Computer Center Corporation attempted to sell its timesharing services to scientific and engineering businesses in the region—or any other customer in need of computer power at an affordable price.
One of the firm’s founders and chief scientific programmer, Monique Rona, had a son in the eighth grade at Lakeside—the same grade as Gates. She knew about the school’s teletype machine and its deal with General Electric for computer time. A representative from her company contacted Lakeside to inquire whether the school would be interested in making a similar arrangement with Computer Center Corporation. The students would have an even greater opportunity to learn about computers, the representative argued.
Lakeside concurred, and once again asked parents to help pay for the computer time used by their sons.
Gates and some of the other boys soon discovered all kinds of "neat" programs hidden in the C-Cubed PDP-10 software— programs they had not encountered with the General Electric computer. One trick the boys learned was something called "detach and leave job running." This meant that even though they were logged off the system, the machine was still working on their program... and keeping a record of the computing time used. Computer bills soon ran into the hundreds of dollars.
"These kids were very hungry for time," recalled Dick Wilkinson, one of the partners who organized Computer Center Corporation. "Every time we would get a new version of software, they would go poking around in the system, and we would have to forgive some bills because they would be running programs they were not supposed to. They found chess on the system, when they should not have. So they would play a half game of chess, and then leave the Lakeside terminal and go off to class or something. They didn’t understand they were using computer time like it was going out of style."
The electronic mischief eventually got out of hand. Gates and a couple other boys broke the PDP-10 security system and obtained access to the company’s accounting files. They found their personal accounts and substantially reduced the amount of the time the computer showed they had used. They were quite proud of this ingenious accomplishment—until they got caught.
Wilkinson drove out to Lakeside for a talk with Fred Wright, the math teacher in charge of the school’s computer project. Like naughty boys, Gates and the others were marched into the principal’s office.
"We told them they were off the system for six weeks," Wilkinson said, "and if we caught them on it we would call the police, because what they were doing was illegal. They were all very contrite. They were pretty good kids from then on." Gates became even more of a problem for Computer Center Corporation shortly afterward. The very first BASIC program Gates wrote using the PDP-10 computer at C-Cubed was called "Bill." The next time Gates dialed up the computer and tried to load his program, however, the system crashed.
Gates tried it again the next day. "New or old program?" the computer asked via the teletype machine.
Gates punched out the answer on the teletype keyboard: "Old program."
The computer then asked, "Old program name?"
Gates punched out the answer: "Old program name is Bill." Bam! Just like that, the system crashed again. Gates attempted to load up his program several times over the next few days, and each time the C-Cubed computer would break down.
This was not good news for Computer Center Corporation, which was trying to pay bills, attract new customers, and keep old ones. Whenever the computer went down, other paying customers were also knocked off the system. Worse, the computer "lost" everything it had been working on—a case of electronic Alzheimer’s. When the machine came back up, its memory banks were blank.
Frustrated programmers at C-Cubed eventually figured out what Gates was doing wrong. When the computer asked him the name of his program, he was supposed to type only the word, "Bill." The string of characters he was typing, "Old program name is Bill," was too long for the machine, an anomaly that caused it to crash.
It was an exhilarating feeling for Gates, knowing he could single-handedly bring down the huge computer by typing a string of letters. He soon learned, however, just how easy it was to crash the PDP-10.
The software that Digital Equipment Corporation supplied with its PDP-10 was "flaky" at best. On good days, the C-Cubed system might stay up four hours before crashing. On bad days, when there were lots of paying customers on line, it was usually down within half an hour. Clearly, something would have to be done if the firm were going to stay in business.
"We knew we had this reliability problem," recalled Steve Russell, one of the programmers working for C-Cubed. "We knew how to turn the crashes on and off to some extent... simply by having lots of users and not having lots of users. What we wanted to do was get a herd of friendly users that we could turn on and off, so that we could turn them on to test the system and turn them off when we wanted the system to be reliable, because there were paying customers on the machines making money for us."
So the company hired a herd of friendly users, and they became the unofficial "night shift." C-Cubed offered Gates and the other Lakeside computer junkies an opportunity to try to crash the system. In exchange, they would get all the free computer time they wanted. They were simply to come down to C-Cubed in the evening and on weekends, after the paying customers were off the computer, log onto the system and have fun. The only requirement was that they were to carefully document each "bug" they found that caused the system to crash.
Computer bugs were appropriately named. In August of 1945, while working on an experimental computer known as the Mark 1 at Harvard University, a circuit malfunctioned, and a research assistant went looking for the problem in the tangled mess of vacuum tubes and wires. He found the problem, and removed it with a pair of tweezers—it was a 2-inch long moth.
