MS DOS – A “Quick and Dirty History” of its Inventor

by John Santangelo on September 12, 2012

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The year was 1978.  Chip maker Intel was on the verge of introducing its new 8086 chip, but there was no operating system in existence to run it.  The standard at the time, Digital Research’s C/PM, had an “86” operating system in development, but it was behind schedule.

At the same time, a young engineer at Seattle Computer Products, Tim Paterson, had developed a CPU for the new 8086 chip.  The problem: with the new version of C/PM still stalled, there was no operating system that could run it.  

Paterson went to work, and by September of 1980 had completed work on the operating system he called QDOS, or Quick and Dirty Operating System.

Meanwhile, thanks largely to a program called VisiCalc (the first ever spreadsheet program), upstart Apple Computer was making a splash in the business world with its computers.  While most business people sneered and smirked at Apple, accounting departments loved it.  Accounting ran VisiCalc, and Apple —  even before its GUI days —  was loved by the number crunchers for offering ease of use.

All this did not escape the attention of computer behemoth IBM, which by 1980 had decided that it could not continue to ignore the personal computer market.  And, they couldn’t afford to take the time to develop an operating system from the ground up.  IBM contacted Microsoft, whose founders, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had written the very successful BASIC programming language, and asked to purchase their operating system.  But Microsoft didn’t have an operating system either.  Like just about everyone else, they relied on C/PM.  But Gates and Allen saw an opportunity.  They were familiar with Seattle Computer Product’s QDOS, and they knew that IBM’s negotiations with Digital Research to license C/PM were not going well.  They moved quickly, and without telling the Seattle Computer Products folks who they were working with, purchased the rights to Tim Paterson’s QDOS, renaming it MS DOS.  Thus, MS DOS became the operating system for the IBM PC, which made it the industry standard and Mssrs. Allen and Gates billions of dollars.

And Tim Paterson, the man who started it all?  After a couple of stints working as a software engineer for Microsoft, and a few entrepreneurial ventures, the “Father of DOS” is now retired and still living in the great Northwest.  Not that he isn’t still active in technology, however.  His latest brainchild, the Webcell, may someday do for Web servers what QDOS did for the PC.  If and when that day comes, he’d be wise to keep the licensing for himself.

John Santangelo works in Digital Marketing supporting Modis. You can connect with John here on the blog, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.

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