While researching various aspects of the history of computing, sometimes I come across what can best be described as “weird tales” — unsourced claims that sound interesting but are either provably wrong or there’s no evidence to support them. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bill Gates was a frequent purveyor of such weird tales, often designed to burnish the image of Microsoft.
Listening to Bill Gates, one might for example get the impression that he personally designed the IBM PC, even though Microsoft’s involvement with the actual hardware design was at best peripheral. At the same time, there’s often enough some kernel of truth in the implausible stories.
Some time ago, one of such weird tales caught my attention, the story of Microsoft putting the Wang word processing character set into the IBM PC. Here’s one version of the story:
They told us for this keyboard, they said Lexington had to use a certain layout. We wanted these function keys to be up here, that the Lexington layout forced them to be over here. We ended up with this funny big key over here because of Lexington. But here we’d put in our favorite fully-extended character set. Came up with some new ideas there. Put some special things in here that we thought we’d be able to use. In fact, we put in the Wang word processing character set because we weren’t sure whether to do a Wang-clone word processor, or start with our own approach at that time.Bill Gates, Smithsonian Video History Interview
There is another variant of the story, similar but not the same:
Yeah, we were also fascinated by dedicated word processors from Wang, because we believed that general-purpose machines could do that just as well. That’s why, when it came time to design the keyboard for the IBM PC, we put the funny Wang character set into the machine–you know, smiley faces and boxes and triangles and stuff. We were thinking we’d like to do a clone of Wang word-processing software someday. Most personal computers back then didn’t even have upper- and lower-case characters.Bill Gates, Fortune Magazine interview, October 2, 1995
First a side note about “Lexington”. No one appears to know of an IBM keyboard codenamed “Lexington”. On the other hand, it is well known that the original IBM PC keyboard layout came straight from System/23 Datamaster. It is also well known that IBM’s keyboards were manufactured in Lexington, Kentucky at the time (later Lexmark). Bill Gates most likely mixed things up, perhaps due to incomplete information he had.
Anyway… so smiley faces in the IBM PC character set supposedly came from Wang word processors. Yet Dr. Dave Bradley, one of the IBM PC development team members, says that he was present when the PC character set was sketched out, and it was simply a whimsical icon added because there was room for it. It didn’t involve Microsoft, either.
But what even is the “Wang word processing character set”, anyway? It took me some digging to find out. Wang Laboratories did produce dedicated word processing systems, as well as word processing software that could run on more general-purpose Wang machines.
Wang Word Processing Characters
In a manual for Wang word processing software I found numerous screen shots showing what Bill Gates was talking about, like this one (from page 5-32 of the manual):
There really are triangles and other interesting characters; these represent carriage returns, tabs, and various control functions. This document (page 69) shows a bit more about how those special characters were utilized by Wang word processors:
The set of special characters was not entirely fixed, although there are clearly many common elements. Here an excerpt from the Wang 2200 Programmer’s Guide to Word Processing (page 1-3):
And this is a look at the character set question from another angle, from a Wang terminal technical reference, a 1981 update of a manual first published in 1979:
Of interest is particularly the 81-8Fh character range (middle column). Those must be the characters Bill Gates was referring to, including left/right triangle, a box, a diamond, double exclamation mark, and several arrows. What is not found in the above character set is any sign of a smiley face character.
For comparison, here’s part of the character set of the IBM PC, from the original 1981 Technical Reference:
Of particular note is the 10-1Fh character range (2nd column of characters). There’s that left and right arrow, a box, a curious double exclamation mark, various arrows, and more. Now, individually those characters aren’t that unique, but I’d argue that as a group they are. Some of the characters, such as the right angle (1Ch) or double exclamation mark (13h) are extremely rarely used.
What are the chances that IBM purely by accident grouped together several unusual characters that just happened to be used by Wang word processors? Certainly not high.
It’s much more likely that there is something to the Bill Gates story, and the IBM PC character set includes those characters precisely because Wang word processors had them. Yet the smiley face wasn’t one of those.
There was a fairly widespread early PC word processor heavily inspired by Wang word processing systems. It was called MultiMate, and although the user interface was clearly meant to look like Wang word processors, MultiMate did not use those Wang-inspired characters, as shown by this table from the MultiMate 3.20 Getting Started brochure:
It’s not at all clear why MultiMate didn’t use the Wang-style characters that were right there in the IBM PC character set.
