back to article RIP Bill Godbout: Cali wildfire claims the life of master maverick of microcomputers

Bill Godbout, a maverick techie who played a pivotal role in getting computers into the hands of the masses, was killed this week in California's wildfires. He was aged 79. Godbout was a key figure in the personal computing revolution in the 1970s, at least in the US. Around the time Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were dumpster …

  1. Gene Cash Silver badge

    If it wasn't for this guy, I'd not be here

    Wow. That article was like a walk down memory lane. My first job was running networked CompuPro boxes, and I did that for 4 years before going to college.

    I am just shattered to hear this.

  2. Harmless Drudge


    I was in grad school in the US in the early 80s and got sucked in to the world of microcomputers in the heyday of CP/M. This is indeed a nostalgic read. I hadn't heard Bill Godbout's name in years. At the end of my student days I camped for a few weeks in the attic of a friend, a pipe-smoking professor with an electronic engineering background. I can still remember his enthusiasm for his S100 bus home-brew stuff in that attic and mentions of "Bill" as he pointed his pipe at things that warmed the cockles of his heart (8 inch floppy drives among others). (Works of both Bill Morrow and Bill Godbout represented in that attic).

    The chromebook on which I'm writing this was hardly unimaginable then but I never wondered how long it would take; I was happy to, among other things, submit the first word processed dissertation in my dept., and, of course have fun. I just asked my Amazon Alexa who Bill Godbout was. She had no idea but had told me earlier in response to a morning greeting that it was Mickey Mouse's birthday. /eyerollemojigoeshere

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RIP

      "The chromebook on which I'm writing this was hardly unimaginable then but I never wondered how long it would take"

      As a fellow S-100 to Chromebook, I regret I can only upvote once.

      Kids today, what do they know? Even Arduinos aren't as much of a convergence of processor, system and software knowledge as you needed in those days, when you could trace the effect of your instructions with an oscilloscope.

    2. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: RIP

      "The chromebook on which I'm writing this was hardly unimaginable then but I never wondered how long it would take; I was happy to, among other things, submit the first word processed dissertation in my dept." - Not just Chromebooks but any desktop, laptop, phone, or tablet. The importance of Bill Godbout is hard to pin down as he was more in the background to the better known pioneers. But without him we would not have these devices at all.

      Alas only 1 up vote.

      RIP - Bill may you be tinkering in the hereafter.

      1. Jeffrey Nonken

        Re: RIP

        I have some Compupro S100 boards stuffed into an IMSAI 8080 chassis out in the garage. Alas, I have not tinkered with them in decades.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. IceC0ld

      Re: RIP

      I just asked my Amazon Alexa who Bill Godbout was. She had no idea but had told me earlier in response to a morning greeting that it was Mickey Mouse's birthday.


      and THIS tells us more about the standing of IT in peoples lives than anything we shall read today, this along with Joe Publics breathtaking lack of knowledge on IT Sec makes me want to weep

      RIP to one of the first to 'get it / IT' as it were

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It saddens me that the first I hear of such a pioneer is when something tragic happens to him.

  4. Chris Gray 1
    Thumb Up

    My first "real" computer?

    I had a couple of hobby computers (Radio Shack CoCo, Exidy Sorcerer with S100 expansion box), but then I wanted a *real* computer. Bought a humongous S100 chassis with 25 Amp power supply. Filled it with a CompuPro dual-CPU (8085/8088) board, CompuPro Disk-2 floppy controller, a pair of memory cards (static RAM on one, dynamic RAM on the other), a CompuPro System Controller board, and a graphics board. My biggest investment ever in a personal computer. Wrote the first Draco compiler (for CP/M natch) on that machine.

    Definitely brings back memories!

  5. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    Wildfires killing scores of wealthy people is going to be much more of a political headache than hovels in The Bronx

    1. jake Silver badge

      It is better to keep your mouth closed ...

      ... and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

      1. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

        Re: It is better to keep your mouth closed ...

        ...doesn't make it any less true

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: It is better to keep your mouth closed ...

          a) The Bronx isn't burning.

          b) The Bronx has more people with money living within it's borders than the areas of Northern California affected by wildfire in the last several years.

          c) "Scores of wealthy people" haven't died from the fires. In fact, most of the deaths have been blue-collar retirees.

          I could continue, but I will refrain.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      going to be much more of a political headache

      I would be inclined to think that if some suitably significant IT pioneer does happen to die in a hovel, they would also get an obituary write up in El Reg.

