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We were saddened to learn that Dr. Ed Roberts — aka “the father of the personal computer” — died of pneumonia on April 1 of this year. He was 68. In 1975 Roberts designed the MITS Altair 8800, arguably the world’s first personal computer. It was a runaway success at the time, selling around 6,000 units in kit form at $395 each. More importantly, the Altair launched the personal computer revolution (and played a major role in the formation of Microsoft).

Earlier today, I spoke with Forrest Mims about Roberts and the early days of the Altair. Forrest writes the Country Scientist column for MAKE, but he was also the co-founder of MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, which started out as a model rocket telemetry kit manufacturer) and he told me that Ed Roberts was his closest friend. Forrest is a natural storyteller, and in this 20-minute interview he reveals a number of surprising and humorous anecdotes about Dr. Roberts, MITS, and the Altair.

Here’s a tidbit from the interview: after the Altair was introduced on the cover of Popular Electronics in 1975, people started calling up Roberts, offering to write a version of BASIC for his computer. Two of those people were Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Roberts invited Allen to come to Albuquerque (where MITS was located) and discuss his proposal. After Allen arrived, Roberts drove him to a local motel. Allen admitted he had no money to pay for the room. Roberts was also broke (he’d lost all his money when prices plummeted on electronic calculators, which MITS had been making and selling), but he gave Allen his credit card to pay for the room. Gates and Allen soon moved to Albuquerque to work with Roberts, and shortly afterwards founded “Micso-Soft” near the MITS office.

On learning of Roberts’ death, Bill Gates and Paul Allen issued the following statement:

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… 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 in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 — where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then.

Hats off to a wonderful man and an inspiring maker.

Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.


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