More Weird Tales
There’s more in the Bill Gates 1995 interview that just does not add up. First Gates says:
There were many issues about this machine. Should it have graphics or not? First design did not. We convinced Eggebrecht that he could do a graphics card. The funny thing was, they wanted to have these good looking characters. So, they did a video card, this character mode card that didn’t support graphics, but they did go ahead and do the color graphics adapter, CGA card.
Then a few paragraphs later, Gates says:
Although we had first just started talking about the BASIC, but then they said they wanted other languages. We knew that we had helped design a machine that was more than a home computer. So, then we were kind of saying, “Well, if you want the other languages, you must know too, this is not just a home computer. Let’s not joke around.” You don’t put COBOL and FORTRAN and all that on this machine. And so that group and Microsoft sort of conspired to make it an all-purpose machine, not just a home machine.
So according to Gates, silly old IBM was designing a home computer, but thanks to Microsoft, it turned into a business machine, too. In other words… we’re asked to believe that IBM was designing a home computer with high-resolution text but no graphics, running FORTRAN and COBOL. That makes no sense whatsoever.
And of course we’re also asked to believe that the IBM team whose most relevant prior experience was the Datamaster, very much a business machine, suddenly decided to throw all that experience out and design a home computer instead. It is worth noting that in 1980, Bill Gates may not have had any idea that the Datamaster even existed, since it wasn’t announced until July 1981 and IBM was notoriously secretive.
What is known is that the PC design drawings dated August 10, 1980 included both a “personal cassette system” with minimal memory and a color TV adapter, and a “business system” with more RAM and a high resolution text-only display. It is highly likely that that was IBM’s plan all along, before Microsoft was involved at all.
There is a possibility that IBM let Bill Gates “convince” them to do what they were already going to do anyway. There’s also a possibility that Gates invented a lot to make himself look good, because he knew IBM wasn’t going to correct him.
There are also statements in that interview that were at best true for only a very brief window of time, and probably not even that, like this claim:
We actually had more people assigned to the project than IBM did. And we were only a company of 30 people.
At the beginning of the PC project, there was already a core group of 12 IBMers assigned to it. We’re asked to believe that half of Microsoft was working on projects related to the IBM PC sometime in summer 1980.
Even if that were true, IBM soon had hundreds of people working on the PC, far more than the total number of Microsoft employees at the time. Once again, the claim is either just plain wrong or intentionally misleading.
What Bill Gates clearly knew was that people who tell a story get to choose how they tell it. IBM said very little, and that gave Gates an opening to put a massive spin on the story of the IBM PC origins, without anyone being able to call him out on it.
Update (Oct 4, 2021): The MS-DOS Encyclopedia claims that “on August 21, 1980, a study group of IBM representatives from Boca Raton, Florida, visited Microsoft. This group, headed by a man named Jack Sams, told Microsoft of IBM’s interest in developing a computer based on a microprocessor. IBM was, however, unsure of microcomputing technology and the microcomputing market.” The purpose of the initial meeting was, according to the Encyclopedia, to inquire whether Microsoft would be able to supply an 8-bit(!) BASIC by April 1981.
The Encyclopedia does not explicitly state but clearly implies that this (August 21, 1980) was the first meeting between IBM and Microsoft. The Encyclopedia also introduces the section by stating that IBM was developing a business computer, not a home computer.
The Encyclopedia very strongly implies that Microsoft essentially talked IBM into building a 16-bit 8086-based machine instead of an 8-bit one. And yet… we now know that IBM already had plans to build an 8088-based PC. It is possible that IBM deliberately played dumb. It is possible Microsoft simply could not fathom that IBM could actually have any experience with building microprocessor-based machines. It is possible that IBM told Microsoft very little, and Microsoft made wrong guesses about what IBM wasn’t telling them.
The Encyclopedia directly contradicts Bill Gates in that according to the Encyclopedia, IBM wasn’t even thinking about a home computer. The Encyclopedia’s account is, all things considered, significantly more credible than the unlikely tale told by Bill Gates.
What makes very little sense is the Encyclopedia’s claim that IBM went to Microsoft to find out whether Microsoft could deliver an 8-bit BASIC within about 6 months. IBM already knew that Microsoft was licensing 8-bit BASIC to numerous OEMs, so unless IBM was thinking of using some exotic CPU, the answer was almost certain to be “yes”.
Now if IBM was looking for 16-bit BASIC, then the relatively long development schedule and high level of uncertainty made much more sense. Given the now-known design plans IBM already had before the August 21, 1980 meeting, there was either some confusion (perhaps 8086 vs. 8088?) or misdirection. The heroic tales of clever little Microsoft telling big dumb IBM how to design the PC are 99% vapor.