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Remembering the Legacy of Ed Roberts April 5, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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The Wall Street Journal, Computerworld, and others have noted the passing last week of Ed Roberts, the founder of MITS and creator of the Altair 8800.

If the name, company, and product don’t mean anything to you, take a few minutes to read the links (I’ll wait for you).  Before there was the IBM PC, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, there was Ed Roberts and MITS.  Bill Gates and Paul Allen, working on their initial product, a BASIC language interpreter, left Harvard and moved to Albuquerque to work with Roberts and the Altair.  Microsoft came into the modern lexicon as the company they founded to provide that BASIC interpreter for the Altair.

The origins of the personal computer revolution were slightly before my time, but it’s incredibly important to understand how we got to where we are today.  The descendants of the PC power much of the Internet and the business world, as well as consumer products of all types.  Many of the ways of working that we take for granted today were created and explored around this time.

Roberts made a small amount of money when he sold MITS in 1977, but the PC revolution had yet to take off.  Microsoft continued to build software for the Altair and other early computers, and later Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the first Apple computer (my first personal computer was an original Apple Macintosh, on the market for only a month in 1984).

Most people who used computers at this time, and the number was very small, used teletype terminals to time-sharing systems (as I did as a student).  Some highly valued engineering professionals may have had their own PDP-11.  The thought that computers could be personal was so radical that no less a luminary than DEC’s Ken Olsen declared that he couldn’t see a need to own one.  Ed Roberts, and the others in this Generation Zero of personal computing did.  History has proven Roberts, Jobs, Gates, Allen, Kildall, and the rest of them unabashedly right.

There’s no grand lesson of innovation, perspiration, and success beyond the wildest dreams in this story.  The messages, instead, are very personal.  Roberts didn’t get wealthy and spend the rest of his life on a yacht; he became a country doctor.  It wasn’t important for him to be right in the eyes of history.  Instead, he wanted to contribute to society.

When I was very young, the medium of curiosity and exploration was the Heath Kit and the chemistry set.  The Altair 8800 was a kit, enabling the young of the day to build their own.  For those who experimented with the Altair 8800, or the Tandy TRS-80, or other very early personal computer, and were inspired to go on to a computing career, this generation of computing entrepreneurs has Ed Roberts and his contemporaries to look up to.

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