"From then on," Grace Hopper, a member of the Mark 1 research team, told Time magazine in 1984, "when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it." (The famous moth is preserved at the U.S. Naval Surface Weapons Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.)
Finding bugs in the C-Cubed computer system proved to be a fertile field of investigation for Gates and the other boys. They were given what became known as the "Problem Report Book," a journal of their discoveries and investigations. Over the next six months, the "bug" book grew to more than 300 pages. Most of the entries were made by just two boys—Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Computer Center Corporation was located in the city’s University District, in what had been an old Buick dealership. After school, Gates would rush home to Laurelhurst for dinner, then run to nearby Children’s Hospital to catch the No. 30 bus for the short ride to C-Cubed.
It was often past midnight when the boys finished their work. Gates would usually walk home. Sometimes, one of the parents would come by and drive all the boys home.
"It was when we got free time at C-Cubed that we really got into computers," Gates said. "I mean, then I became hard core. It was day and night."
At this point, Gates was 13 years old, and finishing up the eighth grade.
"We stayed up until all hours of the night.... It was a fun time," recalled Allen.
Gates and Allen not only looked for bugs but they also looked for any information that might help them learn more about computers, operating systems, and software. Allen would hoist Gates on garbage cans so he could poke around for important tidbits of information left behind by the "day shift."
"I’d get the notes out with the coffee grounds on them and study the operating systems," Gates said.
Kent Evans was often there late into the night with Gates and Allen, as was Rick Weiland. After four or five hours working in front of a computer, the boys would send out for pizza and Coke. It was a hacker’s heaven.
Occasionally, a tall, quiet, bearded fellow by the name of Gary Kildall dropped by in the evenings to use the computers and talk to some of the programmers. Kildall was finishing work on his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Washington. Ten years later, he would fumble one of the biggest business opportunities of the personal computer revolution and in the process help to make Bill Gates a very rich man.
The ground rules set down by C-Cubed for the night shift were pretty straightforward. The boys could use the system as much as they wanted, at no charge. They were encouraged to try to crash the system, and when it went down, they were to tell C-Cubed what they had input when it crashed. The deal was they could find any bug once, but only once. C-Cubed would then "de-bug" that part of the program.
"On occasion we had to give some verbal reprimands for violating our rules, which was using the same bug- more than once before we fixed it," said Steve Russell. "Since we were giving them time, they had considerable motivation to play the game our way."
Russell, in his early thirties, was there at night to ride herd on the boys.
"Usually, when I stuck my nose in on them, I’d get asked a question or five, and my natural inclination was to answer questions at considerable length," he said. "They got some useful info from that."
Steve Russell was famous as a computer programmer, and the kids eagerly plied him for information. Russell had gone to college at Dartmouth but left in 1958 to work as a computer programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where professor John McCarthy had set up an artifical intelligence research center in order to get funding from the federal government. It was McCarthy, an absent-minded professor and master mathematician who came up with the term "artificial intelligence," or AI. He later went to Stanford’s AI research center on the West Coast, and Russell followed.
In 1961, using a PDP-1, the first in Digital’s PDP series of computers, Russell had hacked out the first computer video game called "Space Wars." The PDP-1 had a CRT or cathode ray tube screen. Russell worked for hours just to produce a dot on the screen, which would be commanded to change directions and accelerate by flipping toggle switches on the front of the computer. Eventually, his game took shape—a battle in outer space involving two rocket ships, each with 31 torpedoes. (Russell was another big science fiction fan.) Random dots on the screen represented stars. A subsequent program turned the stars into constellations. Other hackers improved on his game. A player could jump into hyperspace with the flick of a switch.
Space Wars became the mother of all computer games. Before long, a generation of new games followed.
At Stanford, Russell worked on multi-user computer systems, using DEC s PDP-6. C-Cubed was created to take the next version of that multi-user system, the PDP-10, and make a commercial service out of it. Russell was recruited by the C-Cubed company from Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Research Center in late 1968 because of his experience with multi-user computer systems.
Russell sometimes gave Gates and Allen computer manuals, with instructions to return them the next morning. Instead of going home, the boys would remain at C-Cubed all night reading.
Gates and Allen stood out from the other kids, Russell recalled, because of their enthusiasm. "They also seemed to have a lot more interest in breaking the system than the others." Gates earned a reputation at C-Cubed as an expert in the art of breaking into other computer security systems. He was particularly good at finding a bug known as the "one liner." This was a pathological string of characters that could be typed on one line, allowing Gates to take over the system or cause it to crash. Legend has it that Gates was severely reprimanded at C-Cubed for breaking into security systems. However, other than the one time he altered his account from Lakeside, those stories are apocryphal. The company encouraged Gates and the other boys to try to poke around in files they were not supposed to be able to get into. After all, C-Cubed couldn’t fix a security leak unless it knew about it. Digital had supplied an elaborate security system with the PDP-10, for which the C-Cubed staff added a few bells and whistles of their own. They wanted to know if someone was able to get past the security system, and they were more than happy to have Gates try to do this. He did so with the knowledge and permission of C-Cubed.
