One Sunday afternoon, though, when Norman had gone to campus to pick up student papers, Margaret came to King’s door with a mischievous smile. “I want to show you something,” she said.
She brought him to the backyard. Toward the back of the yard on an anaemic patch of grass, there stood a sort of oversized tent with a domed roof. King had seen it before but had never gone in; he’d figured it was some sort of toolshed. In here, she whispered, gesturing at it with a wide sweep of her arm, as if it were a grand hotel.
When her parents still lived together but weren’t getting along, she said, her father had built this tent in their yard – a geodesic dome, he called it – so that he could have a space of his own. He had ordered the parts over the phone. It was made of waterproofed canvas stretched over a metal frame.
The tent had a zippered front flap, which she opened, and they stepped in. The ground was covered with a tarp. Margaret plugged a string of little white bulbs into an extension cord and the room lit up. The space was surprisingly big. In this low light, it reminded him of a temple. He felt like taking off his shoes but didn’t.
“I’m not supposed to show you,” she said, gesturing to a corner of the room. Raised on a bed of bricks, there stood a smallish, squarish metal machine, with rows of switches and blinking lights arrayed across the front. King stepped closer. The machine purred. It wasn’t much like any computer he had seen before. The keyboard had been built into a plastic shell encasing the motherboard, and the whole contraption was hardly bigger than a television. “But it’s so small,” he marvelled.
His first exposure to microcomputers had been from picking up a magazine, Popular Electronics, from a table in Margaret’s office a couple of months earlier. “project breakthrough!” the headline across the cover announced. “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models…”
The computer was called the Altair 8800, after the twelfth-brightest star visible from earth, and had been built by an Albuquerque company in collaboration with the magazine. “The era of the computer in every home – a favourite topic among science-fiction writers – has arrived!” the article began. The machine in the magazine was beige and not much bigger than a cake box. It had an on-off switch in the bottom left-hand corner, and two rows of additional switches, each representing a bit that could be turned to the off position, or zero, or to the on position, or one, to program the computer.
The magazine took pains to explain how they might, hypothetically, operate: “When the bit pattern, and thus the hardware, is changed, we have what is referred to as ‘software.’ ” A sidebar listed several novel applications for the software: digital clock with all-time-zone conversion; automated automobile test analyser; printed-matter-toBraille converter for the blind; brain for a robot.
In the months after that article appeared, Popular Electronics kept covering the Altair. Kids in high school, the magazine said, were programming for the computer. Others, inspired by it, were building their own machines, selling them for a thousand dollars apiece. But microcomputers weren’t the sort of thing that students in Elbert Norman’s department were wasting their time on. You couldn’t get a job at Computa, or one of the other heavyweights, by writing programs for hobbyist machines. So, what was one of these things doing in the professor’s backyard?
There was a reason, Margaret now explained, that her father had been circling around all these months as if he wanted something. He had been working on a computer since well before the Altair’s release, and now perceived an opening in the market, which he thought he was liable to miss if he didn’t act fast.
Inspired by Popular Electronics’ Altair partnership, a rival publication called the Information Times – a scrappier thing, stapled together on lettersised paper, in fact much more newsletter than magazine – had announced a microcomputer competition. Inventors had to write a letter to the newsletter’s publisher, a man named Walter Martz, detailing what they were working on and listing the specifications.
If your machine was among his ten favourites, he would invite you to his Palo Alto headquarters, to present to the members of the newsletter’s club, some of the most brilliant computer experts in the world. Martz had enlisted the club members to help him choose a winner, to be featured on the cover of IT and distributed by the publication. Whoever built the computer would split the profit with Martz.
The initial deadline was in four months. Norman had been building the hardware for his computer, but he needed someone good to write the software. It would be counter to the university’s ethics policy for him to solicit the work from a student, so he had been trying to get King to express some sort of boredom with his current situation, at which point he would mention this potential side gig – mention it, not offer it – and see if King bit. “You’ve got to let him bring it up, King,” she said. “But do not tell him I said anything.”
The question of whether he wanted to help build a microcomputer was beside the point. Margaret wanted him to do it, so he would do it. The next time Norman asked whether King was bored, he answered as Margie had coached him to. “I am,” he said. “I’m looking for a challenge.”
That was, evidently, all the professor needed; he didn’t say anything right away, but that night, as they all sat together at the kitchen table, eating the spaghetti dinner Margaret had prepared, Norman turned to his daughter and said, “Margie, King tells me he’s in search of a challenge.” Margaret looked up mid-slurp, but said nothing. “Should I tell him?” Norman said.
Margaret looked at her father, at King, and back at her father. “Sure, go ahead,” she said.
Norman said he had been looking for someone excellent, trusted, and determined to help him with a top-secret project. The person must be excellent, because Norman’s plan was to have the person write an entire operating system from scratch, using an entirely original language to guard against copycats. He must be trusted, because the important part was to keep the work off-campus; otherwise the university would want to take a cut of their business, and god knew it had taken enough from Norman already. He must be determined, because this was an in-it-for-thelong-haul deal.
King was excellent, and King was trusted, but was King determined? This, Norman said, a finger pointed at King as if in accusation, was the question that had been nagging him for a long time.
Now a deep swell of ambition rose within King. He regarded Norman and said, “I’ll have to think about it.”
Norman widened his eyes a little, but it was Margie who cried, “You can’t be serious!”
“I don’t want to fall behind in my studies. That’s what I’m here for.”
“But it’d be the greatest challenge, King,” Margie said. “Think about how much fun you’d have.” A look passed between him and Margie, and he now could see she understood. She was playing along with him. They were both acting. It felt subversive and wonderful.
“The problem is my mother,” he said. “She’s depending on me to start sending money home to her. As soon as I graduate, I need to start working.”
All right, then: one-third for Norman, one-third for Margie, one-third for King. It was shocking how quickly Norman leaped up to offer it, but then, he probably thought he was getting a deal – giving up equity instead of having to pay an hourly rate. King, though, had a plan.
He would build the most elegant operating system in the world, written in the most elegant language. What had he come here for? What was the point? Here, he’d found it. Looking back, he would never be sure what made it feel so right – ordained, almost.
The next morning, on the ferry, Margaret said Norman had built in a stake for her so that his family would have control over the company, not because he thought she had anything to add. But she did, she said. She didn’t look like it, Margie Norman with her pretty blouses and soda addiction and desktop nail-polish collection, but she had people skills, she said; she knew how to persuade.
“Don’t you think that’s true?” she asked. He’d arrived fresh off the boat from India, and she’d made him like her, she could tell. Yes – he blushed – he liked her, surprising himself by saying it out loud. She cried out, “Ha!” and turned toward the window, grinning. “My point is, I have a plan,” she said. She breathed on the glass and wrote his full name in the steam. King Rao. “It’s a good name,” she said.
Excerpted with permission from The Immortal King Rao, Vauhini Vara, HarperCollins India. To be released on May 3, 2022.