His Altair computer kicked off a revolution that brought computing power into the hands of ordinary people.
Ed Roberts died on April 1 of this year. I only met the Father of the Personal Computer once, but he made a big impression on me—not so much for what he accomplished in technology, but for how, at the height of his achievement, he walked away from it to pursue his real childhood dream.
The dream had been to be a doctor, but electronics held another kind of fascination for the boy in 1950s’ Florida, and the Air Force provided a path to studying electronics. In 1968, while the Air Force had him stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ed started a small company with a couple of other officers to build and sell radio transmitters for model airplanes. They called the company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems, or MITS.
Within a year Roberts had bought out his partners and was running the company on his own, exploring other hobbyist electronics products. Back then, semiconductors were the hot new technological breakthrough, and Roberts was eager to find a way to make money from them. The most obvious thing was to wrap some hardware around a processor to turn it into a calculator, and back then calculators cost enough that you could imagine building a business around them. Roberts figured he could sell calculator kits to his mail-order customer base of electronics hobbyists.
And it worked—until the semiconductor companies decided they wanted a piece of the action. Texas Instruments started making calculators in 1972, and priced them so low that they effectively eliminated the possibility of a third-party calculator market. Ed Roberts and MITS were facing bankruptcy.
Somehow Roberts managed to talk the bank into lending him money rather than shutting him down. I say “somehow” because the pitch he presented hardly seemed calculated to win over a banker. He proposed developing a computer that he intended to sell through mail-order in kit form for a few hundred dollars. In 1973. Somehow he got the banker to overlook the fact that his mail-order electronics business was failing, that neither Roberts nor anyone else had ever sold a computer through the mail, and that it was a good bet that the market for a kit computer existed only in Roberts’s mind.
The January issue of Popular Electronics had a picture of the MITS Altair on the cover and an article about the computer inside. Once the issue hit the stands, the orders started coming in. Thousands of orders. Roberts had bet the company and won.
In the process, he kicked off many of the pieces that made up the early personal computer industry. David Bunnell, who wrote documentation for MITS, launched many of the important early magazines. Bill Gates and Paul Allen got a big boost in their nascent career. Standards like the S-100 bus and dozens of new computer companies were inspired by MITS. An industry was born.
But three years after shaking up the world with the Altair, Roberts sold MITS to Pertec for something like six million dollars, bought a farm in Georgia, and enrolled in medical school. In 1984, when Paul Freiberger and I visited him in rural Georgia to interview him for our book Fire in the Valley, he had fully re-invented himself as a small-town doctor.
When I heard that he had died, I posted a few words about Ed on a website, and received the following email:
I had a couple of chances to meet Dr. Roberts and I thought you might find this story interesting.
In 1990–1991, I was a student at Middle Georgia College in Cochran, Georgia. This stop was after a failed attempt as a student at Georgia Tech, where I was woefully unprepared for the delicate balance between social activities and studies. MGC was a wonderful environment for me to re-learn how to study and appreciate my education.
During my first year at MGC, I broke two fingers during a flag football tourney and was sent to the regional “hospital” in Bleckley County not far from campus. I was administered pain meds and some $2.00 finger splints with a pat on the back from your esteemed friend, Dr. Ed Roberts; he was the on-call doc that afternoon. He was a rather portly man and somewhat gruff, but he had a “no nonsense” approach in his bedside manner and I appreciated the candor and tough love. During this visit to his office, which was in an outbuilding on the hospital campus, I noticed he had a small collection of gadgets in his office but didn’t give it much thought once I was on my way.
Two semesters later I came down with a severe case of mononucleosis, causing me to be bedridden for the better part of six days. Upon my initial visit to Dr. Ed, his demeanor was the same as my previous experience. [He] prescribed some commonsense remedies and sent me on my way. What happened two days later was completely unexpected.
Dr. Roberts showed up at my dorm (Harris Hall) to check my status. I was basically quarantined at the time from my fellow students and friends, so having a visitor was a nice surprise—even better that it was a small-town doc looking to see how his patient was faring. He noticed an old text on my bookshelf from my days at Georgia Tech on logic gates and switches. The conversation changed from my health to his passion and he left two hours later. It was a remarkable conversation on a broad range of tech topics, but seemed to mainly focus on calculator design (I think I had an old HP engineer’s calculator on my desk).
I originally wanted to be a “businessman” of sorts after college and I mainly went to Georgia Tech because of my father’s love for the institution. When I left and went to MGC, I thought the engineer in me was dead, and a career in accounting or the family insurance business would be my calling, but those two hours with Dr. Roberts changed everything. I went on to get a degree from University of Georgia in Economics, but in my free time I was constantly tinkering with computers and software. Thanks to Dr. Roberts’s advice: he encouraged me to follow my instincts and pursue the career that felt natural.
Today I am enjoying the best of both worlds. I’m the IT guy... in the family business. I’ve never had any formal education with a particular software application or platform, but through Dr. Roberts’s encouragement twenty years ago, I tinkered and broke and fixed enough to learn my skill set.
Thought you might like to know that even as a Doctor “in the sticks,” your friend continued to influence and shape young minds to be creative and explore.
And I did not learn that he personally developed the Altair until I read a feature in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997. He never shared that with me, only his love for technology.
Sean Cavin, Atlanta, Georgia
I thanked Sean for sharing his story, and told him that it really brought back to me the Ed Roberts I had met that summer in Georgia. A truly remarkable man.
Michael Swaine is the editor of PragPub.