Henry Edward Roberts didn’t set out to kick-start the computer revolution. He was just trying to get out of debt.
Roberts, who died yesterday at 68, was an Air Force man in his younger days and a medical doctor in his later ones, but it was the middle part of his life that changed the world. In the mid-1970s, Roberts started a company call Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), and in 1975 introduced the Altair 8800—one of the first computers available and affordable for home hobbyists.
When Popular Electronics magazine featured him and the computer on its cover, it caught the attention of two young computer-philes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates and Allen quickly reached out to Roberts, looking to create software for the Altair. Landing a meeting, the pair headed to Albuquerque, N.M., where Roberts’ company was located. The two went on to set up Microsoft, which had its first offices in Albuquerque [CNET].
When Roberts founded MITS, he was using his technological know-how to make calculators. But when companies like Texas Instruments began to dominate that market, Roberts got squeezed out. In the mid-1970’s, with the firm struggling with debt, Dr Roberts began to develop a computer kit for hobbyists. The result was the Altair 8800, a machine operated by switches and with no display [BBC News]. Prior to the Altair, most computers were still giant machines in university labs, but Roberts said he believed there were enough tech nerds like him in the world that a personal computer—even one as rudimentary as the 8800—would be a success.
Gates reportedly visited Roberts at the hospital days before he died, and Gates and Allen paid tribute to their mentor in a statement. “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,” Gates and Allen said. “The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things” [CNET].
Roberts sold off his company in 1977 and retired to farming before becoming an internist. However, his son David Roberts says, he remained interested to the last in his accidental revolution. He never lost his interest in modern technology, even asking about Apple’s highly anticipated iPad from his sick bed. “He was interested to see one,” said Roberts, who called his father “a true renaissance man” [AFP].
Image: DigiBarn Computer Museum