Online Extra: "An Attempt to Democratize History"

Author Harold Evans talks about his new book, They Made America -- and why Bill Gates isn't in it

Legend has it that PC software pioneer Gary Kildall was off flying his plane when IBM (IBM ) came to call at Digital Research in 1980 about using his operating system, CP/M in its first PC. Not so, says renowned author Harold Evans. He has a new book, They Made America, which profiles 70 American innovators, and in which he asserts that, by all rights, Kildall, not Microsoft's (MSFT ) Bill Gates, should have been the king of the PC industry.

Evans recently spoke about the book, which has spawned an upcoming PBS series, to BusinessWeek Senior Writer Steve Hamm. An edited excerpt of their conversation follows:

Q: Why did you set out to write They Made America? A: I had seen with my own eyes, as a science reporter, how England's inventiveness in antibiotics, radar, and computer applications had all been wasted by the inability to get them into the mass market. Also, when I was writing The American Century [a previous book, about America's rise to power], I was very conscious of the fact that I was writing so much about politics.

Nobody had written a history of the people who had made life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into economic prosperity. This is why I decided to do my book, and do the 200 years. This is an attempt to democratize history. It's a popular history.

Q: Why did you choose these 70 people in particular?

A:

When I began I fairly quickly defined it shouldn't just be people who made a lot of money, but people who changed things significantly. I wanted to include not just technology, but marketing. I wanted a range. And I wanted to cover the 200 years.

We had 500 names originally. I played the list off of almost everybody I met. At the end of the day, there were far more people than I could cope with. I decided to do fewer, and do them in some depth.

Q: Why did you pick Gary Kildall rather than Bill Gates?

A:

Gary Kildall is an innovator. Bill Gates is an absolutely brilliant businessman, but he's not an innovator. The first part of Gates's fortune is based on capitalizing on the invention belonging to Gary Kildall. Also, I didn't want to tell stories people already knew. Bill Gates's story is well known. I wanted to tell stories of some people whose contributions had been forgotten. That was Gary Kildall. He's the father of the software industry.

Also, I was attracted to people as democratizers. A lot of them didn't do it for money. They were driven by other considerations. Gary had such an idealistic vision of what computers could do, and he didn't want to become a monopolist.

Q: In your short sidebar in the book about Gates, you say he never invented anything important. Hasn't he made important contributions to the tech industry?

A:

A lot of people would argue that because his system was put into the PC, we had to endure a decade of crashes. We wouldn't have had to deal with that if Kildall's innovation hadn't been appropriated. Also, I don't like monopolies.

He's the richest man in the world, a brilliant business guy, and ruthless. But at the end of the day, these other people made more significant contributions.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your Kildall chapter?

A:

I wanted to set the record right, the history right. I hated the fact that lies were told about what happened on the day that IBM visited and he supposedly went flying. I want to encourage people to innovate, to go into it. But it's not much fun if you aren't recognized and others take it from you.

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