Ed Roberts, creator of early PC, dies

Roberts, whose MITS Altair 8800 is often cited as the original personal computer, died Thursday at age 68.

Ed Roberts, whose early Altair 8800 computer helped inspire Bill Gates and Paul Allen to start Microsoft, died Thursday. He was 68.

Ed Roberts poses with an Altair 8800 after he went into the medical profession. DigiBarn Computer Museum

Though Roberts' name is less well known than some other computing pioneers, the Altair is widely credited as the first personal computer and for helping inspire the modern computer industry. Roberts established Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), which introduced the Altair in 1975. An article on the Altair in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics caught the eye of a young Allen, who showed the story to Gates.

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.

Though his impact on the industry was long lasting, Roberts left computing in the 1970s, selling MITS, going to medical school, and then setting up a medical practice in Georgia.

In a joint statement posted on the Gates Notes Web site, Gates and Allen paid tribute to Roberts.

The MITS Altair 8800, which is often cited as the original PC. Courtesy of Vintage-computer.com

"Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution, and didn't always get the recognition he deserved," the Microsoft founders said in a statement. "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."

Allen said that Roberts was a mentor, and not just on the computing side.

"Ed was the first entrepreneur Bill and I spent time around, and we learned a lot about business from him," Allen said in an e-mail.

Gates traveled last week to visit an ailing Roberts in the hospital.

"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. We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66--where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then."

DigiBarn, which created a page last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of MITS, set up a digital tribute page for Roberts.

Update, 8:20 p.m. PT: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told CNET he was saddened to learn of Roberts' death.

"He took a critically important step that led to everything we have today," Wozniak said in an e-mail.

 

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