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date: 03 July 2022

Allen, Paul Gardnerfree

(21 Jan. 1953–15 Oct. 2018)

Allen, Paul Gardnerfree

(21 Jan. 1953–15 Oct. 2018)
  • Carl Abbott

Allen, Paul Gardner (21 Jan. 1953–15 Oct. 2018), software pioneer, investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, was born in Seattle, Washington to Kenneth Allen, a University of Washington librarian, and Faye Gardner Allen, a teacher. He attended Lakeside School in Seattle. In ninth grade he met seventh-grader Bill Gates, with whom he shared an enthusiasm for computer programming. During their school years they worked on computers after hours at their school, at a downtown computer center, and at the University of Washington computer science lab. They formed a company that they called Traf-O-Data to count traffic volumes, a very early entry in the “smart city” movement. In the summer of 1973 they worked in Vancouver, Washington, helping to automate management of the vast system of Pacific Northwest hydropower dams. After graduating high school in 1971, Allen enrolled at Washington State University but left after two years to move to Boston and do programming for Honeywell. It was there that he again partnered with Gates, who had entered Harvard University, and persuaded him to drop out to make their mark in computing.

Allen and Gates moved to Albuquerque in 1975 to develop software for the Altair 8800 personal computer. In a strip mall storefront next to a vacuum cleaner shop they began a company that Allen initially named Micro-Soft (for microprocessor + software). In 1979 they moved the company to the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. Their breakthrough program was MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), which IBM adopted for its line of personal computers in 1981. They signed the IBM contract before they had the promised product, which Allen created by purchasing and helping to adapt a base program. Allen also made important contributions to Microsoft Word and Windows. In the partnership, Allen was relatively more interested in technical issues and the hard-driving Gates in business development. Not yet on the list of the wealthiest Americans, Allen withdrew from day-to-day involvement in Microsoft after 1982, because of shifting personal interests and a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (He remained on the Microsoft board until 2000.)

Allen moved his stake in Microsoft and other investments into a privately held company that he co-founded with his sister Jody Allen in 1986. He named it Vulcan as a Star Trek reference. Through Vulcan and Vulcan subsidiaries, he diversified into telecommunications and other technology investments. A sports fan, he also used Vulcan to buy professional teams: the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association in 1988, funding a new inner city arena; the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football league in 1996, sharing the cost of a new stadium; and a part interest in the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer in 2007. He bought the Seahawks to keep the team in Seattle, but basketball was his special passion. He often sat courtside in Portland and held strong opinions about individual players.

After leaving Microsoft and enjoying the remission of his initial lymphoma, Allen embraced the perks of great wealth as something of a playboy nerd. He owned houses in Seattle, Los Angeles, and London, a collection of World War II aircraft, and Captain Kirk’s command chair from the Star Trek set. He threw extraordinarily lavish parties, sometimes on his massive yacht at the Cannes Film Festival; the world’s most famous rock musicians were frequent guests. He briefly dated tennis star Monica Seles in the 1990s and was linked with many other women from the field of entertainment, but never married and had no children.

A science fiction fan and film buff, Allen moved into filmmaking. He took a substantial stake in the DreamWorks SKG movie studio, which launched in 1994, and established his own film production company, Vulcan Productions, in 1997. In 2000 he was the third richest person in the United States. He also helped to fund SpaceShipOne, which made the first private crewed space flight in 2004.

Allen was a philanthropist who helped to build Seattle as a center of scientific research. He endowed the Allen Institute in 2003, creating an independent research center focused on brain sciences, cell science, and immunology. He established the Allen Institute for AI (Artificial Intelligence) in 2014. He benefitted the University of Washington by funding a new wing to the university library in honor of his father and endowing the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. The Allen Family Foundation, closely run by Paul and Jody, has made major donations in Washington and Oregon and more broadly on global health and environmental concerns. In 2010 he joined other billionaires in signing the Giving Pledge, committing to giving at least half his fortune to charitable causes.

Allen’s community presence was also tied to his love for popular culture. His fascination with legendary musician and fellow Seattleite Jimi Hendrix let him to acquire the guitar that Hendrix played at Woodstock and to build the Experience Music Project in a Frank Gehry building near the Seattle Space Needle in 2000. The building also housed a museum of science fiction memorabilia drawing heavily on his own collection and that of his sister. The facility in 2021 functioned as the Museum of Popular Culture or MoPOP. He refurbished Seattle’s Cinerama theater, where he had seen movies such as 2001, and promoted revitalization of the district between downtown and Lake Union with very substantial and profitable real estate developments.

Allen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009. The disease went into remission but reappeared after several years, leading to his death in Seattle. Despite the vicissitudes of investments and stock markets, he was never less than a billionaire many times over, with a net worth of $20 billion at his death. To the gossip press he was a swinging bachelor billionaire who required party guests to sign nondisclosure agreements. In his hometown, he was known for business acumen and somewhat idiosyncratic generosity. In the worlds of business, science, and medicine, he was known for his eclectic interests and passions that reflected his self-characterization as an “idea man.” To historians of technology, he is one of the key figures in the creation of the electronic age, someone who did much to make his early vision of a “wired world” a reality.

Bibliography

Paul Allen’s own memoir is Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft (2011). In informal style it describes his early years, role with Microsoft, and wide-ranging enthusiasms and philanthropy. Laura Rich, The Accidental Zillionaire: Demystifying Paul Allen (2002)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat is based on published articles and interviews with associates. Carl Abbott, “Paul Allen: High Technology and the High Country in a New West,” in Richard W. Etulain, ed., Western Lives: A Biographical History of the American West (2004)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, evaluates Allen as representative of key trends in the recent history of the American West. An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 16 Oct. 2018.