Happy Birthday, Bill Gates

Bill Gates, one of the most influential and richest people on the planet turns 64 today. An American business magnate, software developer, and philanthropist, he is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft Corporation. Gates took the world by storm with his personal computer services. Gates wrote his first software program at the age of 13. In high school he helped form a group of programmers who computerized their school’s payroll system and founded Traf-O-Data, a company that sold traffic-counting systems to local governments. In 1975, Gates, then a sophomore at Harvard University, joined his hometown friend Paul G. Allen to develop software for the first microcomputers. They began by adapting BASIC for use on microcomputers. The programming language used only on large computers since then. With the success of this project, Gates left Harvard during his junior year and, with Allen, formed Microsoft.

Gates’s sway over the infant microcomputer industry greatly increased when Microsoft licensed an operating system called MS-DOS to International Business Machines Corporation—then the world’s biggest computer supplier and industry pacesetter—for use on its first microcomputer, the IBM PC (personal computer). After the machine’s release in 1981, IBM quickly set the technical standard for the PC industry, and MS-DOS likewise pushed out competing operating systems. While Microsoft’s independence strained relations with IBM, Gates deftly manipulated the larger company so that it became permanently dependent on him for crucial software. Makers of IBM-compatible PCs, or clones, also turned to Microsoft for their basic software. By the start of the 1990s he had become the PC industry’s ultimate kingmaker. Largely on the strength of Microsoft’s success, Gates amassed a huge paper fortune as the company’s largest individual shareholder. He became a paper billionaire in 1986, and within a decade his net worth had reached into the tens of billions of dollars—making him by some estimates the world’s richest private individual. With few interests beyond software and the potential of information technology, Gates at first preferred to stay out of the public eye, handling civic and philanthropic affairs indirectly through one of his foundations. Nevertheless, as Microsoft’s power and reputation grew, and especially as it attracted the attention of the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division, Gates, with some reluctance, became a more public figure.

Later in his career and since leaving day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, Gates has pursued a number of philanthropic endeavors. He has given sizable amounts of money to various charitable organizations and scientific research programs through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, reported to be the world’s largest private charity. During the latter part of the 1990s, the couple also funded North American libraries through the Gates Library Foundation (renamed Gates Learning Foundation in 1999) and raised money for minority study grants through the Gates Millennium Scholars program. At the beginning of the 21st century, the foundation continued to focus on global health and global development, as well as community and education causes in the United States. After a short transition period, Gates relinquished day-to-day oversight of Microsoft in June 2008—although he remained chairman of the board—in order to devote more time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In February 2014 he stepped down as chairman but continued to serve as a board member until 2020. During this time he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016).