Monday, April 05, 2010

Ed Roberts, father of the PC: Rest in Peace

It's funny how we can be responsible for something much large than ourselves.

Case in point: the late H. Edward Roberts. He's well-known in a somewhat narrow context and yet I'd be willing to bet the next 10 people you see have no idea who he is. That being said, he's directly had an impact on you if you are reading this.

Ed Roberts developed and sold what was arguably the first commercially successful personal computer, the Altair 8800, way back in 1975. Just as significantly, he hired a couple of bright, ambitious college dropouts to write a version of BASIC for the Altair 8800: Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates and Allen went on found a little software startup called Microsoft. Perhaps you've heard of it?

Roberts came out of the hobbyist electronics world. MITS, the company he started, initially designed and sold telemetry devices for model rocketeers, the moved to selling kits for programmable calculators (back when these were enormously expensive).

The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics featured the MITS Altair 8800 at the unheard of price of $397.

Now, these were hobbyist machines. No hard drive, floppy drive or network connection. They had to be programmed in machine language by flipping toggle switches on the front panel. Not exactly an appliance-type device.

Still, the reaction was, A computer for $397? Where's my checkbook!

Roberts went on to sell the company two years later, made a tidy profit and became a medical doctor practicing in small town Georgia.

Though his involvement in the computer world was brief, its impact can't be underestimated. Object lesson here is you never know how your life will influence the world's events.

Read more on Ed Roberts at Wikipedia, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Virtual Altair has an interview with him reprinted from Historically Brewed (no idea what the date is).

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