Garage warriors: Computer pioneer makes a name on geek TV

Even though Tim Paterson developed DOS, the operating system that ultimately launched Microsoft into a computer-software powerhouse, few recognize his name or face as they would Bill Gates or Paul Allen.

Now, 22 years after Paterson and his employer, Seattle Computer Products, licensed Paterson's operating system to Microsoft for $50,000, Paterson is getting his 15 minutes of fame.

He's a leading competitor on Comedy Central's highly rated "BattleBots" cable-television show, where he drives his heavyweight robot Hexidecimator in fight-to-the-death matches against other high-tech luminaries and everyday folk.

Call it gladiators for geeks, or WWF meets MIT. Paterson and his team of other former and current Microsofties are in their element as they drive their beloved "Hexy D" into enemy robots named Shark Byte and Killerhurtz before thousands of screaming spectators.

"There's an essential geekiness to this sport," said Steve Judd, a former Microsoft employee who was an original member of Paterson's robot team. "You have to be conversant in radio control. You have to be conversant in high-powered electric motors. The more you know about physics and mechanics, the better you'll do."

Paterson and his teammates fire Hexy D's air-powered arm upward in an attempt to flip their competitors with a goal of making it to the final round.

"It's a neat thing to do. It's a guy thing," said Paterson, 45, who is living in Redmond off proceeds from the Microsoft stock options he received while working at the company from 1990 to 1998.

'The DOS Guy'

Most people who meet Paterson don't realize he's "The DOS Guy," the software engineer whose program helped launch the spread of personal computers. They don't know that he started as a repair technician at Seattle Computer Products, the Tukwila hardware company that licensed DOS to Microsoft in a deal with IBM, which was then developing early personal computers.

Paterson — who proudly exclaims that he was an answer to a question on "Jeopardy" — credits his place in computer history more to luck than skill.

"I consider it to be very lucky that what I did ended up being so widely used. DOS at one time was the world's most widely used computer program," he said. "It wasn't the best-designed program. It didn't stand up to the test of time very well. It was the quick and dirty version that had to be done now and didn't have the legs to be as good as it could be."

Paterson credits Microsoft's marketing prowess with turning DOS into a marketable piece of code.

"I happened to have written an operating system when IBM was looking for one," he said. "What an incredible coincidence. Once in Microsoft's hands, the popularity was driven by their marketing and business strategy. That's beyond luck."

Eventually, Paterson went to work for Microsoft — three times. From May 1981 to April 1982 he worked on DOS and DOS 1.1. He returned to Seattle Computer until 1983, then left to start his own company, Falcon Technology. When Falcon ran out of money in 1986, Paterson sold the assets to Microsoft and went to work there until 1988. Then he took a year off before returning in 1990.

Paterson jokes that when he returned, Microsoft showed him what his stock options would have been worth if he had originally stayed — something like $30 million.

He's able to laugh about that now — and about a 1991 newspaper article that speculated that, with the rights to DOS long sold, Paterson might be panhandling in Pioneer Square, as Microsoft employees trampled by on their way to an annual meeting in the Kingdome.

"For many years I kept an aluminum cup hanging on my door at Microsoft. There was always loose change in there," said Paterson, who wrote a letter after the article appeared saying, "My tin cup is lined with Microsoft options, worth — well, you can just imagine."

Hunk of titanium

Now Paterson is turning those options into fun.

He started building Hexidecimator, a 215-pound square titanium robot with a mean steel-flipping arm, in January 2001 after a Thanksgiving dinner conversation about robot battles with his buddy Scott "Ferg" Ferguson. Ferguson, another Microsoft alum, calls himself the "father of Visual Basic," one of Microsoft's computer languages.

"I started watching 'BattleBots' and thinking about it," said Paterson, a reserved man who shakes his foot and raises his voice with excitement when he talks about robot competitions.

He pulled together three other Microsoft buddies — Ferguson, Judd and Doug Franklin — to create Hexidecimator. Judd has since left the team to build his own robot and compete with a Microsoft team called Death by Monkeys. Franklin's 11-year-old son, Scott, has joined Paterson's team.

