Late Recognition for a Computer Pioneer Who Missed a Big Prize

Plaque honoring Gary Kildall, who developed pioneering operating system for personal computers. (Krista Almanzan/KQED)
Plaque honoring Gary Kildall, who developed pioneering operating system for personal computers. (Krista Almanzan/KQED)
The quiet seaside town of Pacific Grove is a long way from Silicon Valley, but recently, it was recognized as the birthplace of a significant tech innovation. It’s where Seattle native Gary Kildall invented the first personal computer operating system called Control Program for Microcomputers or CP/M.

CPM did something we all take for granted now. It made it possible for users to run any application on any personal computer.

“When I was growing up you had to buy a computer program and it would be compatible for a machine. And now you can buy a computer program and they run on any machine,” said Howard Michel, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

Last month, the IEEE formally recognized Kildall’s contribution to computer science by unveiling a Milestone plaque outside the former headquarters of Kildall’s company, Digital Research Inc., in Pacific Grove. IEEE Milestones honor significant achievements in a wide range of fields, from early experiments into the nature of electricity — Benjamin Franklin is the earliest researcher to be recognized with a Milestone — to bioengineering.

“We recognize things like the telephone, the invention of the battery, transistor, so things that are really outstanding, things that really change the world,” said Michel.

Kildall died in 1994, but his adult children, Kristin and Scott Kildall, were on hand for the unveiling.

“Watching everybody gather round and take pictures like it’s a celebrity or something, it shows me how important this is to so many people. It makes me tear up,” Kristin Kildall said at the ceremony. “I feel a real sense of satisfaction.”

Her satisfaction comes from that fact that she feels her father is finally being recognized for his contribution to the personal computer.

For decades, Gary Kildall’s invention has been overshadowed by one business decision he made back in the early 1980s. The story’s been told, twisted and retold again, but it all comes down to this: When approached by IBM to use his operating system on the first personal computer the company was bringing to market, Kildall didn’t immediately seal the deal, and that left the door open for another Washington state native — Bill Gates, who was pushing another operating system.

IBM eventually signed a contract with both Kildall and Gates, allowing the consumer to pick the OS they wanted. But IBM charged customers $240 for CP/M and just $40 for Gates’ PC DOS.

“That was such a shock,” said Tom Rolander, who also attended the Pacific Grove ceremoney. “I expected IBM to be fair.”

Rolander worked at Digital Research. He was Kildall’s college friend, best man in his wedding and business partner.

Rolander said that price differential marked the end of CP/M, but not Gary Kildall’s business ventures. He went on to start other companies. Rolander says Kildall was not haunted by the end of CPM, but that other people just couldn’t get over it.

“He had to keep going over and over that story and then that story turned from that into ‘Wow! if you’d gotten the IBM contract instead of Bill, you’d be the billionaire, so how do you feel about that?’,” Rolander said..

He said he hopes this IEEE Milestone will change that.

“I don’t believe there’s going to be a bronze plaque anywhere near Microsoft for Bill Gates for a creation of a technology. I think this is something that Gary truly invented and did, and so I think it’s the legacy for Gary and it’s the appropriate one,” Rolander said.

Kristin Kildall has even broader hopes for how her father will be remembered.

“I think we often have this idea of making money at any cost is valid and worthwhile, but he really taught me how important it is to be a good human on top of that,” she said. “Somebody who can be a great innovator and a success, and still be a great person, personally, and somebody people can love personally, aside from that. I think that’s something that’s really rare. I think that’s something we can all strive to be.”

The Milestone plaque is embedded in the sidewalk at 801 Lighthouse Ave. in Pacific Grove. Kristin Kildall likes the permanence of it all. Her father’s legacy may fade from memory, but this Milestone is forever.

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  • HearThe Truth
  • Guest

    Best OS ever and what a shame DOS was chosen. Therein lies all the difference.

  • http://www.bswd.com Brian Berg

    This is a very nicely done story. It melded a piece from Monterey’s KAZU NPR station (aired before the dedication) with the dedication itself, and included a brief quote from IEEE President-Elect Howard Michel (who flew out from Mass. just for this event). I had the honor of MC’ing the dedication event, which included Tom Rolander and Gary’s son Scott Kildall. I have forwarded this story to the IEEE History Center and others at IEEE. Bravo to KQED for doing a professional job on this!

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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