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Originally published Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Hey Bill, sorry I kept your book since high school

Bill Gates used the latest word-processing technology available: an IBM Selectric typewriter with a rotating typeball that produced italic...

Seattle Times Deputy Business Editor

Bill Gates used the latest word-processing technology available: an IBM Selectric typewriter with a rotating typeball that produced italic lettering.

He typed a declaration, sideways, inside the front cover of a paperback book that was equally cutting-edge: "Introduction to Programming," a 1969 manual for Digital Equipment Corp.'s PDP-8 mini-computer.

"Bill Gates owns this book. He wants it. Give it back to him! He will tell you."

Why I ignored this cryptic but unambiguous directive is lost in the fuzzy memories of our high-school years at Lakeside. I packed the manual away with other books after graduating in 1974, a year after Gates.

I doubt he's missed it. But if some nugget of programming advice from the book might have averted the early bugs in DOS and Windows, I apologize to hundreds of millions of computer users.

Some things have changed during the three decades that the PDP-8 manual spent in a box in various garages and closets.

Programming books don't cost $2 any more. Portable data storage no longer means a roll of yellow 8-punch paper tape secured with a rubber band.

And a technology executive these days wouldn't boast, as DEC Chairman Kenneth Olsen did in the programming book, about selling "over 3,000 of these small, general-purpose computers."

But some things apparently remain constant, even in the fast-moving world of technology. Foreshadowing the periodic warnings issued by Gates, Olsen wrote in the manual's foreword that "the data processing industry has expanded so rapidly in the past twenty years that there has always been a severe shortage of trained personnel."

Seattle Times technology reporter Ben Romano returned the programming manual to Gates during an interview this month.

Thumbing through the somewhat browned pages, Gates smiled and said, "Long time ago."

He reportedly has a climate-controlled vault at home, for safekeeping the $30 million Leonardo da Vinci manuscript he acquired in 1994. Perhaps there's a small corner there for this much smaller bit of technology history.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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