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Pioneers of Computer Programming

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Pioneers of Computer Programming

When you think of 21st century computing, two things come to mind: Windows and video games. Learning Team A introduces you to the two men responsible for these phenomena - Bill Gates and Nolan Bushnell.

William Henry Gates III

During that late 1960's and early 1970's, BASIC was one of the premier programming languages. At that time, Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen made the commitment to learn BASIC by reading the user manuals. In exchange for computer time, they made an agreement with a local company called the Computer Center Corporation to provide de-bugging services for software on the company's DEC machine. This time was used not only to search for errors, but also to study the operating systems from any discarded code they came across. Moreover, during this time Gates continued to expand his knowledge of computer programming as he taught himself other programming languages including FORTRAN, LISP and PDP-10 machine language. (Reitz, 1996)

After the C.C.C. went out of business, Gates and his friends were forced to find a new company located in Portland that used the same PDP-10 machine. Gates negotiated with the managers of the company to let him and his friends write a COBOL payroll program in exchange for free computer time (Reitz, 2006). Through this project, Gates and friends learned much about payroll systems, taxes, and labor reports - invaluable information that they would later rely on when starting Microsoft.

In 1973, Gates decided to enroll at Harvard University to study mathematics or law. During his time at Harvard, Allen and Gates found a copy of Popular Electronics magazine, which had on the cover a picture of the Altair, a computer kit which you could assemble yourself. During their time in high school, Gates, Allen and their friend Paul Gilbert had actually built their own Altair using an Intel 8008 1k microprocessor. After seeing the magazine article, Gates contacted Ed Roberts of the MITS Company and proposed to that he write some BASIC software for the Altair. The MITS personnel were impressed with the initial work that Gates and his friends had completed and decided to meet with them to test the team's code. After a successful demonstration of the code, Gates made the decision to leave school and move to Albuquerque and work with MITS on the Altair.

After the move Gates would devote his energies to Microsoft, a company that he would establish in 1975 with Allen. Guided by a belief that the computer would be a valuable tool on every office desktop and in every home, they began developing software for personal computers. Microsoft would sell its BASIC system to MITS, NCR and Intel. It proved to be more cost effective for companies to buy Microsoft software rather than spend the time and money to develop their own.

In January of 1979, Gates made the decision to move Microsoft to Seattle, Washington. Gates believed that part of the country was better suited for recruiting programmers. Microsoft adopted a new standard for hiring employees; the company decided to hire only the most gifted and intelligent new college graduates rather than experienced programmers. The company was looking for talent that came with no previous programming biases. The expansions of personnel would lead to the development of a Microsoft Word and spreadsheet programs.

The next big step in the personal computer industry occurred in 1981 when Gates purchased the SCP-DOS operating system from Seattle Computer Products. This operating system would become the foundation for a later modified version that evolved into MS-DOS. Microsoft and IBM had made an agreement for Gate's company to provide the new OS for IBM's new line of personal computers. Later that year, MS-DOS was shipped on all new IBM PC's (Bill Gates, 2007).

Microsoft made additional technological breakthroughs in the 1980's. In April of 1983, Microsoft introduced the concept of the "mouse". The mouse allowed users of PC's the freedom and flexibility to move away from the keyboard. The next change in personal computers came in November of 1983, as Microsoft rolled out a graphical user interface known as "Windows". This was a radical new way to display and to manage both data and applications for PC's and would become the standard for the industry for the next 25 years for personal computing.

Bill Gates' vision and foresight would transform the computing world in the short twenty-five year interval since he first learned BASIC on the GE machine. The developments of MS-DOS, Windows, and the introduction of the mouse have brought computing down to a personal level (Councill, 2004). Gates' objective to have a computer in almost every household would become a reality. The changes to personal computers introduced by Gates have had a major influence on how the world would process information. These innovations would allow personal computer technology to be affordable and easy to use by every day consumers.

Nolan Bushnell

When you think of video games, one of the first things that come to mind for many is the name Atari. The ground breaking product was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Bushnell and Dabney created Atari Inc. in 1972 as a way to market their new arcade game Pong. Bushnell originally came up with the idea of making video games while he was a student at the University of Utah. While at the University of Utah, Bushnell was introduced to a video game called Spacewar. From here Bushnell started on a path to become one of the founders of the video game industry.

Spacewar was a game developed in 1962 by a team of MIT programmers led by Steven Russell. The purpose of the game was to showcase the MIT programmer's abilities to create programs for a new $120,000.00 computer called the PDP-1. The new computer was the most advanced of its time and more versatile than other computers at MIT. Spacewar was a two player game that pitted two space ships against each other in battle using missiles. Russell considered selling Spacewar, but reconsidered when he realized that the game was only compatible with the PDP-1. Russell made the decision allow others to tinker with the game by releasing it to programmers at different universities. This is how the code made its way to the University of Utah where Bushnell found it. Bushnell used Spacewar as the inspiration for his coin operated arcade game called Computer Space. Released under the company name Syzygy by Bushnell and Dabney, Computer Space made about 3 million in sales. Bushnell was not satisfied by this and blamed the marketing

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