Feature

H. Edward Roberts

The tinkerer who helped spark the PC revolution

H. Edward Roberts
1941–2010

H. Edward Roberts, who died of pneumonia last week, could not claim to be the sole inventor of the personal computer. But the $397 Altair 8800 he designed and sold through his company was the first affordable home computer that achieved some commercial success, and for a brief time, the Altair made Edwards the king of the PC business. It also inspired the founders of Microsoft to start their company.

Henry Edward Roberts “never intended to lead a revolution,” said the Associated Press. Born in Miami in 1941, Roberts became fascinated by electronics while studying medicine at Oklahoma State University, so he deferred his dream of becoming a doctor and earned an electrical engineering degree. In 1970, he founded Micro Information and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in Albuquerque, selling a pocket calculator kit when such devices were just coming into vogue. But he soon found himself in a price war with much larger rivals and heavily in debt. He then hatched what he later described as an “almost megalomaniac kind of scheme” to sell affordable computer kits to fellow hobbyists. “To engineers and electronics people,” he said, “it was the ultimate gadget.”

Two computer-obsessed friends named Bill Gates and Paul Allen certainly thought so, said The New York Times. Gates and Allen were so taken with a 1975 Popular Electronics article about the Altair, which had no display screen, that they began working on a programming language so that other users could write software for it. They soon relocated to Albuquerque to develop their language, which Roberts agreed to distribute through MITS. “The product they created for Roberts’ machine, Microsoft Basic, was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest software company and would make its founders billionaires many times over.” But Gates and Allen had a falling out with Roberts when they started selling Basic to MITS’ rivals. With competition growing, Edwards sold MITS in 1977 for $2 million. He bought farmland in Georgia, returned to his medical studies, and practiced medicine in the small town of Cochran.

Roberts later reconciled with Gates, who traveled to Macon, Ga., to visit him in his last days. Roberts “didn’t always get the recognition he deserved,” Allen and Gates said in a joint statement. “Ed was willing to take a chance on us—two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace.” Roberts’ son David said that on his deathbed, his father inquired about Apple’s about-to-be-released iPad, saying he very much wanted to see one before he died. But the device, considered by many the next step in the computer revolution, was not yet available

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