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Miklós Halász-Szabó 2018.09.10.

Charles Simonyi reached widespread fame when he became the second Hungarian to travel in space. However, he made a fortune and also a name for himself long before, as a tech-guru working as one of the geniuses behind Microsoft’s Word and Excel programs.

Simonyi was born in Budapest, September 10th, 1948 with a yearning for knowledge, born with an interest for modern science in his DNA. His father was none other than Károly Simonyi, who can be credited with establishing the basics of Hungarian nuclear physics and building the first Hungarian nuclear particle accelerator. Charles Simonyi Junior left Hungary in 1966 as an 18-year-old, to start work as a programmer in Copenhagen, Denmark at his first software company. From here he moved onto University Of California in Berkeley where he studied engineering and mathematics. Later, he finished a doctorate in computer programming at the nearby Stanford University.

Simonyi then worked for eight years from 1972 at Xerox’s Palo Alto offices; here he developed the word processing predecessor, Bravo, which utilized the world’s first WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) technology. The aim is to match what the user sees onscreen to what is the finished, printed product. This was a significant development compared to previous versions given that before, complicated codes had to be entered, and sometimes repeatedly printed, in order to produce exactly what the user had created on the monitor, on paper.

In 1981, Simonyi, upon the suggestion of his colleague at Xerox, stopped by Bill Gates’ office (who had just recently established Microsoft at the time) to share his ideas with Gates–  soon after this conversation, Simonyi was offered a job by the world’s most prominent tech-guru. Simonyi thus became Microsoft’s 40th employee, and a little while later, one of the leading software designers. He spent two decades at the Redmond giant, and there, he established his 1.4 billion dollar estimated value, as according to Forbes magazine– which he, uniquely, acquired mostly as an employee. Simonyi developed, among others, Microsoft’s two mainstays, Word and Excel—in fact, he was amongst the original designing teams. Interestingly enough, Simonyi was also behind the design of Multiplan, the predecessor of Excel.

Simonyi left Microsoft in 2001 to establish his own company, Intentional Software — a developmental and innovational consulting firm — with business partner Gregor Kiczales, a professor at British Columbia College. In a twist of events, Microsoft bought Intentional Software in 2017, thereby, re-employing Simonyi at his old company.

He reached widespread fame in Hungary when it was made public that Simonyi was preparing to travel to space. He became the fifth and the seventh space tourist: after his first trip in 2007, he visited again in 2009—on both occasions spending two weeks at the International Space Station. Thereby, he became the second Hungarian, after Bertalan Farkas, to travel to space.

Simonyi is widely known for his philanthropy, supporting various foundations. He once said that science and culture are the strongest societal influences, and thus, these should be a first priority to support. For instance, he founded a professor’s position at Oxford University to help scientific researchers. In Hungary, he established the Karoly Simonyi Award which can be won by those researching or teaching within the fields of technology or physics.

He frequently visits Hungary, holding many presentations on his trip to space. In 2007, President Lászlo Sólyom awarded Simonyi with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Kingdom of Hungary where he referred to Simonyi’s continued work and support of his motherland and the researchers there.

by Ábrahám Vass