“I knew the Altair was an exciting project, and it really turned me on. But it was much more a labor of love.” Ed Roberts in an interview.
“My assumption was that there were a bunch of nuts out there like me that would like to have a computer. To engineers and electronics people, it's the ultimate gadget.” Ed Roberts in a 1997 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Front cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, announcing Ed Robert’s Altair. It signaled the beginning of the PC industry.
Henry Edward Roberts was born on September 13, 1941, in Miami, Florida. He was the eldest son of Henry Melvin Roberts and Edna Wilcher Roberts. Six years later his younger sister, Cheryl, was born. When World War II arrived, father Henry joined the army and the Roberts family relocated to the Wilcher family farm in rural Georgia. After the war, the family returned to Miami, although the young Ed would spend his summer holidays with his grandparents on their farm. Henry Sr. ran an appliance repair shop in Miami, so from a young age Ed became familiar with electronics. During his high school years he even built a small computer using relays.
Education and early career
Roberts intended to become a medical doctor and he enlisted at the University of Miami to study Medicine. A resident neurosurgeon, who shared his interest in electronics, advised him to get an engineering degree first, before doing medicine, so Roberts switched to electrical engineering. When his first wife Joan Clark – they married in 1962 – became pregnant, Roberts had to drop out of university in order to support his young family. As he was keen to continue his studies, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force which sent him to Oklahoma State University for his electrical engineering degree. After obtaining his degree in 1968 he was posted to the Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To augment his low income, he took on several electronic projects in his spare time, including the circuitry to animate the Christmas characters in a department store’s window display in San Antonio. At the Weapons Laboratory he met another Air Force officer, Forest Mims III, who also had an interest in the electronics for model rockets. In 1969, Roberts, Mims and two co-workers founded MITS, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, to design and build the telemetry modules and circuitry for rocket hobbyists. The new company’s name was chosen because it was similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s acronym MIT.
Despite Mims writing a few articles about their model rocketry products, which were published in Popular Electronics, sales of their items were not too impressive. Mims wanted to concentrate on a career as a technology writer and columnist – in which he later became very successful with millions of his books being sold – and wanted to leave MITS. Roberts bought his three partners out by paying them each $100 and decided to continue on his own. He started to concentrate on designing electronic calculators. The first product was the MITS 816 calculator which had an 8-digit display although performing calculations with 16 digits of accuracy, hence its model name. The 816 sold for $179 (in kit form) or $275 fully assembled. After the November 1971 issue of Popular Electronics had featured the MITS 816 on its front cover, the orders came streaming in. It forced Roberts to move to larger premises and have his more than 100 employees work in two shifts building the calculators. But, although in early 1973 monthly sales of $100,000 was achieved, within a few years the bottom dropped out of the calculator market. Where in the early seventies, electronic calculators were sold at over $100 each, by 1974 these little machines went for as little as $20 - $30 and dropping continuously, it had become a common item in every home. MITS was in dire straits and had a debt of $300,000 with the bank. Roberts had to urgently find a new product to get his business back on its feet. He decided to build a small electronic computer which could be sold in kit form.
This 2011 souvenir sheet (partially lightened) shows Ed Roberts in the margin with his Altair 8800.
The original picture (on the right) of the complete Altair 8800 dates from 1997.
The Altair 8800
Before buying the necessary parts for his machine, Roberts first had to raise sufficient funds. Being $300,000 in the red made it unlikely that the bank would lend him more money, but he needed $65,000 to fund his plans. He told the bank he thought he could sell 800 units – although he had a more realistic figure of 200 in his mind – and to his big surprise, the bank approved his application. It saved him and his company, which had dwindled to just 20 employees, from bankruptcy.
