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H. Edward Roberts, M.D., stands next to the first PC, the Altair 8800.  (Source: ArsTechnica)

The Altair 8800b  (Source: DVQ)

Roberts helped launch Microsoft and the career of Bill Gates, shown here in a much earlier photograph with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, when the pair were 13 year old students at Lakeside High  (Source: Rensselaer)
Roberts helped launch the career of Bill Gates and Microsoft, delivered the first consumer PC

H. Edward Roberts died this week at age 68.  If you don't know the story of how Roberts helped launch the personal computing revolution, let us fill you in.

Back in 1970, Ed Roberts had just finished serving at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory designing circuits for missiles.  Along with a close friend, Forrest M. Mims III, he decided to open a business from his garage selling build-it-yourself electronics kits to hobbyists.

The new company, MITS, sold its first product, the MITS 816 calculator, in 1971 for $175 ($275 assembled).  The calculator was featured in publications such as 
Popular Electronics and proved a commercial hit.  Several more models followed, and to keep up with demand MITS moved to a new building with an assembly line and commercial soldering equipment.

Then disaster struck -- Texas Instruments in 1972 developed its own chip and began selling calculators at half the price of the MITS models, fully assembled.  Even with $250,000 in debt and a collapsing business, Ed. Roberts didn't waver from his commitment to personal computing.  He persevered building the prototype of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, named unofficially after a planet visited in the 
Star Trek episode Amok Time.

The Altair 8800 saved the company.  Ed. Roberts had brokered a deal with Intel to buy Intel 8080 chips in bulk for $75/chip (normally they were $360/chip).  The cheap CPUs allowed the Altair 8800 to retail for $439 ($621 assembled) at the time when Intel's Intellec-8 Microprocessor Development System, another Intel 8080 based system, sold for $10,000.

The cheap Altair 8800 not only proved a mild commercial hit, but it helped launch the world's biggest electronics company today, Microsoft.  In 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen, students at Harvard at the time read about the Altair.  They contacted Ed. Roberts telling him they were developing a programming language interpreter and asking if he was interested in purchasing in it.

The statement was a lie.  The pair had no interpreter in the works.  But when Mr. Roberts expressed interest they rented computer time and hurriedly threw together the first version of BASIC, which fit on 4 kB of tape and supported floating point math.  They flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico to demonstrate the program to Ed. Roberts.  The first version only printed "Altair Basic" and then crashed.  However, a second tape worked, printing Gates and Allen's company's new name "Micro-soft" and running a short integer addition program.

In mid 1976, the Altair 8800B launched and Gates and Allen delivered 8K Altair Basic.  Then came the feud between Gates and Roberts which landed in the courts.  The case centered around Microsoft beginning to develop for the Motorola 6800 and other devices, which MITS argued was contractually forbidden.  Gates countered that Roberts had not paid them in full and that the contract had no such stipulations.  Recalls Roberts, "[Gates was] a very bright kid, but he was a constant headache at MITS.  You couldn’t reason with him.  He did things his way or not at all."

The case would be settled in 1980s in Microsoft's favor.  However, by then Roberts had long since left the computer industry behind.  In 1977 he sold the MITS company, which then had 230 employees for $6M USD.  He kept $2M USD of that sum and used it to purchase a farm in Georgia, which he moved to with his wife and five sons.

The 6'4" former Air Force officer turned computer pioneer turned farmer worked the land for a few years, then decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a physician.  He succeeded at obtaining that degree.  In 1986 he was awarded a medical degree from Mercer University in Macon and soon after opened a practice in Cochran, 35 miles away.

The later years found Roberts in turbulent times, with two divorces and two new marriages, starting with a divorce in 1988.  Roberts found strength and fulfillment in his medical career.  While he continued to tinker with electronics, he turned his back on Silicon Valley, reportedly still hurt by the dispute with Microsoft.

But as Roberts lay deathly ill in the hospital this year, retired Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates reached out, spending much time with his former employer-turned-nemesis.  Last Thursday Roberts passed away.  He is survived by his third wife Rosa Roberts, his five sons, and his daughter he had in 1983.  His role in launching the electronics industry -- and Microsoft -- will not be forgotten by those who know its story.



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Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By AlexWade on 4/5/2010 12:07:45 PM , Rating: 5
The world owes you a great debt for your work. Thanks to you, I can make my own computer.




RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By jonmcc33 on 4/5/2010 12:26:52 PM , Rating: 1
You can assemble one. I don't think you can actually make one from scratch. ;-)


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By porkpie on 4/5/2010 12:49:09 PM , Rating: 2
The media loves to award titles such as "father of xxxx". No one person is due such a title, obviously. In my opinion, Mims is probably a more likely candidate than Roberts; he's certainly far more well known.


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By JasonMick (blog) on 4/5/2010 1:20:57 PM , Rating: 5
quote:
The media loves to award titles such as "father of xxxx". No one person is due such a title, obviously. In my opinion, Mims is probably a more likely candidate than Roberts; he's certainly far more well known


I know what you mean. I hope I didn't make the piece too embellished. I tried to avoid the tritisms you mentioned by merely calling him the "creator of the first personal computer" a more reasonable title as he arguably sold the first widespread kit that could truly be considered a widely available commercial personal computer.

I certainly agree that Mims deserves an equal share of the credit for that accomplishment (and he remained active in the tech field professionally, unlike Roberts).

And for that matter, despite their eventual fallout from the project, Gates and Allen also helped the MITS's PC endeavor achieve success by offering an accessible, high level language for enthusiasts.

Regardless, Roberts was very important to the formation of the consumer electronics industry, both with his company's calculators and personal computers, and should be remembered.


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By porkpie on 4/5/2010 1:54:40 PM , Rating: 2
" I hope I didn't make the piece too embellished."

You know I never shy away from criticizing you, but given the rest of the media's reaction to this event, I think you were reasonably well constrained in the story.

My point about Mims was that, without his writings, the vast hobbyist and amateur market for computers like the Altair, PET, ELF, and others may not have even taken off. Certainly it would have happened years later than it did.


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By Reclaimer77 on 4/5/2010 6:52:25 PM , Rating: 2
So wait, one guy sat on this ass and wrote. The other guy sacrificed everything in an extremely unlikely endeavor, started a business out of his garage, staked his and his families future on making a business out of a rare hobbyists fad (at the time) and helped bring about the age of the PC.

Yeah CLEARLY Mims deserves more credit... /sarcasm.


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By porkpie on 4/5/2010 7:17:10 PM , Rating: 2
You never tire of embarrassing yourself, do you? Mims and Roberts both founded MITS. They both developed the Altair 8800.

Mims, however, is the primary reason myself and so many others who built their own computers in the 1970s actually bought those kits. And believe me, back then building a computer meant building it. With a soldering iron-- not just plugging in a few cables like you do today.

Unlike Roberts, though, Mims continued in the field, writing thousands of books, articles, columns, and scientific papers.

It's not a stretch to say Mims literally created the PC hobbyist market almost single-handedly. I don't know a person who had a PC at the time who didn't read Mims religiously.


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By Reclaimer77 on 4/5/2010 11:36:56 PM , Rating: 1
Look someone can use Google and pretend to have firsthand knowledge of everything !!!

/golf clap


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By Reclaimer77 on 4/5/2010 11:36:57 PM , Rating: 1
Look someone can use Google and pretend to have firsthand knowledge of everything !!!

/golf clap


RE: Goodbye Mr. Roberts
By InternetGeek on 4/6/2010 1:18:23 AM , Rating: 2
In more than one way many of us should be thankful for his work. I, in particular, being a web developer, provide for my family because he, Microsoft and others thought PCs should be affordable, open, flexible and ubiquitous. Not closed and made with the one-size-fits-all mentality.


I am a PC
By jdietz on 4/5/2010 4:04:37 PM , Rating: 4
I'm Dr. H. Edward Roberts, and I'M A PC!!!




Paul Allen and Bill Gates
By Xaussie on 4/10/2010 12:18:30 PM , Rating: 2
"Bill Gates, shown here in a much earlier photograph with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, when the pair were 13 year old students at Lakeside High"

Paul Allen is three years older than Bill Gates so they were never a pair of 13 year olds. The sideburns are a big hint that Paul wasn't 13 at the time of the photo.




Are you sure?
By Mitch101 on 4/5/2010 2:58:07 PM , Rating: 1
Its not Steve Jobs? Oh that's right its a PC not a MAC. Silly me.




Can it run Crysis?
By ggordonliddy on 4/5/10, Rating: 0
"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher














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