‘If you give up pushing the boundaries, you’re almost giving up on life itself’
6 MIN READ
This is the story of Bill Gates, Neil Armstrong and the man from Birr, Co. Offaly committed to breaking new boundaries who just happens to connect them.
Of mice and Bill
‘I had a 20-minute debate with Bill Gates once.’
Back in the 1980s, Napier Williams from Birr in Co. Offaly, found himself face to face with Bill at a trade show.
It happened on a Microsoft stand in Anneheim, California at a key moment in computer history.
The cause of the debate?
A mouse. Or, rather, mice.
Bill Gates was trying to sell Napier on the novel concept of using a mouse and a pointer to control a computer instead of relying solely on a keyboard and a cursor.
Back then, mice were revolutionary.
As this article by Karlin Lillington explains, Doug Englebart from Stanford Research Institute had, in fact, demonstrated an early prototype of a computer mouse back in 1968 but it took 20 years for mice to scurry into people’s homes and businesses and find their way onto desktops.
But back to Bill.
‘This is really going back in history,’ Napier recalls the mid-1980s. ‘Windows had only just come out. You had to use the Up and Down, Left and Right keys to move the cursor around the screen to control things.’
‘I said to Gates there’s no way this will catch on. It can’t possibly work. I couldn’t see how people would be happy to sit at a desk moving this little thing around their desk.’
Gates, naturally, didn’t agree.
‘Bill said ‘this will make the computer useful for everybody’. Well, I was, of course, proved wrong and he was proved right.’
Billions to Gates, cents to Napier.
Defender of the keyboard
Napier might have got a key turning point in computer history wrong but, in fairness, he was only defending an earlier ground-breaking innovation.
‘I thought that the keyboard was a brilliant innovation compared to what I started with.’
What he started with, in the late 1960s, were long streams of paper tape full of holes.
In the early days of computing, computers whirred away alone in splendid isolation. They had not yet been hooked up directly to keyboards and there were no screens or Visual Display Units (VDUs) on which to see anything even if they were.
Computer input commands were created using teleprinters which sometimes communicated with computers by producing paper tape punched with rows of holes across the width of the tape – the specific pattern of the holes representing a single number or character.
In the late 60s, when Bill Gates was still at school and in his early teens, the proceeds of a rummage sale at his school were used to buy a Teletype 33 ASR teleprinter with built-in punched tape reader and punch and time on a GE computer for students.
‘I remember,’ says Napier, ‘ having to get other people to type holes in paper on a teleprinter then watching them feed it into computers in the form of paper tape.’
Compared to this painfully slow process, entering data with a keyboard directly connected to a computer and being able to see what you were typing on a screen were huge leaps forward.
And he wasn’t about to let a mouse hop onto his desk and mess things up without a fight.
The year the Thames froze
Napier was born and brought up in Birr, County Offaly, for the first 12 years of his life.
He attended secondary school in England, Beaumont College, a Jesuit public school in Old Windsor, Berkshire.
The school saying was ‘Beaumont is what Eton was: a school for the sons of Catholic gentlemen.’ One of his abiding memories was the winter the River Thames froze over.
1963 was the coldest winter since 1815. The average temperature, day and night, in January 1963 was minus 2.1 celcius.
‘The whole school was out walking on the Thames on the ice.’ Napier recalls. ‘I remember thinking, ‘what if this ice breaks? Fortunately, it didn’t.’
6 months before, in June 1962, Neil Armstrong’s application to become a NASA astronaut arrived a week after the deadline but, noticing his late application, a colleague who had previously worked with Armstrong quietly slipped it into the applications pile.
If he hadn’t, arguably, Neil Armstrong might never have walked on the moon (where temperatures can reach lows of minus 232 celcius).
Napier says he wasn’t successful academically as a student because he had undiagnosed dyslexia. His teachers were not sympathetic.
‘In those days things were different, I accept that, but even so I feel there should have been some recognition of the problem other than being told ‘oh, you’re too stupid, sit at the back of the class.’’
After qualifying as an accountant, he was trained in computers in the late 1960s when they were considered cutting edge technology. He then joined the family business – D.E. Williams which became the Williams Group – back in Tullamore.
‘Some people think that if you’re born into a situation like that you can be a gentleman of leisure. But, no commercial company, even in those days, could afford to survive on handouts to family members,’ Napier says.
But his passion for computers did not go away.
‘It’s very important to keep pushing the boundaries,’ he says. ‘If you give up pushing boundaries, you’re almost giving up on life itself.’
Selling the ‘Sorceror’
Napier started his own company, Weston Microtechnology, selling what were then called microcomputers to home users.
‘I was selling to authors, clergy, people who wanted to write and needed a word processor and some simple accounting software.’
At the time, computers were being used in large organisations and the military but were still only just finding their way into people’s homes.
Napier’s company sold the Exidy Sorcerer.
‘Basically, it looked just like an oversized keyboard because all the electronics were inside the keyboard case. There was what would be considered by today’s standards quite a lousy screen sitting in front of it.’
There was also an add-on peripheral, quite advanced for the time, which enabled the computer to recognise very simple spoken words.
