Some of America's greatest philanthropists have also been controversial figures. John D. Rockefeller, for instance, gave millions to support public health and education. He also broke the law while ruthlessly crushing his competitors in the oil industry. Andrew Carnegie gave away more money than anyone else in the history of the world. But his steel company used violent means to break up a strike in Pennsylvania, killing or wounding more than 70 men in the process. And then there is the world's richest man today, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
Bill Gates certainly does not suffer from a shortage of fans. "(He) is a man of extraordinary vision and leadership who has changed the way the world uses computers," says John Hurson, president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Driven by the belief that the computer would be an invaluable tool in every office, home, and school, (Bill Gates) left Harvard University in his junior year to start Microsoft, which today employs more than 55,000 people in 85 countries, and is devoting $6.2 billion to research and development in 2005."
The realm of technology is not the only area where people are singing Bill Gates' praises. Former President Bill Clinton recently applauded the efforts of the world's richest man to fight the health and education inequities that plague the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given out nearly $10 billion in grants since 1999, designed to do everything from decrease class sizes in America's public schools, to eradicate the threat of malaria in Africa.
"He made more money than anybody in human history, and he's trying to give it away," Mr. Clinton says. "Most people'd be trying to do something else, or they'd give a little bit of it away and want someone to pin a medal on them instead of spending all their time like he and Melinda do going all over hell's half acre, looking for things that really work. And this is a life work for him."
But the exceedingly intelligent, socially awkward son of an attorney and homemaker from Seattle, Washington, is not without his critics. Certainly no one at the rival Internet software company Netscape thinks Bill Gates is a good guy. In 2003, Microsoft agreed to pay Netscape's parent company $750 million to settle an anti-trust lawsuit. Judges in both the United States and Europe have convicted Microsoft of having an illegal operating system monopoly. And when you type the words "hate Bill Gates" into an Internet search engine, dozens of sites pop up - all of them created by individuals on their own time.
"The people who hate Bill Gates are primarily from the 'open source' software world," says Bob Cringely, a technology commentator who has been writing about Bill Gates and other, prominent personalities in the computer industry for more than 20 years. According to Mr. Cringely, many technologically savvy people are ideologically opposed to the way Bill Gates has directed the software industry. They believe software should be distributed freely - without licensing restrictions - and that its source codes should be available for anyone to fiddle around with, since they say that's the best way for programs to evolve and improve.
"He represents to them control. Microsoft effectively controls the PC market, and they hate that," Bob Cringely says. "They need to personify it. And Bill provides an awful lot of ammunition. You know, even today, he's not very smooth. He says a lot of wrong things."
Among the wrong - or at the very least undiplomatic - things Bill Gates has said is that he is - or was - too young to be a philanthropist. It was an excuse many not-for-profit groups heard in the 1980s and 90s, when Mr. Gates first started amassing his millions. But after he married Melinda French in 1994, Bill Gates started to think about giving his money away.
He says his first international cause was not health, but population growth, since societies with lower family sizes are better able to feed and educate their people. "When I learned that health would lead to lower family size, that was stunning to me, because it's almost paradoxical," he recalls. "You'd think the opposite. So it was a series of things that made me feel like, 'Hey, this is the greatest inequity, this should be the top priority.'"
Bill Gates has pledged to give away 90% of his wealth - which is currently estimated to be about $41 billion - before he dies.