The Scientific Contributions of the Late Paul Allen

When Paul Allen died in 2018, he left behind a remarkable legacy of supporting science, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Marcia Wendorf
Allen Telescope ArraySETI

On October 15, 2018, Paul Allen died. Most people recognized him as the co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, but that was was just a small portion of the life of a remarkable man.


Paul Allen was born on January 21, 1953 in Seattle Washington. He attended a private high school, Lakeside School, where he became friends with another student who was two years behind him. That student was Bill Gates. The two shared an interest in the new field of computers.

Soon, Allen and Gates were using Lakeside's Teletype terminal to program on time-sharing computer systems, and they were using computers at the the University of Washington's computer lab. Following graduatiion, Allen went to Washington State University for two years, dropping out to work as a programmer in Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston was a fortuitous choice because that was where Bill Gates was, as a student at Harvard University. Teaming up again, Allen convinced Gates to drop out of school, and the two headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico to start their new business - Microsoft.

In 1975, Allen and Gates began marketing a BASIC programming language interpreter they had written. IBM had just created their IBM PC, but had no operating system for it. While having nothing on hand, Allen and Gates promised IBM a disk operating system (DOS). Scrambling, Allen and Gates purchased an operating system that had been written by Tim Paterson called, QDOS for Quick and Dirty Operating System.

Soon, Microsoft was supplying DOS for every IBM PC, and Allen and Gates were becoming rich. Then, Allen was hit with a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer, and he left Microsoft to concentrate on beating the disease. Gates tried to buy out his shares, but Allen wisely hung on, and after Microsoft went public in 1986, Allen became a billionaire.

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Paul Allen
Paul Allen

Having survived his cancer, Allen looked for new ventures to get involved in, and an incredible one came calling. Project Phoenix was searching for extraterrestrial radio signals coming from 800 stars within 200 light years of the Earth. Allen, along with Hewlett-Packard founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard, and Intel found Gordon Moore, invested $5 million each.

When Project Phoenix ended, Allen contributed $25 million to build what became known as the Allen Telescope Array. Situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 300 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, the array became operational on October 11, 2007. Comprised of 42 antennas, it has received over 200 million signals from thousands of neighboring stars.

In September 2003, Allen contributed $100 million to create the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The institute has created the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas, Human Brain Atlas, and the Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas.

Created in May 1996, the Ansari X Prize offered $10,000,000 to any non-governmental organization that could launch a manned spacecraft into space twice in two weeks. Just eight years later, on October 4, 2004, the prize was claimed by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, using the spaceplane SpaceShipOne. Only after the prize had been awarded was it discovered that the endeavor had been financed by Paul Allen.

In 2011, Allen and Burt Rutan partnered in Statolaunch Systems Corporation. The mobile launch system includes a carrier aircraft called the Stratolaunch, a multi-stage payload launch vehicle which will be launched at high altitude from the carrier aircraft, and a mating and integration system.

In early 2014, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence was created. Its four main projects are: Aristo, Semantic Scholar, Euclid and Plato.

In late 2014, Allen donated $100 million to create the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Its mission is to investigate and create a virtual model of cells, in the hope of discovering treatments for various diseases.

On March 25, 2012, filmmaker and explorer James Cameron descended in a bathysphere to the lowest point on Earth, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. When his bathysphere bobbed to the surface, it wasn't at first located by the research vessel. Instead, it was spotted by a heliocopter operating from the ship Octypus, which was owned by Cameron's friend, Paul Allen. Allen had accompanied Cameron on the Challenger Deep expedition.