    3. Spazturtle

      Last time I checked the people of Flint, Michigan are poor people, a place some would call a ghetto. The water crisis in Flint got plenty of news coverage and claimed the careers of several politicians.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ..not just a fool but an ignorant fool..

      >> Wildfires killing scores of wealthy people is going to be much more of a political headache than hovels in The Bronx

      Scores of wealthy people? Do you know the area the Camp Fire burned through? Do you know the sort of people who live in those areas? I do. I know Placer County and El Dorado County a lot better than Butte County but still got to know the area pretty well over the last few decades.

      There are currently 77 known dead but likely to go well over a hundred. Very few of them are "wealthy". Quiet a few will be typical middle class retirees. Comfortably off but very far from "wealthy". But most of the dead will be ordinary people. Typical working folk. And their kids.

      They mostly died because a fire-front that moves at up to 40 mph rolled down from the canyon. And there was only one road out of most parts of the down canyon area. These wild fires can jump up to a quarter of a mile at a time. Luckily I've only seem them from afar but know people who had them roll though their neighborhood. Scary as hell. Not a nice way to go. Suffocated or incinerated. In this case, like the Oakland Hills fire, in their cars.

      As for the Bronx. Let me guess, your total knowledge of the Bronx is based on something you once saw on Channel 4. When there was nothing on the other side. Some still very nasty pockets in that part of the Five Boroughs but its been rapidly Brooklynized. Now that the gentrifiers have run out of Brooklyn to colonize.

      You sound like just another sad junior IT support c*ckwomble in some dead end job. The people who usually come out with this sort of tone deaf comments on these type of occasions based on complete and total ignorance of the subject. Never seems to stop them mouthing off though.

    5. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      While I am tempted to agree, this is not the time or place for such thoughts, many of us (myself included) would probably be greeting shoppers outside Walmart these days if it had not been for Bill Godbout, and other like him, inspiring us and providing the tools that allowed us to start playing with computers in ways that taught us far more than Android's children will ever know.

  6. jake Silver badge

    RIP, Bill.

    I knew Bill from the Homebrew Computer club. I was the guy playing devils advocate, expounding on the virtues of the Heath bus (sometime "Benton Harbor bus") when he was hyping the S-100. Well, kinda devil's advocate. In some ways I still think the Heath version is superior to the S-100 ... But Bill had the last laugh. I still have a couple of his hand-built I/O boards in a running S-100 system, controlling one of my greenhouses. They have been running for over 33 years now, and show no signs of needing replacement. Like Bill, they were built like brick shithouses.

    The fires we've been having here in Northern California have been bad. Lots of underbrush in federally mis-managed forests provide plenty of fuel, along with down-sloping winds from a rather persistent high pressure region over The Great Basin into the corresponding Low over the Pacific make for a blast-furnace effect. It's been bad. But Bill was no fool, and usually on top of things like that ... Frankly, I'm shocked that he didn't make it out.

    Last time I saw him was at a Halfmoon Bay Fly-in. The first words out of his mouth were "Need any help with that Serial card?" before we settled down to the more normal "how's the wife & kids?" and his ongoing attempt to purchase my Cessna A152.

    Farewell, brother. Many will miss you.

    (I've dropped his family a note about this article and thread. Play nice, kids. )

    1. Trilkhai

      Re: RIP, Bill.

      Being on top of things only lets you know that there's high fire danger, which the whole region was being warned about at the time. Survivors have made it pretty clear that there was no warning — by the time they were aware that there was a fire, they had maybe a matter of minutes to get out of there, then the resulting traffic gridlock meant many had to abandon their cars and try to outrun the flames to the nearest water source.

      Forest management may or may not have helped. The rural part of last year's Wine Country fire was across dry grass and occasional scrub oaks, but it showed the same "firestorm" behavior that this one did. The main things that the two sites really had in common was that they're both believed to have been set off by faulty electrical lines over dry vegetation and spread by high winds.

  7. linuxguru

    Bill Godbout was a legend in the S-100 era.

    Between the two of them, Gary Kildall and Bill Godbout did more than anybody else to enable the first wave of Personal Computing - namely CP/M running on 8-bit S-100 systems. Almost the entire edifice of the PC industry today is built on an enduring architectural combination that survives to this day - An Expansion Bus (or X-bus), ROM BIOS (Basic Input/Ouput System), and a disk-based BDOS (Basic Disk Operating System). It is no surprise that when IBM designed its first PC c.1980 at Boca Raton, they copied this exact proven combination - an simpler expansion bus which was a demultiplexed version of the S-100 bus, a ROM-based BIOS, and a DOS that was boot-loaded from secondary media and came into the picture after the BIOS had done its initialization. This design survives in the same form to this day in almost every PC and Smartphone out there, though the 8-bit expansion bus may not always be easily visible - it's usually inside the Southbridge ASIC these days and rarely brought outside, except in some legacy industrial/embedded applications. The OS is also usually stored in (inexpensive) Flash ROM these days.

