer operating system (OS) and the Grecian-like tragedy of the rise and fall of its inventor.

Gary Arlen Kildall was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942. On graduating from the University of Washington with a PhD in computer science he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. While living with his wife Dorothy and their two children, Scott and Kristin, at 781 Bayview Avenue, Pacific Grove he also did consulting work in an office in his backyard workshop for microprocessor manufacturer Intel Corporation. To speed this work, in 1974 he wrote a program called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) that served as one of the fundamental enabling technologies of the personal computer (PC) revolution.

Digital Research staff outside 801 Lighthouse Avenue, early 1970s.

With Dorothy as co-founder, Gary established Digital Research Inc. (DRI) to develop commercial opportunities for CP/M. They opened their first office on the upper floor of 716 Lighthouse Avenue and their software quickly found application in a new, fast-growing market for small business computers. By the late 1970s DRI had become the leading supplier of operating systems to these users and transformed a staid Victorian residence they purchased at 801 Lighthouse Avenue into a bustling high-tech corporate headquarters.

In 1980 they acquired another former residence at 734 Lighthouse to house the growing engineering staff. Pacific Grove resident and first employee of DRI Tom Rolander likes to tell the story of how Gary met with the engineers one Friday afternoon and announced that he was going to give them a raise over the weekend. When they arrived at work on Monday morning the building had been raised on jacks to accommodate a new large computer in the basement. Today the structure serves as offices for the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper.

IBM, the world’s largest computer manufacturer, wanted CP/M to power its new PC but demanded a price and other concessions that were unacceptable to Gary. Bill Gates, who had once discussed the possibility of merging with DRI and moving Microsoft to Pacific Grove, acquired an unauthorized clone of CP/M from another vendor and bundled it together with other software to secure the IBM business.

With its clout in the market IBM emerged as the dominant PC supplier and MS-DOS as the standard operating system. DRI responded with multi-user, networking, and other enhancements to CP/M years before Microsoft, but by the mid-1980s had lost the OS battle. Novell purchased a shrunken DRI in 1991 and moved the operation to Utah.

When a reporter from the London Times asked how Microsoft had won the IBM business, Gates told him that “Gary was out flying when IBM came to visit and that’s why they did not get the contract.” That myth has been debunked by DRI employees who were present, but it stuck. Although Gary contributed many other software innovations, including the first CD-ROM encyclopedia and early code for Pixar, he was forever haunted by the label “The man who could have been Bill Gates.” He descended into alcoholism and died in 1994.

My role in this story began when, on recognizing the importance of CP/M, I wrote a proposal to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering) to install a Milestone plaque outside the former DRI headquarters at 801 Lighthouse Avenue. The IEEE Milestone program honors important events in electrical engineering and computing. Achievements such Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, Marconi’s wireless communications, and Bell Labs first transistor are recognized with plaques in appropriate locations.

With IEEE encouragement, I approached the city manager about mounting a plaque in the sidewalk. As I had been warned by long-term residents that the process could take years, I was surprised at the positive reception and fast approval of the project. On April 25, 2014, more than 100 former DRI employees, friends, representatives from the Navy, and computer industry pioneers joined Kildall family members and the president of the IEEE to dedicate the plaque that reads:

IEEE Milestone plaque in the sidewalk outside 801 Lighthouse Avenue.

“Dr. Gary A. Kildall demonstrated the first working prototype of CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) in Pacific Grove in 1974. Together with his invention of the BIOS (Basic Input Output System), Kildall’s operating system allowed a microprocessor-based computer to communicate with a disk drive storage unit and provided an important foundation for the personal computer revolution.”

Those who are interested in more of the story are recommended to read They Made America: Two Centuries of Innovators from the Steam Engine to the Search Engine by Harold Evans. The chapter on Kildall is subtitled “He saw the future and made it work. He was the true founder of the personal computer revolution and the father of PC software.” Pacific Grove library has a copy.

In April 2017, the Naval Postgraduate School honored its former faculty member by dedicating the Dr. Gary A. Kildall Memorial Conference Room that included a replica of the IEEE plaque in the university’s Glasgow Hall. At the ceremony his daughter Kristin Kildall said “From the beginning of his career in technology, he valued sharing ideas, moving technology forward and bettering his community. His passion for innovation and ideas was seen throughout his career as a primary force. I am really touched by having the conference room named in his honor. It tells me that his legacy is longstanding, and that he really contributed in a powerful way.”

More Information

Gary Kildall and the 40th Anniversary of the Birth of the PC Operating System

In his own words” Blog and downloadable version of Gary Kildall’s autobiography

Former NPS Professor and Personal Computing Pioneer Memorialized on Campus”

I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.