Paterson is the main designer and builder. He's turned one bay of his three-car garage into a shop where he welds together the aluminum and titanium pieces of Hexy D, being careful to keep the sparks away from his Lexus RX300 SUV and Audi station wagon that share the space.

This software engineer, who during his later years at Microsoft worked on Visual Basic, then on the version of Java that Sun Microsystems sued over, had to enroll in a technical college to learn the art of welding.

"This big blue machine is my welder that I bought after my first competition," he said, pointing to a small refrigerator-sized box in his garage. He's used it to repair and rebuild Hexidecimator after it suffered near-fatal wounds in past competitions. Part of the fun for the builder is figuring out how to put his radio-controlled machine back together so it will hold up better in its next battle.

Past battles

Paterson recalls his last competition in November 2001. "Going in I was so overconfident. I thought this match would be over in 15 seconds," he said. "I thought we'd flip him over and we'd be done."

Instead, Hexidecimator lasted only three rounds. "We had built a much stronger bot, but the level of competition was much nastier," said Paterson, who points out the battle scars on his robot like a war veteran shows off his shrapnel wounds.

Paterson's team, called "Team WhoopAss," after the power drink popular among techies pulling all-nighters, entered its first competition in May 2001, joining several hundred other robots in an old Navy hanger on San Francisco's Treasure Island.

Competing one-on-one, Paterson's robot beat five other robots in the first competition, then went on to win the rumble, an event that includes all the robot finalists competing together to try to demolish each other. The winner was determined by the crowd — and Paterson proudly displays in his family room the giant aluminum nut trophy that he won.

That win earned Paterson and his team veteran honors for future competitions. Now the team gets to skip preliminary rounds and goes directly into the television round. "Hexidecimator is a pretty well-performing robot," said Young Ihm, spokesman for "BattleBots." "(Paterson) is a proven builder."

Some of the team's matches appear on the "BattleBots" reruns, helping contribute to the popularity of the show, which is Comedy Central's third most popular behind "South Park" and "The Man Show." In fact, the show is becoming such a part of the national culture there are books, magazines and toys devoted to it. McDonald's began offering "BattleBots" Happy Meal toys April 26.

Although Paterson's robot wasn't chosen to be included in the McDonald's promotion, Hexy D's frequent television appearances are starting to pay off.

The team, which has spent about $15,000 on the robot so far, gets royalties every time one of its matches is shown on television.

Paterson, set to return to San Francisco May 19 for his next "BattleBots" competition, said he expects to break even or make a profit on the endeavor this year

Just for fun.

But making money isn't why he's doing this. It's purely for fun.

"We've never been cost-conscious because we knew it was within our range. I wouldn't have retired if I couldn't afford my lifestyle," said Paterson, who also races ProRally cars on deserted logging roads and is building a vacation home in Chelan with his wife, Penny.

In fact, "BattleBots" seems to be a chosen hobby for many high-tech honchos. Paterson and his robot have competed against Michael "Fuzzy" Mauldin, the computer scientist who founded Internet search-engine company Lycos. "He's our pal," Franklin said of Mauldin. "We beat him."

Jim Knoll, one of the original authors of Adobe's Photoshop, also competes.

Trey Roski, co-founder and chief executive officer of BattleBots Inc., said the competition is for people exactly like Paterson and other computer programmers and engineers who don't often get credit for the things they invent.

"So much of our world forgets the engineer behind (the invention). There's one person behind the person who wrote DOS," he said. "A lot of these engineers in life have gotten stepped on, walked on, taken advantage of, abused.

"These engineers have a different mentality. They're not business people and some business person comes in usually and screws them. 'BattleBots' is about rewarding the little guy, about the engineer."

Free-lance writer Cynthia Flash covers business and technology from Bellevue. Reach her at

On television

"BattleBots" airs on Comedy Central Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. "BattleBots Season 5.0," which includes Paterson's competition this month, will air on Comedy Central in early July.