    Incidentally, Gary Kildall's meeting with Bill Godbout happened on the morning of the fateful IBM meeting, and he got back in the afternoon to meet with the IBM team. They didn't come to an immediate agreement on licensing (Kildall apparently quoted them retail pricing per instance of CP/M-86, while IBM wanted a discounted bulk price for bundling with their PC). Hence, IBM went with Plan-B, which was Microsoft, which sourced an alternative CP/M-86 clone called 86-DOS from Tim Patterson at Seattle Computer Products for $50k, and the rest is history. However, Kildall did not miss the meeting as most versions of the story seem to imply.

    (The story of licensing the software for the IBM PC is actually a bit more complex, because of a piece of software that is irrelevant now, but considered important then - the ROM-based BASIC interpreter. Kildall's Digital Research did not have it, while Microsoft had their own ROM BASIC. It's possible that Gary Kildall would not have won the IBM deal regardless of the terms he offered - IBM wanted ROM BASIC to be offered by default on their PCs, and it was bundled with just about every PC and PC/XT sold by IBM, as well as most next-generation PC/ATs. However, it's possible that if the terms had been better, Kildall would have won the deal to offer CP/M-86, while the ROM BASIC alone may have gone to Microsoft).

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Kildall and IBM

      I know it's late enough that probably no one will read this comment, but when I read this:

      It is believed Kildall was actually flying with Godbout when IBM called Kildall's home

      All I could think was "Thomson vs Orlowski: Fight!".

      (Personally, I find the "Kildall was at the meeting" version of the story, as you describe it above, better supported by the evidence I've seen.)

  8. IoTrickle

    Re: RIP Bill

    ...somewhere in my storage locker, a MASSIVE 4k RAM S100 board sheds a rosin tear.

    I remember Bill from the West Coast Computer Faires...

    Those were heady days... scrounging parts from the HalTed and HalTek electronic surplus outlets, and surveying the latest the eye-candy at the Byte Shop on the El Camino.

    Thanks for writing this Iain. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi...

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: RIP Bill

      The Source is gone. HalTec is gone. Wierdstuff is gone. Thankfully, however, HalTed is still with us, although in a different location. They ship. Not affiliated, just a long-term happy customer. Recommended.

  9. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Ow old times.

    I was unware of Bill Godbout but I need to toast this guys' work & life.

    While we are reveling in nostalgia, here is a review of an MIT press book on the Minitel system.

    The inferno moved with terrifying speed, and it appears Godbout either didn't get the warning alerts or was overcome before he could escape the conflagration.

    Yeah. Talking about letting "Hellfire" loose on the "Homeland". Maybe it's Putin? No wait, he's busy directing "Masha and Bear" and posting on Facemook (or so they say, especially that Mueller guys who seems to be probing harder than a Grey). Okay.

  10. J27 Silver badge


    Last years fires didn't get them to change building codes to minimize fire risks, nor the year before. Will this?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Preventable

      Er.... this has nothing to do with building codes. It's wildfires. I doubt that even a brick structure would survive one.

      As for new, or upgraded building codes, they only apply to new construction. If they had changed them, we'd still be seeing the same results.

    2. Spazturtle

      Re: Preventable

      Constructing a building to withstand a fire is very very hard and is not feasible for homes. These deaths were preventable but not by building standards, the bad forestry management that people have been complaining about for decades is to blame. Controlled burns, logging and dead tree removal would have been required to prevent this.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Preventable

        American building are usually wood framed buildings with inflammable roofing tiles, often just tar shingles - they may look sturdy but that brink is just cladding. Forestry Management is not fire management - clear out the trees and the grass and scrub take over and burn faster.

        Life is a lot more complicated that you think and retweeting politicians comments is like heading to the bog and finding out there's no toilet paper.

        1. Spazturtle

          Re: Preventable

          "Forestry Management is not fire management - clear out the trees and the grass and scrub take over and burn faster.

          Life is a lot more complicated that you think and retweeting politicians comments is like heading to the bog and finding out there's no toilet paper."

          I'm not talking about what orange man has said, ignore his self insertion into this issue, I am talking about what ecologist and other scientists have been saying for decades about California's forestry management.