It may have been the first instance of voice recognition in Ireland – many years before Siri and Alexa were born.
‘You could, for instance, automate simple calculations using speech,’ Napier explains. ‘It would recognise the words plus, minus, multiply, divide and of course numbers.’
From word processors to words
Napier eventually stopped selling computer hardware and went into IT consultancy while writing articles for magazines like ‘Irish Computer’ and ‘Business and Finance’.
‘Back in the late 1970s, large mainframe computers from manufacturers like DEC were leading the industry and microcomputers were considered toys by many computer professionals. The words he heard spoken were, ‘nobody’s going to buying those things’.’
Napier’s career in journalism began when he wrote an article about ‘where microcomputers are going and why they are important’.
‘I started contributing an article a month after that and getting paid for it (although not very much, mind you),’ Napier says.
He also wrote case studies for Microsoft
‘They use to put me in touch with someone who had taken on their latest gizmo – a software package or whatever it was – and they wanted that written up with a view to promoting its use.’
‘You had to be reasonably objective of course, ‘ Napier says. ‘You couldn’t just say Microsoft was the greatest, there were usually one or two small drawbacks you had to put in so that it looked more balanced.’
In 1988, Napier moved from Monkstown in Dublin to Shillelagh near the Wicklow and Wexford county border and proved that remote working could be a reality before the internet became widely used. Naturally it required a little more effort than it would today.
In 1990 he married Noeleen, ‘a Dublin girl dragged down to the sticks’. Both continue to live happily with many local interests and friends in the area.
Always one to try to keep up to date in many areas, Napier completed his Masters in Financial Information Systems at Trinity College in Dublin, in 1997, as a mature student.
Meeting the first man on the moon
Partly as a result of his writing, Microsoft invited Napier to come and meet Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, when he was over in Dublin for a Microsoft launch in 2006.
There were only a handful of journalists present at the time.
Armstrong, always a reluctant celebrity, retired from NASA 2 years after becoming the first man to walk on the moon and took a job as a teacher in a small department at the University of Cincinnati.
According to Napier, Karlin Lillington from the Irish Times was the only one of the journalists who had the courage to ask Neil Armstrong a question.
She said, ‘I suppose you must get pretty bored being asked the same questions all the time?’
He snapped back, ‘yes, it does!’
In 2009, Karlin wrote an article listing the advances that the Apollo program brought to us.
Horses and gardens
‘When I was in my early 60s,’ Napier says, ‘I got involved in garden maintenance and was doing that 3 days a week partly because I wanted to do something physical. It was mainly cutting grass and that sort of thing. It was good for me.’
I was also riding horses so I was fairly used to the thing especially the odd occasion when I fell off.
He still has horses. ‘One is mine, Nefertiti (Napier also has an interest in Egyptology), and the other one is there to keep her company.
She’s not the easiest of horses to ride. Some people use the word ‘frisky’. I just say she’s over-reactive to any strange situation.’
The idea of retirement at 65 is claptrap
‘The only thing I can say is at the age of 72,’ Napier says, ‘I don’t do things as fast as I used to but I can still do things and I have a lot more experience.’
Napier’s mother died of advanced dementia or mild Alzheimer’s which left him with ‘somewhat of a phobia about being affected myself. I do try to keep my brain active.’
Keeping the brain ticking over
In 2014, when Napier was 68, he had some money to invest and despite not having any prior experience he decided to try his hand at the stock markets.
‘I put some of it into day trading where you are buying and selling market positions in the short to medium term. I set up four or five screens set up in the office and can footle around with that.’
He says he is studying Python programming language (‘well I will when I get round to it’) because he can see a use for it writing algorithms for trading.
‘I would like to automate some of the things I do when trading.’
In the same year, 2014, Bill Gates stepped down from his role at Microsoft and now devotes his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is said to have over $50 billion in assets and actively supports initiatives worldwide in poverty, health, and education.
Never stop learning
Bill and Melinda Gates have described themselves as ‘impatient optimists’. This is from their website:
‘The problems we seek to solve are complex and demand the coordination and focus of many – leaders, governments, communities, and individuals around the world. Our work is challenging, but we know we can get there. We cannot succeed alone, but together we can work for a world where all can thrive.’
In 1998, during a rare appearance at a press conference, Neil Armstrong was asked whether the era of space exploration was over for good.
‘I believe that the space exploration is just beginning. There is a far more to learn than we have already learned. However, getting there will not be easy. It will take some essential improvements in technology. There will be many more opportunities than we now have, that we can envision. Going beyond our solar system will require technologies that we cannot yet envisage but may well exist.’
Napier does not plan to stop learning and developing his skills any time soon. He already has a new project in mind.
‘In 2019, I hope to commence some restoration work on a 1990 Jaguar XJS with a view to putting it back on the road in 2020,’ he says.
‘As a human race,’ he adds, ‘we should always challenge ourselves because it will help us to be better both physically and mentally.’
Find out more
Learning can continue throughout life at any age. Age Action, one of Bank of Ireland’s charity partners, offers one-to-one computer training on computers, tablets and smartphones to anyone over 55 years old – find out more here.