Looking at a possible chip to power his computer, he came across a new Intel chip, the 8080, which was released in April 1974. Intel was a large chip maker who sold their chips in bulk to large computer manufacturers. Selling chips in low quantity was new to them and they offered the 8080 for $360 per chip for small quantities. As Roberts intended to keep the cost of his computer under $400, he had to order a large quantity. He negotiated a price of $75 per microprocessor chip by ordering 1,000 chips.
In the meantime, Les Solomon, the technical editor of Popular Electronics, was looking for a lead story for their January 1975 issue. Solomon kept track of what happened in the electronics industry and knew that MITS was working on a new computer. He flew down to Albuquerque to talk to Roberts who promised him that he would have a prototype ready by November, in order to meet the deadline for the January issue. Solomon wrote his story and decided it would be his lead article in January. In October Roberts shipped his first machine to Solomon in New York so a picture could be made for the PE's front cover, but the box never arrived. Apparently it had been lost by the shipping agent. This was disastrous as without a picture on the cover, the story would not fly, and without an article in PE, the Altair would not sell enough copies. Roberts promised to build and ship a second copy, but time had run out. MITS produced a fake box with a few toggle switches and flashing LED lights on its front, but empty inside, as it was crucial to their survival that the launch of the Altair through Popular Electronics was successful. Solomon hated the idea, but in the end he agreed to use the picture of the fake. Roberts had been too busy to think about a proper name for his new computer and decided to name the machine PE-8 (Popular Electronics 8-bit), but that was considered to dull by the PE editors and the machine was announced as the Altair. According to one story, as told by Solomon on the first Altair Computer Convention in March 1976, he asked his twelve year old daughter what the name was of the computer on the Star Trek’s ship Enterprise. She replied “Computer” which did not help very much. Then she suggested “ Why don’t you call it Altair, because that’s where the Enterprise is going tonight.” The other story is that one of the technical editors, John McVeigh, said “It's a stellar event, so let's name it after a star." and suggested “Altair”, being the twelfth brightest star in the sky.
offered the computer in kit form – i.e. the box, the front panel and the CPU
board with 256 bytes (not Kb) of memory – for $395. A fully assembled copy was
sold for $498. Delivery of the order within 60 days was promised. When the
January issue hit the streets, “all hell broke loose” as Freiburger and Swaine
called it in their book “Fire in the Valley”. Within days, the orders
came streaming in. Included with the envelopes were cash payments and cheques.
One buyer from Berkeley, California, send a cheque for $4,000 with the note
“one of everything”. This was a slight problem for Roberts as “everything” did
not yet exist. Neither did MITS have the resources to work on additional memory
boards, I/O boards, interfaces to connect the Altair to a teletype, and other
options. They had to concentrate all their efforts on producing computer kits
as fast as they could, in order to keep their 60 days delivery promise. The
Berkeley buyer received a note from MITS explaining that not everything existed
yet and got half his payment returned. But he was intrigued now and flew down
to Albuquerque to visit MITS and see for himself.
Looking for a big building signed MITS, he finally found the little workshop next to a laundromat in a shopping centre. He got a few parts for his efforts and returned to Berkeley. In April 1975 he attended a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, California, where he showed his purchase. He also mentioned that MITS had thousands of orders and were battling to fill them. The Homebrew crowd was ecstatic – not only could they now buy their own computer for under $500, but it now was obvious that there was a large market for minicomputers. Within one year, Apple Computers was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and up and running. Many more would follow.
Purchasers of the Altair 8800 kit had to assemble the computer themselves, which meant they had to connect all the wires from the front panel to the motherboard. If they managed to get that right, they could program the machine by entering a program in machine code, using the toggle switches on the front. As there was no output apart from the LED lights on the front panel, all the program could do, was blink the lights in the sequence programmed. Not very exciting, but it was a start. If the power was lost, or the computer was switched off, the program in memory would be lost, and next time one would have to start all over. Roberts had already realized that he urgently needed a programming language for his new computer and put out the word that he was interested in buying a BASIC interpreter for the Altair. BASIC, which stands for “Beginners All-purpose Symbolic instruction code”, was an easy to learn programming language and would become the language most available on the new minicomputers.
