Before Paul Allen funded UW’s computer science labs, he got kicked out of them

Hellmut Golde didn’t remember writing the letter that barred Paul Allen and his friends from the UW’s computer science lab in 1971, but now the emeritus professor of electrical engineering chuckles at the notion that he once kicked out the future tech titans.

At the time, the lab in the Roberts Hall annex wasn’t much to speak of, though it was one of the few places in Seattle where one could access the latest in computing technology. The equipment included keypunches, teletypes and a Dura typewriter. The star of the show was a Sigma mainframe computer that could be used for data processing.

It was to this that high school student Allen and his friend Bill Gates were irresistibly drawn. Allen writes in his blog that as a teen he eagerly ventured into the lab to grab free time on the computers. The two had teamed up with Paul Gilbert, ’73, a UW engineering student, and were using the lab to run simulations for a traffic-measuring device they were inventing. That project didn’t come to fruition, but if not for all the time they spent on UW computers, you could argue that Microsoft might not have happened, says Allen.

As the second director of the lab, Golde inherited the Lakeside School students as regulars. “But they used it a bit too much,” says Golde. They were noisy, disruptive and equipment had disappeared. “So I finally wrote that famous letter—which I totally forgot about.”

The missive recently resurfaced during news of Allen’s $50 million endowment to establish the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. The mission of the endowment is to provide the next generation of students and faculty a chance to lead in a new golden age of computer science, says Allen, adding, “My hope is that the school will have the same influence on them as it did on me—that they will continue to dream big, breaking through technological barriers and using their skills to solve some of the biggest problems our world faces.”