In His Own Words: Gary Kildall

Gary Kildall in 1988; © Tom O’Neal, Carmel Valley, CA

Gary Kildall in 1988; © Tom O’Neal, Carmel Valley, CA

We all owe a lot to Gary. Brian Halla,
former CEO of National Semiconductor

Gary Kildall was a pioneer of personal computer software. He wrote programming language tools, including assemblers (Intel 4004), interpreters (BASIC), and compilers (PL/M). He created a widely-used disk operating system (CP/M). He and his wife, Dorothy McEwen, started a successful company called Digital Research to develop and market CP/M, which for years was the dominant operating system for personal microcomputers. Thousands of programs were written to run under it, and a million or more people might have used it.

In other CHM blog posts we have told the story of Digital Research and CP/M by celebrating its 40th anniversary, and releasing the source code. The influence on the nascent personal computer industry was profound.

But what do we know about the man who created all this? Kildall died in 1994, at the young age of 52. He never published an autobiography, and there are no book-length biographies.

There is more, however. In 1993, the year before his untimely death, Gary wrote a draft of a memoir titled Computer Connections: People, Places, and Events in the Evolution of the Personal Computer Industry. He distributed bound copies to family and friends, with a note that it “will go to print in final form early next year.” It never did.

The ownership of that manuscript passed to Gary’s children, Scott and Kristin. With their permission, we are pleased to make available the first portion of that memoir, along with their introduction to it and previously unpublished family photos.

“Our father, Gary Kildall, was one of the founders of the personal computer industry, but you probably don’t know his name. Those who have heard of him may recall the myth that he ‘missed’ the opportunity to become Bill Gates by going flying instead of meeting with IBM. Unfortunately, this tall tale paints Gary as a ‘could-have-been,’ ignores his deep contributions, and overshadows his role as an inventor of key technologies that define how computer platforms run today.

Gary viewed computers as learning tools rather than profit engines. His career choices reflect a different definition of success, where innovation means sharing ideas, letting passion drive your work and making source code available for others to build upon. His work ethic during the 1970s resembles that of the open-source community today.

With this perspective, we offer a portion of our father’s unpublished memoirs so that you can read about his experiences and reflections on the early days of the computer industry, directly in his own voice.

In this excerpt Gary writes about his vision for bringing the new microprocessors into homes and businesses. In 1974, he invented CP/M, the first operating system that could run on these new desktop platforms. Soon after, he created the BIOS, which enabled CP/M to easily interface with different computer hardware.

CP/M became the de facto standard personal computer operating system in these early days. For the next 20 years, Gary continued inventing and breaking ground on new technologies, such as the first commercially available CD-ROM: an encyclopedia, which provided a comprehensive source of desktop knowledge.

Gary and Dorothy at their high school prom in 1961

Gary and Dorothy at their high school prom in 1961

With our mother, Dorothy McEwen, Gary founded Digital Research Inc. (DRI) as a software company in 1974, in the beachside town of Pacific Grove, just a one-hour drive south of Silicon Valley. This software startup was the vehicle for his inventions. DRI provided the CP/M source code to Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and created an API that enabled companies to develop new software applications. Our parents believed that the operating system business should be separate from the applications business, to create a more thriving industry without monopolistic practices.

Gary with Scott and Kristin, ca 1973

Gary with Scott and Kristin, ca 1973

Scott Kildall and classmates (with Gary in the background) in R2D2 costumes made by Gary in 1977

Scott Kildall and classmates (with Gary in the background) in R2D2 costumes made by Gary in 1977

On the personal side, our father worked passionately to share his creations but also led a balanced life and was dedicated to our family. Our dad was just as likely to put in late night hours at work as to cut out early to take us waterskiing, have a backyard party, or make R2-D2 costumes for the entire second-grade class. As kids we didn’t see him as a software genius, but as a dedicated father who opened up our own creative channels. He showed us how to draw cartoon characters, and how to make a faster derby race car. He made backyard movies with us, played the guitar, and sang to us each night as we fell asleep. We are grateful to be his family and to share a part of his life with you.

While this excerpt was part of an early draft of Gary’s memoir that he shared only with family and friends, we feel that we are honoring his love of sharing ideas by making it available. In this excerpt, you will read how Gary and Dorothy started from modest means as a young married couple, paved a new path for start-up culture, and embraced their idea of success to become leaders in the industry. Our father embodied a definition of success that we can all learn from: one that puts inventions, ideas, and a love of life before profits as the paramount goal.

Dorothy and Gary, ca 1978

Dorothy and Gary, ca 1978

We have chosen to release only the first portion of his memoir. Unfortunately Gary’s passion for life also manifested in a struggle with alcoholism, and we feel that the unpublished preface and later chapters do not reflect his true self. If you want to read more about events in his later life and the further development of CP/M, They Made America by Harold Evans, Gail Buckland, and David Lefer has an excellent chapter on this topic.

We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the life of a man who was inventive, compassionate and loved life.” – Scott Kildall and Kristin Kildall

Please savor this remarkable insight into a creative personality. But note that the Museum’s license to publish this excerpt requires that we will first ask you to agree not to reproduce, publicly display, or distribute it online or in print. We welcome you to link to this page to give others access.

Download the Kildall Manuscript [2.31MB]

ABOUT Len Shustek

Read all posts by Len Shustek

Len Shustek is chairman of the board of trustees of the Computer History Museum. In 1979, he co-founded Nestar Systems, an early developer of networks for personal computers. In 1986, he co-founded Network General, a manufacturer of network analysis tools including The Sniffer™. The company became Network Associates after merging with McAfee Associates and PGP. He has taught computer science at Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford Universities, and was a founder of the “angel financing” firm VenCraft. He has served on various boards, including the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

Read all posts by Len Shustek