"We wanted to know about these bugs so we could get rid of them," Russell said.
Another programmer at C-Cubed, Dick Gruen, said, I would not call it breaking in if I said, ‘See if you can find a way around this.’ I’d call it asking people to see whether the watchman was doing his job. The distinction is they were not stealing anything from us, and they were doing it not just with our approval but on our behalf. We wanted them to tell us about holes that they found."
Despite the work of Gates, Allen, and the other kids from Lakeside, DEC continued to have problems with the multi-user software it used. It would take another seven years before all the bugs were gone. By then, C-Cubed was no longer in existence, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen were a lot more famous than Steve Russell.
Computer Center Corporation first began struggling in late 1969; in March of 1970 the company went out of business.
Gates was finishing up the ninth grade when C-Cubed went under. When it did, he made the first of what would be many smart, profitable deals while at Lakeside. In the process, he showed that when it came to business, he didn’t allow anything, even friendship, to stand in the way.
Without discussing the matter with Allen and Weiland, their partners in the Lakeside Programmers Group, Gates and Evans negotiated to buy the valuable DEC computer tapes from C-Cubed at a cut-rate price. They hid the tapes in the Lakeside teletype machine. When an angry Allen found out, he took the tapes. Gates and Evans threatened legal action, despite the fact that they were barely teenagers.
"There was definitely some tension there," Allen said, "but it got resolved." Gates and Evans eventually sold the tapes and made a nice profit.
Mary and Bill, Jr., were not pleased with such shenanigans. They became increasingly concerned about their son. The Machine seemed to them to have an almost supernatural hold on him. Although he was only in the ninth grade, he already seemed obsessed with the computer, ignoring everything else, staying out all night. Gates was turning into what MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum, in his book Computer Power and Human Reason, described as a computer bum: ‘Bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the printouts. Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers...
Weizenbaum was describing young men at MIT in the late sixties, at the artificial intelligence lab. The passage in his book became infamous in computer circles. Hackers considered it unfounded and vicious. They saw the computer as a revolutionary tool that could change the world. But Weizenbaum considered it dehumanizing. Young men addicted to The Machine had no sense of limits, he said. They had tunnel vision, unable to see the real world.
Mary and Bill, Jr., were beginuning to see this dehumanizing, addictive behavior in their son. Although they had never pushed him in any direction before, they did so now. They ordered him to give up computers, at least for a while.
"It was a combination of things," Gates explained, "where people thought, hey, maybe we are out of control, and people thought we weren’t paying attention to anything else, and that it was a kind of abnormal situation. So my parents said, ‘Why don’t you give this stuff up.’ So I did."
It was no big deal, he said. "I just went off and did some other stuff... science, math. There was an infinite amount to read. There was at least nine months there when I did nothing with computers."
Read he did, with the same kind of commitment he had made to computers. He consumed a number of biographies Franklin Roosevelt’s and Napoleon’s, among others—to understand, he said, how the great figures of history thought. He read business and science books, along with novels. His favorites were Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. He would later recite long passages from those two books to girlfriends. Holden Caulfield, the main character in Catcher in the Rye, became one of his heroes.
And so Bill Gates, the biggest computer junkie in the Lakeside computer room, swore off computers for nearly a year, from the end of the ninth grade through the first half of the tenth. "I tried to be normal," he said, "the best I could."
As a student at Lakeside School, Bill Gates was never just one of the boys. His drive, intensity, attitude, and intelligence made him stand out from the crowd. In fact, nothing about Bill Gates was normal. Gates used to be teased at Lakeside because he was clearly so much brighter than the other students. Even in an environment like Lakeside, where smart kids tended to command respect, anyone as smart as Gates got teased by some of the others. In a school carpool, Gates, who was younger and smaller than the other boys, always sat in the back and was usually left out of conversations. Occasionally, he would attempt to win their approval by telling a joke. When he did, one older boy who always sat in the front usually turned around, put his hand in Gates face, spread his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, and with a smirk, told him, "Small man... small joke."