          For the past ~100 years there has been a push to prevent and extinguish natural forest fires which are a necessary part of the Californian environment, this has resulted in the woodlands growing larger and merging, as well as making the woods a lot more dense. The amount of rainfall hasn't increase though, so more trees in the same amount of space means the wood is drier and burns faster, and in fact rainfall has decreased so it is even worse.

          The wood of the trees being drier means the fires burn faster and it is easier for the trees to catch fire. The increase in density means their is more fuel allowing the fires to burn longer and the woodlands merging means there are no natural fire breaks.

    3. jake Silver badge

      Re: Preventable

      How far back is your time machine going to take us? Keep in mind that most of the structures that burned were over 30 years old, many over 50, and a good percentage over 70.

      Or are you under the delusion that changing the building code somehow magically brings existing structures up to date? Not that it would make a lot of difference in this case ... Eyeball Wiki's entry on "Tubbs Fire". Nothing could (or did) withstand that. Not even homes that were built with the most up to date and modern fire prevention techniques.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Preventable

        There's another aspect to firestorms which people tend to forget.

        Even if you build the most fireproof structure possible, with a shelter to cover from the flame front, an intense firestorm can kill by taking all available oxygen out of the air - and it only needs to so do in any particular area for 5-6 minutes whilst it's passing over.

        The ecology of many US forests is based around periodic fires keeping the undercanopy relatively clear and many trees have evolved bark tough enough to handle minor fires (as with many Australian trees, some American trees require fire to germinate too) The US Forest Service only realised the mistake of their "stop all fires" campaigns in the late 1980s - by which point decades of misguided human intervention had left megatonnes of flammables piled up, making the fires that did break out and get away on firefighters that much more deadly. That's still being addressed. Couple that with increasing urban expansion into vulnerable areas (and the factor that some californian plants may as well be producing creosote or turpentine - particularly Ericameria laricifolia, but also the imported eucalyptus varieties) and you have a recipe for disaster, but it's impossible to prevent people living where they want to in a "free country"

        Yes, people usually know the risks where they're living, but when things happen they frequently happen so fast there's no time to react - and with the wrong conditions a fire can easily jump a couple of miles (especially if there are eucalypts involved and California has a lot of those in some areas)

        It's a bit like earthquakes. You learn to live with the danger and to design for it, but that doesn't lessen the shock or grief when it happens.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Re: Preventable

          In the past, the fires had a helping hand from various Californian Indian tribes living in those areas that would start fires to clear out the underbrush to make hunting easier. Stop doing that, which is what the forest service did not bothering to talk to anthropologists about what was done in the past that permanently altered the ecosystem. well... you get this situation.

          I was never part of the Homebrew Computer Club scene. I merely observed from the sidelines as I was in my early years in the US Navy. Every month I'd grab every scrap I could in magazine articles and read about them, lusting in my heart to own my own. I really, really wanted to make the jump from IBM mainframes, which I'd had several years experience, to microcomputers. I could already see the future path. I wish I'd known him. What a terrible way to go.

        2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Preventable

          an intense firestorm can kill by taking all available oxygen out of the air

          Not to mention simply cooking people with its heat, or searing their lungs. Fireproof houses would just make it easier to find the bodies.

          As for the rest of your post: agree on all points. Fire risks in the US Southwest are a complex problem. Mistakes have certainly been made (including, as you pointed out, not just forestry but the importation of eucalyptus1), but those are contributors, not the entire cause.

          Complicated problems are complicated.

          1Some of that eucalyptus was imported in an attempt to quickly grow lumber for railroad ties. Jack London was a member of one such investor group. It turns out eucalyptus isn't suitable for the job, but it's great for fueling wildfires. Tenner discusses the subject a bit in When Things Bite Back.

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    I didn't know it was originally called Godbout Computers

    I did recall a story they were planning to change the name ( what I guess was Viasym) and he said something like "The PR people said it sounded blasphemous in focus groups."

    He sounded like the built some solid hardware.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: I didn't know it was originally called Godbout Computers

      Things just now clicked... Viasyn. I was in engineering at the time (not IT) and we used some of their products in our systems. I missed a road trip to them with our lead engineer due to schedule conflicts but I heard about every trip the lead made out west. So though I never met the gentleman, I'm saddened by this news. Sometimes we're touched by people we never meet.

  12. steviebuk Silver badge

    Sad to hear... doubt we won't see this reported on the Daily Mail Online. Instead they'll carry on banging on about how the Kardashian family are at risk of losing their million dollar homes, how Gerard Butler lost his, how Will Smith was looking at the fire possibly heading his way. Trust the Daily Mail to focus on the very people that, although may have lost irreplaceable memories, can still afford to rebuild, or just move to their 2nd home.

