The technology industry is mourning Ed Roberts, who died on Thursday, April 1, 2010, from pneumonia at the age of 68. Roberts was an unlikely technology hero, but his contributions to the computing industry can’t really be underestimated: in 1975, his company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) introduced the Altair 8800, a screenless personal computer with a whopping 256 bytes of memory, based on the then brand-new Intel 8080 processor. And it was a kit: users had to buy it and assemble the computer themselves for $397. But the impact of the Altair 8800 was astonishing: not only was it the first personal computer to be a success in the marketplace, it directly inspired folks like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Wozniak, who would later to on to birth the personal computer industry we have today.
Roberts had originally planned to become a doctor, but changed his focus to electrical engineering on meeting a neurosurgeon who shared his interest in electronics, and eventually enlisted in the Air Force where his electronics experience led him to teaching at the Cryptographic Equipment Maintenance School in San Antonio, and, after completing his degree, wound up at the Laser Division of the Kirtland Air Force Base weapons lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He started MITS with some colleagues who were into model rocketry telemetry, but the company quickly started a successful business marketing electronic calculators, but price wars with larger electronics companies like Texas Instruments led Roberts to look to other devices…and the Altair 8800 was the result.
The Altair 8800 wasn’t much to look at: it didn’t even have a text-only display, just LEDs and switches on the front panel. But the computer was a hit with enthusiasts following a cover piece in Popular Mechanics, and orders began flooding in. Programming the Altair 8800 was a painstaking process, but then-Harvard students Paul Allen and Bill Gates realized that the Intel 8080 under the hood was powerful enough to support a BASIC interpreter…so they wrote MITS saying they has a BASIC interpreter for the 8080, and would MITS be interested in buying it? In reality, Gates and Allen had no such thing, and when MITS took them up on the offer they scrambled to complete a BASIC interpreter by emulating an 8080 on a Harvard PDP-10 minicomputer. When they were done, Paul Allen took the untested interpreter on a roll of paper tape to MITS headquarters in Albuquerque in March 1975…where it barely ran before crashing. But it did run, and that was the start of “Micro-Soft.”
In 1976, Roberts was getting tired of managing the company, and worked out a deal for MITS to be acquired by Pertec, the company where MITS had been sourcing disk drives. Roberts retired, and in 1977 returned to rural Georgia where he bought a farm he had often visited with his grandparents in his youth. In 1982, nearby Mercer University started a medical program, and Roberts returned to his first vocational choice: by 1986, he had his M.D., started a residency in internal medicine, and by 1988 was running a practice in Cochran, Georgia.
In a statement, Gates and Allen wrote of Roberts: “Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution, and didn’t always get the recognition he deserved. He was an intense man with a great sense of humor, and he always cared deeply about the people who worked for him, including us. Ed was willing to take a chance on us—two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace—and we have always been grateful to him.”
Images: Ed Roberts, DigiBarn; Popular Electronics, January 1975, Ziff-Davis; Altair 8800 front panel, Michael Holley.