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View from Washington: Remembering Microsoft’s Paul Allen

Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen was a major benefactor both to his home city of Seattle and across a wide range of research projects covering a host of technologies.

Paul Allen, the Microsoft founder who died yesterday (15 October) aged 65 from complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, achieved something many of his fellow technology pioneers envied. He became better known for what he did in the real world than the digital one.

In part, this was because Allen stepped aside from day-to-day involvement with Microsoft comparatively early, in 1982, largely because of a cancer diagnosis but also growing tensions in his relationship with childhood friend Bill Gates.

He was, however, savvy enough to hold on to his stock and his seat on the board and how Allen put the resulting billions to work – rather than his work on fostering the MS-DOS operating system out of Q-DOS – would come to define him.

His home town, Seattle, was a major beneficiary.

Allen owned the local NFL franchise, the Seattle Seahawks (heading off plans that would have seen it leave the city), and a stake in the Seattle Sounders MLS football franchise, also contributing to the construction of local stadia. He led redevelopment of the city’s South Lake Union district, now home to one of Amazon’s main offices. And he backed the city’s Pop Culture and Living Computer museums. This is just the start of a long list.

His Seattle investments liken Allen to the entrepreneurial philanthropists of the Victorian industrial revolution who sought to marry their wealth to a sense of civic pride. Allen also took his love of sport to other arenas, owning the Portland Trail Blazers NBA basketball team, riding their highs and deep lows over the years like a true fan - despite his Seattle connections. 

Paul Allen and Steve Wozniak at the Living Computer Museum

Paul Allen and Steve Wozniak at the Living Computer Museum

Image credit: Wikipedia

Allen also remained a keen technology investor through his Vulcan vehicle supporting private space exploration (SpaceShipOne) and broader-based research centres in areas such as brain science, artificial intelligence and bioscience. His Allen Institute worked to create a comprehensive atlas of the whole human brain.

In the UK, he is specifically remembered for his 2015 collaboration with the Royal Navy to retrieve the bell from HMS Hood which is now on display in the service’s national museum in Portsmouth.

The extent to which these very public acts will define Allen paradoxically reflects the fact that he was a very private figure, seldom giving interviews or making himself available as a commentator on either the company he founded or his industry in general.

Paul Allen (right) studies a brain sample with Allen Institute for Brain Science's CEO Allan Jones

Indeed, his version of his departure from Microsoft only fully emerged when Allen published his autobiography, ‘Ideas Man’, in 2011, almost three decades after the event.

However things stood with Bill Gates back then (or after the book’s publication and some of its claims), the two men are thought to have been back on friendly terms of late.

A “heartbroken” Gates yesterday paid tribute to the man he met decades ago at Seattle’s Lakeside School. “Paul was a true partner and dear friend. Personal computing would not have existed without him,” he wrote.

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