    I've seen that episode of Computer Chronicles. Started to watch them all recently when I discovered them. Shame they were never aired in the UK.

  13. Ima Ballsy

    Another Icon ....

    Gessss ..... I recognize the names and feel giddy I remembered those days ...

    Everyone in the industry were much more pleasant and shared their knowledge, kinda like early GPL.

    Except for one guy, Bill Gates I thinks was his name, pissing and moaning to the editors of Mini - Micro Magazine about how hobbyist were sharing his Basic language amoungst themselves ...

  14. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    Thanks El Reg

    I appreciate the information, sad though it is but the link to the fund is my next destination.

  15. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    The name rang a bell in the headlines - back then it was familiar from the ads in Byte.

    S-100 was transformative. Although our 48K box was only about 1/6th of the number of bits on the 1907 at QUB a few years back it was still a table-top box compared to the 6' or thereabouts cabinet holding just the memory of the mainframe. Add in things like an ADC card and there was the capability to build instrumentation that would have cost a fortune to buy from HP or Perkin Elmer even if it had been in their catalogues, which it wasn't.

    Not only did the table-top box amount to a sufficient fraction of a mainframe it also had a compiler for the same language, FORTRAN but without the restrictions of punched cards, 100K disk allocations and 3 runs a day. In less than 10 years computing had made a leap forward in accessibility which really hasn't been matched since. The advances in miniaturisation and computing power have all too often been matched by losses in flexibility by way of productisation.

    Put me down as another whose life was altered for ever by Bill Godbout and his peers.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Off topic but on headline

    Dude! Haven't you been here long enough to know nobody except those seeking derision from the locals calls California "Cali"? I bet you drop "Frisco" into the conversation a lot too. sigh

    1. J. R. Hartley

      Re: Off topic but on headline

      Super Cali Go Ballistic, AC Is Atrocious.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Off topic but on headline

      Correct. Its Cal or NorCal. Cali is hipster / dot comer. Folk from not around here. Recently arrived, soon departed.

      As for SF. San Fran is about as far as it goes. 'Frisco ceased to even be ironic sometime before the first slackers arrived, in the early 1990's. The locals call it The City. Mainly to annoy everyone else in the Bay Area. Keeping up a tradition of annoying the neighbors since around 1847. When the little village Juana Briones founded started to grow.

      Because there is only one City in California. The band Journey even wrote a song about it.

      P.S. If you were not born in The City the locals will consider you an honorary native, one of us, if you can join in with Loma Prieta earthquake stories. I discovered this recently on a number 22 bus. The non locals on the bus were very bemused by this impromptu coffee klatch at the back of the bus. Locals wapping stories of death and destruction that sunny afternoon almost thirty years ago.

      Its a SF thing.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Off topic but on headline

        Its Cal or NorCal.

        It's "it's".

        But thanks for playing.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Off topic but on headline

          >> Its Cal or NorCal.


          >>It's "it's".


          >>But thanks for playing.

          Nope. It is Its. If so inclined. The contraction existed long before the 's typographical convention was introduced, I think, sometime in the 18'th century. If I am not mistaken you might find this usage in one of the Piers Plowman manuscripts. But hey, as that was West Midlands Middle English, Brummie, that is probably not "proper" English either.

          So what game were you trying to play again? Whatever it is you are obviously vastly under qualified to attempt to play it.

          Someone who has been writing both British and American English since long before you were born.

          Game, Set and Match to me. I think.

          Toodle pip, old chap. Better luck next time.

  17. Peter X

    S100 related but otherwise off-topic

    From the S100 Wikipedia page... I just can't get past this photo; it's... amazing:,_co-founders_of_Cromemco_(1981).jpg

  18. celogan

    Bill lived next door in Concow

    I lived next door to Bill in Concow until that fateful day of November 8, 2018. I had a friend living nearby closer to the fire who warned me the Fire was in the Canyon and we'd need to evacuate. I immediately Called over to Bills House while my wife called the other neighbor. Warned them of the fire and get ready to evacuate. Just a few minutes later the power went out, which means no phone service for us as we lived in a dead zone for cell phones which worked off the wireless networks. About 15 to 20 minutes or so all hell broke loose and the Fire was 100 yards or so away. My wife and I and our dog barely made it out. Bill was having some trouble moving very fast due to his leg getting cut a while back but he was still managing to get around. Don't know why Bill didn't get out along with the rest of the family. He wanted to leave Concow as he wasn't happy living there any longer, thought of moving to Chico with Karen leaving Brandi, Art and their Cats behind.

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