Father of the Altair 8800, Ed Roberts, Passes Away

I’m posting this one day late, because I didn’t want it to get lost in all the April 1 nonsense. We’ve been in the computer age for a while now, and while that gives us the privilege of dealing with some truly great products and innovations, it sadly also means that we are starting to lose the pioneers that defined this industry. Yesterday, Ed Roberts shuffled out of life due to pneumonia. Dr. Henry Edward Roberts developed the Altair 8800, considered to be the first personal computer.

You don’t hear his name often any more these days, but that’s most likely because he left the computing industry so early. Ed Roberts founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), and at that company, he developed the Altair 8800, the Intel 8080-based personal computer – the first personal computer – in 1974, which went on sale early 1975.

You could buy it as a kit, or assembled, and as you can expect, it didn’t look anything like the personal computers of today. There was no display; instead, it employed a series of LEDs (later, additional output methods would become available). Data input was handled by switches, and you all could do was make the LEDs blink.

“The user toggled the switches to positions corresponding to an 8080 microprocessor instruction or opcode in binary, then used an ‘enter’ switch to load the code into the machine’s memory, and then repeated this step until all the opcodes of a presumably complete and correct program were in place,” Wikipedia tells us.

The Altair is also the computer upon which the Microsoft empire is built. After seeing the Altair in a copy of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, Paul Allen and Bill Gates contacted Roberts, telling him they could provide BASIC for the Altair. In reality, Allan and Gates didn’t have anything, so they quickly went to work writing a BASIC on a 8080 simulator for the PDP-10. The first actual version of Altair BASIC crashed, but the second version ran, with the first program being 10 print 2+2.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates issued a joint statement yesterday. “Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution, and didn’t always get the recognition he deserved,” the statement reads, “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.”

Roberts sold MITS in 1977, after which he went to work on a farm. In 1986, he would complete medical school, becoming a country doctor making house calls. He kept up with technology, and his son David Roberts said that he became interested in nanotechnology-enhanced machines. On his deathbed, Ed Roberts even inquired about Apple’s iPad; he wanted to see one. David Roberts confirmed Bill Gates rushed to Georgia last Friday “to be with his mentor”.

Paul Allen said in an email to CNET that “Ed was the first entrepreneur Bill and I spent time around, and we learned a lot about business from him.” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is saddened by Roberts’ death and stated that “he took a critically important step that led to everything we have today”.

We lost one of the great yesterday, even though you may have never heard of him. As I’m typing this, I realise how every keystroke I make, every pixel I alter, every bit I flip on my personal computer, can be traced back to him. A very strange realisation, that.

The OSNews team would like to express our condolences to Roberts’ family and friends. And, of course, we would like to thank him for the invaluable contributions he made to the world of technology.


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