Forty years ago, a young programmer named Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University to form a company called "Micro-soft" with his childhood friend Paul Allen. Along with producing some truly scary photos of malnourished, sleep-deprived geniuses in ‘70s garb, the company went on to ignite a personal computing craze and achieve overwhelming success with its technological innovations. Today, on the 20th anniversary of Microsoft's release of the Windows computer operating system, here’s a look at seven bits (bytes?) of information about its famed co-founder:
It should come as no surprise that the Seattle-born Gates demonstrated a staggering intellect as a kid. He plowed through the hefty World Book Encyclopedia set at age 8, but he left perhaps his biggest impression as an 11-year-old in his church confirmation class. Every year, Reverend Dale Turner challenged his pupils to memorize chapters 5-7 of the Book of Matthew – a.k.a. the Sermon on the Mount – and treated the successful ones to dinner atop the Space Needle. When Gates took his turn, Reverend Turner was stunned as the boy recited the approximately 2,000-word text with zero errors. While 31 of his classmates eventually got to chow down at the Space Needle Restaurant, Gates was the only one to deliver a flawless performance.
Microsoft was not the first business partnership between Gates and Allen. As computer prodigies at Lakeside High School, they wrote a payroll program for a company called Information Sciences Inc. Shortly afterward, they came up with an idea to streamline the process of measuring traffic flow. Under the existing format, a pressure-sensitive tube punched a sequence onto paper tape whenever a car passed, with the results later transcribed to computer cards. After scraping together $360 for a microprocessor chip, Gates and Allen developed their "Traf-O-Data" computer to read and analyze the paper tapes. Although the Traf-O-Data generally worked, the budding entrepreneurs realized they knew far more about building that type of machine than how to sell it. Allen has since pointed to that experience as a valuable lesson about the importance of a business model.
Being a computer whiz carries with it a "nerdy image," but Gates, a hacker at heart, is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of the law. During his early exposure to computers, when accessing one of the few available machines was expensive, Gates and his Lakeside buddies figured out how to slip into their accounts and lop off a chunk of billable hours. He was arrested twice for traffic violations – once in 1975 for driving without a license and speeding, and again in 1977 for driving without a license and ignoring a stop sign. Twenty years later, when facing the potential breakup of Microsoft for monopolistic business practices (a conviction overturned on appeal), Gates notoriously delivered evasive answers as a witness in federal court.
Gates's career could have turned out quite differently without an assist from a competitor. Approached by IBM in 1980 to develop a 16-bit operating system for its new personal computer, Gates referred the computer giants to Gary Kildall of Digital Research Inc. However, Kildall was out flying his plane when the IBM reps showed up, and his wife and business partner Dorothy balked at signing a non-disclosure agreement. Realizing that an opportunity was slipping away, Gates leased a similar operating system from another company and repackaged it as DOS for IBM. The development paved the way for Microsoft to become the dominant name in PC operating systems through MS-DOS and then Windows, and helped its president become a billionaire by age 31.
Gates met his better half shortly after she began work at Microsoft as a product marketing manager in 1987. A recent Duke graduate, Melinda French sat next to the company bigwig at an Expo trade-fair dinner, recalling him as "funnier than I thought he'd be." A few months later they crossed paths in a Microsoft car park, and Gates asked her out on a date. . .in two weeks. French rebuffed him, noting that she had no idea what she was doing in two weeks, but she relented when Gates called an hour later and asked to meet that night. Their relationship was an open secret within the company for years, but the veil was lifted by the time they became engaged in 1993, and they were married in Hawaii on New Year's Day 1994.
Gates has stated that he plans to give away 95 percent of his fortune to charity, but as you might expect from someone named "world's richest man" by Forbes for 16 of the past 21 years, he's also made his share of lavish purchases. Topping that list are the $36 million he paid for the Winslow Homer painting "Lost on the Grand Banks," and $30 million for a Leonardo da Vinci journal known as the Codex Leicester. He also shelled out $21 million for a private jet, an understandable expenditure for a man with so much global business. And then there's his estate in Medina, Washington: Valued at more than $120 million and nicknamed "Xanadu 2.0," the 66,000-square-foot behemoth has a private beach, an Art Deco home theater, a 60-foot pool with an underwater sound system and. . .wait for it. . .a trampoline room.
Influenced by his parents' community involvement – and perhaps by those Sermon on the Mount lessons – Gates has made his mark as a philanthropic powerhouse. He consolidated his various efforts under one umbrella in 1999, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has since become the world's largest private charitable enterprise. With its staggering $43 billion endowment and offices across Africa, Asia and Europe, the foundation has made major headway in tackling issues of poverty, literacy and disease. Gates, meanwhile, has become quite the hands-on boss since leaving his full-time oversight of Microsoft in 2008. Demonstrating his involvement, he appeared on The Tonight Show in early 2015 to discuss a machine that turns sewage into drinking water, even convincing host Jimmy Fallon to join him for a glass.