Ed Roberts: 1941–2010
PC Pioneer Inspired Microsoft Founders
The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics featured on its cover a box with switches and blinking lights called the Altair 8800, considered by many to be the first personal computer.
Ed Roberts, who died Thursday at age 68, created the Altair, the computer that brought Microsoft Corp. founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen into desktop computing. His machine inspired a legion of hobbyists who became the foundation of a vibrant new industry.
"Ed Roberts was in the Air Force and ended up at the base in Albuquerque. In his spare time he started a company to sell kits for things you would put on rockets–something to take the temperature when it gets to the top or take a photo. He called the company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems and it did a small amount of business. Then he came up with a kit calculator and that sold in significant volume and made money. Read more.
Then he walked away and became a country doctor.
"Ed deserves to be called the father of the personal computer," says Bill Gates in an email.
An Air Force trained engineer who had designed electronics for Christmas window displays, Mr. Roberts and a colleague in 1969 founded MITS Inc., in Albuquerque, N.M. The company's name was an acronym for Micro Telemetry Instrumentation Systems; it initially built equipment for model-rocketry hobbyists.
MITS soon began building kit-based electronic calculators, which were then considered new-fangled, high-tech and expensive. But by 1973, MITS was losing money because of competition from Texas Instruments and other manufacturers. With several years of experience producing electronics kits for hobbyists, Mr. Roberts decided to stake his small company on a programmable computer, something that he had long envisioned.
Despite the fact that few knew just what to do with a computer that lacked a keyboard, display or storage, MITS was overwhelmed with orders after the Altair appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine. Two attentive readers of that issue were Messrs. Gates and Allen, who had been working on a version of the programming language Basic.
"I grabbed it off the shelf, I looked at it and I bought it and I ran back to Bill's dorm," Mr. Allen said in the 1996 PBS documentary "Revenge of the Nerds." (Mr. Gates was a student at Harvard at the time.)
Mr. Allen ended up flying to Albuquerque with a preliminary version of the program, which later shipped with each Altair. Mr. Gates dropped out of Harvard, Mr. Allen quit his job and the two young programmers moved to Albuquerque. There they founded Microsoft to provide software for the Altair.
"MITS was the pioneer of a lot of things—helping to create computer clubs, getting a software library going, lots of new additions to their personal computer including the disk," says Mr. Gates.
The Altair garnered 5,000 orders in its first year, with the base model selling for $397.
"He was a seed of this thought that computers would be affordable," says Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. Mr. Wozniak credits an Altair demonstration at the first meeting of the storied Palo Alto Homebrew Computer Club for convincing him that microprocessor-based computers, as opposed to mainframes, could be worthwhile.
New companies soon opened to provide circuit boards and other peripherals that made the Altair more useful. The Altair helped inspire some of the first computer magazines and conventions, and also the first clones—copies built on the same design principles around the same Intel Corp. chip.
Mr. Roberts in 1977 sold MITS to Pertec Computer Corp. of Los Angeles, a manufacturer of disk drives. He took up farming and later attended medical school.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Roberts moved to rural Cochran, Ga., where the town's only doctor had recently died. He set up a clinic with a modern laboratory, built a local network to link the office's computers and wrote record-keeping software.
He said he had few regrets. "I think I'm making a fairly substantial contribution here," Mr. Roberts told the New York Times in 2001. "Maybe not to the wider world, but I think what I do now is important."—Email