Edward Roberts: personal computer pioneer

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In the mid-1970s computers were still vast intimidating machines found mainly in university laboratories. It was an esoteric world, tended by white-coated boffins translating paper streams of mathematical data loudly spewing out.

Ed Roberts believed that these processing machines could be developed to the extent that they could be provided for people in their own homes. His first product may have been clunky and cumbersome but it led to a revolution in personal computer use and it marked the beginning of what became one of the world’s biggest industries.

Roberts’s proto version of the personal computer, the MITS ALTAIR 8800, appeared on the cover of the US magazine Popular Electronics in December 1974. The large metal box had no display screen or software to translate the data and therefore no functional use for the ordinary user. But the idea of a boxed domestic version of what had hitherto been associated with large laboratories, caught people’s imagination. Two young men, Bill Gates (then a student at Harvard), and Paul Allen, (then working for the electronics firm Honeywell) contacted Roberts and offered to write a computer language for the MITS ALTAIR that would translate the mathematical processing.

Gates’s and Allens’s software, the ALTAIR BASIC, and Roberts’s harnessing of the early Intel 8080 microprocessor into a mass-producable machine, were an instant success and 50,000 ALTAIR 8800’s were sold. Gates and Allen built on the success of this first piece of software for their fledgeling computer firm, Microsoft, and developed what has become world-leading software giant.

Gates acknowledged the debt he owed to Roberts by rushing to his hospital bedside last week. “The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things,” Gates and Allen said in a joint statement. “We will always have fond memories of working with Ed.”

Henry Edward Roberts was born in Miami in 1941 and brought up on his grandparents’ farm in Georgia during the war. His father Henry later ran an appliance repair business which helped to foster his son’s interest in electronics.

Roberts started an electronics degree at the University of Miami but marriage and a baby necessitated an abandonment of his studies and he joined the US Air Force. With his electronics expertise he became an instructor at the Cryptographic Equipment Maintenance School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The US Air Force sponsored him to continue his electrical engineering degree and he completed it at the University of Oklahoma in 1968 where he had access to the university’s giant IBM 1620 computer. He was then appointed to the Laser Division of the Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here he and three colleagues became interested in model rocketry.

They formed Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems in 1970 to sell their electronic rocketry kit. Sales were disappointing but undeterred Roberts bought out his partners and teamed up with fellow laboratory colleagues Bill Yates and Ed Laughlin to develop an early version of the four-function desk calculator that could add, subtract, divide and multiply. The MITS Model 816 calculator was a big commercial success, with sales worth $100,000-a month by 1973 and the firm grew rapidly to employ more than 100 staff.

The big office equipment suppliers, such as Texas Instruments, soon muscled in on the market and developed much cheaper versions of the calculator. Brutally undercut, Roberts found himself $300,000 in debt by 1974 and facing bankruptcy.

He developed the concept of the $400 build-it-yourself personal computer as a last-ditch attempt to get himself out of financial trouble. He secured a bank loan of $65,000 which was used to strike a deal with Intel to purchase 1,000 of its microprocessors at $75 each — each microprocessor usually sold for $360. He then built the circuit board himself and the hardware was fitted into a metal box with flashing red LEDs. The success of the venture was confirmed when Gates’s and Allen’s programme was loaded onto the Altair for the first time and the the teletype paper began to interpret the Altair processing. By 1976 it had generated sales worth $6 million and Roberts’s plant in Alberquerque, New Mexico employed 230 people.

However, because of the low margins on the product Roberts was still struggling to make a profit. Many competitors quickly started to develop more effective versions of the personal computer and to make matters worse Gates and Allen started selling their software to them. Roberts legally challenged their right to do this but lost the case. Wearied by these events and having lost his competitive advantage, Roberts sold MITS in 1977 to the computer hardware firm Pertec for $6 million and the Altair was further developed it into the PCC-2000 computer. Ever ahead of his time in computer products, Roberts tried to persuade Pertec to give him resources to develop a portable “laptop” version of the personal computer but he was turned down.

He took his share from the sale and took up vegetable farming in rural Georgia. He later realised a childhood ambition by training as a medical doctor. He established a medical practice in the town of Cochran, Georgia from 1988.

His name fell into obscurity in the world of IT but his role was never forgotten by the Microsoft founders. “Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution and didn’t always get the recognition he deserved,” said Gates and Allen.

He is survived by his second wife and by six children from his first marriage.

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