Country Scientist — Startups: Origins of the PC Revolution

idea man

idea man

Today’s smartphones and tablets, laptop and desktop computers all trace their ancestry to the arrival of the hobby computer era of the 1970s.

After Intel introduced its 8008 microprocessor in 1972, several individuals and teams began using the new chip to build DIY computers. But these computers made little progress due to the 8008’s limited capabilities.

The computer revolution was jump-started in 1975 when MITS, Inc., a small electronics company that I co-founded in Albuquerque, N.M., announced the Altair 8800, a kit computer designed around Intel’s new and powerful 8080 microprocessor.

Many books have been written about what happened next, and Idea Man (Portfolio/Penguin), a new memoir by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, shines a spotlight on many details that were previously known only to insiders. Whatever your favorite kind of computing device or operating system, Idea Man is a book well worth reading, especially if you have entrepreneurial aspirations.

The story begins at Out of Town News in Cambridge’s Harvard Square on a snowy December afternoon in 1974. Allen visited the newsstand each month to check out the latest issues of Radio-Electronics, Popular Science, and similar magazines.

When he saw the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, it stopped him in his tracks. Emblazoned on the cover was a photograph of the Altair 8800 microcomputer.

The blurb over the photo read:

World’s First Minicomputer Kit
to Rival Commercial Models …
“ALTAIR 8800” SAVE OVER $1,000

Allen opened the magazine and found complete construction plans for the Altair 8800, which was available as a kit ($439) or fully assembled ($621). He noticed that the core of the Altair was Intel’s powerful new 8080 microprocessor, the successor to the 8008. He paid 75 cents for the magazine and hurriedly strode almost a mile to Harvard’s Currier House, where sophomore Bill Gates resided.

Gates shared Allen’s enthusiasm for the Altair. Both had become expert assembly language programmers in high school, and they decided to contact Altair developer Ed Roberts, who headed MITS, Inc. Their plan was simple: offer Roberts a version of the BASIC language that would run on the Altair.

After eight grueling weeks of programming, Allen flew to Albuquerque with a paper tape, punched with their new BASIC. The code ran fine when simulated on a PDP-10 minicom-

puter at Harvard, but would it work with an Altair? While Roberts watched, Allen carefully entered into the Altair’s front panel toggle switches the code he’d written on the airplane to enable the Altair to load the BASIC from the Teletype terminal connected to the computer. The paper tape reader then loaded the BASIC into the Altair’s memory. When Allen typed PRINT 2+2, the Teletype immediately printed 4.

Roberts was amazed. So was Allen, though he didn’t let on. Soon Roberts hired Allen, and later that year Gates joined him in Albuquerque. There, Allen and Gates formed a partnership that they initially called Micro-Soft.

Idea Man

Allen tells what happened next in Idea Man, a detailed and appropriately technical account of the origin and early history of Microsoft. It’s much more than a book about microcomputer history and Allen’s life as a billionaire, for it’s packed between the lines with tips for aspiring entrepreneurs, designers, programmers, and makers with revolutionary ideas.

Idea Man has attracted considerable attention in the media world because of its candid revelations about friction between Allen and Gates and what Allen describes as Gates’ efforts to reduce Allen’s stake in Microsoft.

The shouting matches he describes closely parallel what Roberts and others told me over the years. Some believe that dredging up these old stories is sour grapes, especially since Allen played much less of a role at Microsoft after his 1982 bout with cancer and his growing disillusionment with Gates’ confrontational leadership style.

Having just spent four years writing an exhaustive history of the world’s leading atmospheric monitoring station, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory, I disagree. Debates, arguments, and leadership flaws, whether in the low-pressure environment of a remote station at 11,200 feet or in the high-pressure environment of a startup company, are the sparks that illuminate the organization’s history. Allen would have short-changed his readers had he failed to describe the disputes.

Allen even describes an expletive-laden temper salvo directed by Steve Jobs against a hapless Apple employee while he and Gates watched with surprise. Leadership antics like these will provide business analysts, academics and, yes, psychologists much to ponder when they study the astonishing success of Microsoft and Apple.

Whether these disclosures have burnt the bridge in the four-decade relationship between Allen and Gates remains to be seen. In January 2011, four months before the release of Idea Man, Allen was in Albuquerque to dedicate Startup, a personal computer museum gallery, to the memory of Ed Roberts, who died in April 2010. When I asked Allen about his book, he said he was concerned how Gates would react.

Gates seems to have mellowed over the years. After he joined Allen in Albuquerque in the mid-70s, the teenage-looking Gates sometimes had major battles with the burly Roberts, a former Air Force officer who expected respect. Last year when Gates learned that Roberts was near death, he flew across the country to spend several hours with him days before Roberts died.

Allen writes in Idea Man that Gates regularly visited him in 2009 when he was hospitalized with his second battle with cancer: “He was everything you’d want from a friend, caring and concerned.” Based on their past history, it seems likely the two billionaires will eventually make their peace, perhaps while agreeing to disagree on some points. After all, many Microsoft customers who have a love-hate relationship with the company’s software (including me) keep going back for more.

After Microsoft

Microsoft made its founders two of the world’s richest men, and Idea Man follows Allen’s account of the MITS-Microsoft years with highlights about his life, business, and philan-thropy. He enthusiastically discusses his billionaire lifestyle, including his sports teams, his love affair with the guitar, and his far-flung travel adventures aboard his mega-yachts.

Much more important to us makers than the celebrity name dropping and travel stories are the details of Allen’s business successes and failures, his founding of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and his carefully restored World War II-era aircraft collection.

Then there’s Allen’s partnership with Burt Rutan that culminated in SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed and launched reusable, manned spacecraft. The historic SpaceShipOne, which earned the $10 million Ansari X Prize, is now suspended between Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Lessons for Makers

Idea Man provides important tips and lessons for today’s generation of makers, some of whom might even now be developing what might become the next billion-dollar technology or product. Here are some lessons I’ve gleaned from its pages and between the lines.

Does your idea pass the balloon test? Good ideas and futuristic visions don’t guarantee successful products and ventures. As Allen wrote about his pre-Altair days with Gates, “Each time I brought an idea to Bill, he would pop my balloon.”

Texas-style handshake agreements with partners, supporters, and customers are great. I sold millions of books to RadioShack over handshakes and purchase orders. But Allen’s experience suggests it’s best to follow handshakes with carefully drafted agreements that all concerned are willing to sign.

Use care and prudence when working and dealing with partners and financial backers.

Get to know your partners and their idiosyncrasies before signing on with them.

Carefully read any agreement or contract before you sign it!

Partnerships are a two-way arrangement. So get to know yourself. Are you living up to your agreements? Is your management style reasonable or do you create chaos?

A partnership agreement should provide contingencies for all eventualities. For example, the partners should agree to pursue arbitration in the event of a serious disagreement. The agreement should cover what happens should a partner be incapacitated or die.

Never, never, never release imperfect products! Delaying a promised new product is always better than releasing a defective one.

Treat your customers with the respect they deserve.

As Roberts learned so well, if your first products don’t succeed, try again.

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Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

View more articles by Forrest M. Mims III


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