Henry Edward Roberts dies at 68; inventor of early personal computer that inspired Bill Gates
Roberts built the MITS Altair 8800, which had no display screen. Gates and childhood friend Paul Allen created BASIC code for the computers. Later in life, Roberts became a physician.
Henry Edward Roberts designed the Altair 8800. After selling his firm, he became a physician. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Roberts, whose build-it-yourself kit concentrated thousands of dollars' worth of computer capability in an affordable package, inspired Bill Gates and his childhood friend Paul Allen to come up with Microsoft in 1975 after they saw an article about the MITS Altair 8800 in Popular Electronics.
Roberts, an ex-military man, later went on to careers as a farmer and a physician.
"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 in a joint statement released Thursday. "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."
Born in Miami in 1941, Roberts served in the U.S. Air Force and earned an electrical engineering degree from Oklahoma State University in 1968, according to his family.
He later parlayed his interest in technology into a business making calculators. Meanwhile, he was gaining an interest in computers -- at the time, hulking machines available almost exclusively at universities.
Roberts would later describe the effort as an "almost megalomaniac kind of scheme" that he pursued out of youthful ambition.
"But at that time, you know, we just lacked the, eh, the benefits of age and experience," Roberts said on a program called "Triumph of the Nerds" that aired on PBS in 1996. "We didn't know we couldn't do it."
His son described his father as a tinkerer who surveyed his friends before building his personal computer.
"My assumption was that there were a bunch of nuts out there like me that would like to have a computer," Ed Roberts told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1997 interview. "To engineers and electronics people, it's the ultimate gadget."
The Altair was operated by switches, and with no display screen, it looked like little more than a metal box covered in blinking, red lights.
"In the early days it was pretty useless. People just bought it thinking that it would be neat to build a computer," Gates said in a video history interview with the Smithsonian Institution.
Roberts founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, which sold the kits.
A young Gates and Allen would later found their fledgling Microsoft firm in Albuquerque, where MITS was based, and provide a computer language that helped hobbyists program and operate the Altair.
The men feuded after Gates and Allen began selling versions of BASIC -- or Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code -- created for Altair to competitors, according to the 2003 book, "Leaders of the Information Age."
David Roberts said the men had since overcome their differences, and Gates had traveled to Georgia to visit Roberts when he learned he was sick.
Roberts sold his company in 1977 and retired to a life of vegetable farming in rural Georgia before going to medical school and getting a medical degree from Mercer University, in 1986.
He worked as an internist, and his son said he never lost his interest in modern technology, even asking about Apple's highly anticipated iPad from his sick bed.