|ost days, when not busy with patients in his office, Dr. H. Edward Roberts makes the rounds visiting homebound patients in Cochran, Ga., a city with less than 5,000 residents.
But Roberts' life as a country doctor seems a lifetime away from the small building in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., where his inventive streak produced a menagerie of radio-controlled devices, calculators and hobbyist electronics gear,not to mention one of the ignition switches for the computer industry.
In mid-1974, Roberts,a former U.S. Air Force officer,built the Altair, a computer kit that augured the age of the PC. The first model, the Altair 8800, and Robert's company, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), were showcased on the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics, sparking a firestorm of interest from hobbyists nationwide.
"It was a craze," says Forrest Mims III, a co-founder of MITS and an author of more than 70 science books. "That began the whole PC revolution. People felt they had to have one. The personal computer would not have been without Ed."
Roberts never thought he'd be regarded as a founding father of the personal computer, a term that he says he coined. His Altair 8800 now sits in the Smithsonian Institution.
The basic Altair had an Intel 8080 microprocessor, 256 bytes of RAM, standard binary switches, and LEDs on the front panel and power supply. It sold for $297 without a case and $395 with a case. The "Altair bus" used a connector with 100 pins and was later known as the S-100 bus.
"The Altair was trying to bring the minicomputer to the hobbyist. It was a catalyst. It spawned the idea of clones and third-party support," says Doug Salot, who runs Blinkenlights Archeological Institute, an educational computer industry Web site.
Those who know Roberts, a pre-med major who eventually switched to electrical engineering, describe him as inventive and driven,an "eternal optimist," says Mims, who met Roberts in 1968 when they were stationed at Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico. While assigned to the base's laser laboratory, Roberts showed interest in computers and medicine, Mims says. Roberts talked about building a digital computer and spent hours talking to a superior officer about medicine.
The idea to start a company emerged when Roberts became interested in selling kits for radio-controlled devices. He teamed up with Mims and two other friends, Stan Cagle and Bob Zaller, to launch MITS in 1968.
The hobbyist market, however, proved to be tough, and Zaller, Cagle and Mims eventually sold their shares to Roberts. They each got $100. By 1971, MITS built a programmable calculator, but that business ended up being sidelined when Texas Instruments bulldozed the market. So in 1972, MITS designed a terminal system to interface with time-shared computers.
At that time, Roberts began to envision the concept of a personal computer, an affordable computing device with a keyboard, CRT, operating system, mass storage and memory. He considered Digital Equipment's PDP-8 a good prototype but was most impressed by the Hewlett-Packard 9100, which came out in 1968 at a price of $6,000.
When Intel introduced the 8080 processor in late 1973, Roberts felt the horsepower was finally available to help him realize his vision. He teamed up with MITS colleague Bill Yates and began designing the Altair, completing the work by mid-1974, Mims says. The Altair, named after a star system in the "Star Trek" TV series, in part represented a last-ditch effort to save MITS from going under. After all, Roberts had a wife and six children to support.
"We had a meeting with our bankers in September of 1974. We needed $65,000 to keep the company going. We were bankrupt," Roberts says. "I told them we had a chance to sell 800 to 900 [Altairs] the next year. I was accused of being a wild-eyed, crazy optimist." By early January 1975, MITS was receiving orders for 250 Altairs a day. It generated 5,000 orders in the first year.
Despite its early glory, the Altair still needed something: software. Roberts put out a call that he would offer a contract to anyone with a working version of BASIC, a language invented at Dartmouth and already in the public domain.
History generally characterizes the Altair as the first computer that ran Microsoft software. Roberts sees it differently, noting there are "distortions" about the role Gates and Allen played in the Altair story. "Bill Gates and Paul Allen worked for me at MITS. They started Microsoft with the software they developed at MITS," he says.
Roberts was approached by Allen and Gates in February 1975, when they sent him a letter to offer an operating version of BASIC. MITS signed them on. But Allen and Gates ran into some problems, Roberts says. "They got into so much trouble, they never could get the whole thing done on their own. We just hired them and developed the operation internally at MITS. All that software was developed by people on the MITS payroll."
By 1977, things were really percolating. The Altair, even with its limitations, was becoming popular with electronics hobbyists, and microcomputer clubs began popping up. Roberts and MITS employees toured the country promoting the Altair. Amid the Altair's success, other microcomputer companies surfaced, some of which developed Altair accessories.
For Roberts, though, the Altair's success proved too taxing. By 1977, he says, he became "burned out" and decided to sell MITS for $6 million to a company called Pertec. He worked in Pertec's R&D unit for a short time but left, citing what he saw as the company's lack of vision.
Pertec discontinued the Altair in 1978. Roberts bought a farm in Georgia and turned to his true passion, entering medical school in 1982 at the age of 39.
During the Altair's brief life, roughly 60,000 machines were rolled out, Roberts says. The number of units built and sold, however, didn't matter as much as what the Altair created: a doorway for the fledgling PC industry. Historians continue to debate about the machine that paved the way for the PC industry to rise. Some point to the Apple II, with its color graphics and built-in keyboard, as the first viable PC.
Roberts says he doesn't regret leaving the computer industry. He says he's had a "good career" as a doctor and believes he has "done some good."
Roberts says his time in the technology arena was primarily about invention. And the country doctor, who says he still signs autographs for admirers, will always be known as the inventor of the Altair,a machine that helped start a revolution. "The motivating force was coming up with a design of a product and thinking it through," he says. "That is one of the most exciting things you can do."
For the week ending Dec. 13, CRN looks at IT companies that brought their 'A' game and made moves to beat out competitors.
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