One day Roberts received a phone call from the Traf-O-Data company in Seattle. The young owner claimed he had a BASIC available, and was Roberts interested? Roberts replied that he would buy the first BASIC once he saw it running on the Altair. Traf-O-Data was a company created in 1972 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, two high school buddies, to process traffic counts and generate reports for traffic engineers. Paul Allen had seen the January issue of Popular Electronics and showed it to Bill Gates who studied Law at Harvard University at the time. The two friends followed up on their call and proceeded to write the BASIC interpreter. Six weeks later Paul Allen flew to Albuquerque to show their BASIC to MITS. After a few hiccups, the software worked when Allen typed in “Print 2+2” , followed by “Run” and received the answer: “4”. Roberts was ecstatic, bought the product and offered Allen the position of Software Director at MITS, which he accepted. Gates was still a student at Harvard but was offered part-time work at MITS. Roberts paid $3000 for the software and Gates and Allen were to receive a royalty for each copy sold with a maximum of $180,000, while MITS had the exclusive rights to sublicense the software to other companies.
Allen and Gates decided to relocate to Albuquerque and renamed their Traf-O-Data company to Micro-Soft, which later became Microsoft. With new minicomputer companies sprouting up, Gates and Allen adapted their BASIC and sold it to many other users and manufacturers of personal computers. Obviously, Roberts was upset, as he believed BASIC was an MITS product, while Gates believed because he wrote the BASIC interpreter, they were the owner of it.
Because MITS had to dedicate all their resources to building Altairs to fill their orders, they had little time to properly design the extra memory boards and other requirements their users had. The 4K memory boards they did produce, didn’t work. Other companies jumped to the occasion and produced add-ons to the Altair: memory boards, teletype interfaces, and so on. Others built complete minicomputers in direct competition to Roberts’ computer. A complete minicomputer industry had started up. By 1976, MITS had grown to a company with 230 employees and a turnover of $6 million. But Roberts realized that the competition was becoming too big and he wanted out. Pertec Computer Corporation made an offer of $6 million for MITS which Roberts accepted. Roberts received $2 million for his share and stayed on with Pertec as a consultant. Pertec also assumed they had bought the BASIC software but Gates disputed that. When it went to arbitration Microsoft was declared the owner of BASIC and the rest is history. After Pertec had taken over MITS, it went quickly downhill. Most ex-MITS employees were unhappy and left. Roberts left Pertec after a few months as he disagreed with their plans. The Altair was discontinued on 1978. During its life some 60,000 Altairs had been sold, but what’s much more important: the Altair had generated a completely new industry.
Becoming a doctor
In 1977, Roberts returned to rural Georgia where he bought a farm in Wheeler County and became a farmer. He intended to revive his old dream – studying medicine – to become a doctor, but he was considered too old, he was 36 at the time. In 1982, Mercer University in nearby Macon, Georgia, founded a new School of Medicine for Georgia residents with the aim of training primary care physicians for rural areas of Georgia. Roberts saw his chance, applied and was accepted. In 1986 he graduated with an M.D. and established himself in 1988 as a G.P. with a small practice in Cochran, Georgia.
After a bout with pneumonia, Ed Roberts died on April 1, 2010. During his stay in the hospital at Macon, nursing staff were surprised to see Bill Gates walk in to pay a last visit to his erstwhile employer.
Philatelically speaking, Roberts has been portrayed on only three stamps: Cambodia shows him with a modern PC and an ergonomic keyboard on a 2001 stamp. The stamp shows Blaise Pascal in the top right. In 2011 Mozambique issued a sheetlet of six stamps, one featuring Roberts with the famous ENIAC in the background (see above), and a souvenir sheet with Roberts in the margin together with the famous Altair 8800.
© Wobbe Vegter, 2012