After a nine month hiatus, Gates resumed his love affair with the computer. It didn’t take long for other students to notice that the same kids always seemed to crowd the small computer room at Lakeside. The floor was often littered with folded, spindled, or mutilated punch cards, and punched out pieces of teletype tape. The teletype was usually hammering away. Gates and his friends often sat at a long table, drinking from two-liter bottles of Coke, playing chess or the ancient Chinese game of Go to while away the time until the computer had finished the job it was running. With all the time he spent in the computer room, Gates became a master of Go and could beat anyone in the school.
"Gates mostly associated with the kids in the computer room," recalled one classmate, who today is a prominent Seattle architect and community leader. "He was socially inept and uncomfortable around others. The guy was totally obsessed with his interest in computers.... You would see him playing tennis occasionally, but not much else. Initially I was in awe of Gates and the others in that room. I even idolized them to some extent. But I found that they were such turkeys that I didn’t want to be like them. They were part of the reason I got out of computer work.... They had developed very narrowly socially and they were arrogant, and I just didn’t want to be like that."
By his junior year, Gates was something of a computer guru to the younger Lakeside computer hacks. He would often hold court in the computer room for hours, talking shop and telling stories about industry hackers and "phone phreaks like Captain Crunch, who had gained national notoriety by building so-called blue boxes, which allowed the user to make free long-distance phone calls. One of these computer groupies who came to hear Gates was Brad Augustine, four years his junior.
"He lived and breathed computers to the point he would forget to clip his fingernails," Augustine recalled. "His nails would be a half an inch long. He was a slob in that sense, just so much into whatever he was doing."
The school annual of his graduating year at Lakeside contains a picture of Gates lying on the table in the computer room, phone to his ear, ski cap pulled low over his head. "Who is this man?" the caption asks.
"Bill stood out," said one former classmate, who is now a successful businessperson. "Everyone knew who Bill Gates was.
I don’t think there was anyone in the school who didnt. There were nerd types that no one ever noticed, and there were nerd types that everyone knew. Bill fit that latter category. He looked like a little kid, for one thing. He looked much younger than he was. He was also incredibly obnoxious. He was also considered the brightest kid in school. If you had asked anybody at Lakeside, ‘Who is the real genius among geniuses?’ everyone would have said ‘Bill Gates.’ He was obnoxious, he was sure of himself, he was aggressively, intimidatingly smart. When people thought of Bill they thought, well, this guy is going to win a Nobel Prize. But he didn’t have any social graces. He just wasn’t a personable kind of person. He was one of those guys who knew he was smarter than everyone else and knew he was right all the time...."
He had a hard-nosed, confrontational style even with his teachers—a style he is noted for today. His intensity at times simply boiled over into raw, unthrottled emotion, and occasionally childlike temper tantrums. Several former classmates vividly remember a volatile exchange between Gates and physics teacher Gary Maestretti in the tenth grade. The two were heatedly arguing with one another, jaw to jaw, in front of the class on a raised stage that was used for class demonstrations. Gates was yelling at the top of his lungs, waving his finger, hammering away at Maestretti, telling him he was wrong about a physics point... and Gates was winning the argument.
Maestretti, who now chairs the school’s science department, has no recollection of the argument, but he certainly remembers Gates, and his best friend Kent Evans.
Written work from Bill didn’t come across with a lot of polish, Maestretti said. "Kent Evans would produce copious explorations of things. Bill wasn’t one to produce a lot of writing. At one point Maestretti tried to encourage Gates to use his hands as well as his intellect. As a project, Maestretti asked him to assemble a Radio Shack electronics kit, in order to force him to build something correctly and make it work.
"I can remember when he brought it to me, telling me, ‘Okay, now I’ve satisfied my project. And of course solder was dripping all over the back. Needless to say, it didn’t work."
"He was clearly much more ethereal and intellectual than practical...."
The classroom, not the workshop, was Gates’ competitive arena, the intellectual battleground where he would strive for the best test score or compete to solve math and physics problems faster than anyone else. He was legendary in his classes for correctly answering trick questions-he almost always saw the hidden meaning or spotted the red herring thrown out by the teacher.
"He was always one step ahead," said Carl Edmark, his childhood friend. "You couldn’t fool him."
Gates was impatient with those not as quick as he was, teachers included. His science teacher, William Dougal, once commented, If a teacher was slow, Bill always seemed on the verge of saying, ‘But that’s obvious.’ "
His superior attitude rubbed some of his classmates the wrong way. Colby Atwood, who was a year ahead of Gates, sat in front of Gates in a law class taught by lawyer Gary Little. Gates, at this point, was a junior. One day Gates laughed at a student who was slow to answer a question put to him by Little. When Atwood, who didn’t particularly care for Gates, heard him snicker at his friend, he turned around, grabbed Gates by his shirt, and told him off. Little had to jump in and break it up.