To many modern computer users, Ed Roberts may be an unfamiliar name. But this makes him no less an important figure. Roberts is regarded by many as the inventor of the personal computer thanks to his invention of the MITS Altair, the first inexpensive general purpose microcomputer. He also played a formative role in shaping the careers of Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, both of whom got their starts in the computing industry by working for Roberts.
Born in Miami, FL on September 13, 1941, Henry Edward “Ed” Roberts was the son of Henry, an appliance repairman, and Edna, a nurse. Roberts also had an younger sister, Cheryl, born in 1947. At an early age, Roberts demonstrated an interest in electronics and build a small personal computer while in high school. Still, it was medicine that was Roberts’s first love. He combined the two interests while a student at the University of Miami, where he built the electronics for a heart-lung machine.
This invention propelled Roberts toward pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, which he earned at Oklahoma State University in 1968. From there, he worked for the Air Force at their weapons laboratory in Albuquerque, NM. It was in Albuquerque that Roberts first conceived and executed his vision of creating computers for home use. These efforts would result in the Altair 8000, a microcomputer designed by MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) in 1974.
The MITS Altair project attracted the attention of two young men who would go on to become key figures in the computing industry: Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates was then a Harvard student while Allen worked for the multinational conglomerate Honeywell in Boston. The two would go on to craft a version of the programming language that ran the Altair Basic machine. This programming language, later to be known as Microsoft Basic, would eventually become the foundation for the success of Microsoft and propel Roberts’s proteges into the stratosphere of fame and fortune.
The pioneering efforts of Roberts in the mid 1970s were a key transition point between PC’s being mere curiosities to indispensable parts of the household. Roberts sold his company in 1977, a few short years before the PC boom of the 1980s. Gates went on to build his fortune harvesting the fertile grounds of the PC industry while his mentor left before he could reap its benefits. Although Roberts became a millionaire as a result of the sale, it’s clear that he could’ve been rich many times over had he stayed involved in the computing industry. Still, it appears that he didn’t regret his decision. In fact, Roberts was so divorced from the goings-on in the computing world that he routinely shunned industry events celebrating the accomplishments he helped bring about.
After leaving the computing world behind, Roberts went on to pursue other interests such as farming and general medicine, having earned his medical degree from Mercer University in 1986. For 35 years, he practiced medicine in the small town of Cochran, GA (pop. 5,150 as of the 2010 Census). Roberts never lost his passion for electrical engineering, however, and still made inventions at home up until the time of his death.
Although Roberts and Gates had a falling out sometime in the 1980s, Gates rushed to Roberts’s when he’d heard his former mentor had fallen ill. The two men were able to reconcile their differences just before Roberts died at the age of 68. In a statement on Gates Notes, Gates and Allen expressed their condolences on the passing of their friend and mentor.
“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 statement said.
Henry Edward " Ed" Roberts (September 13, 1941 - April 1, 2010) was an American engineer, entrepreneur and medical doctor who invented the first commercially successful personal computer in 1975. He is most often known as " the father of the personal computer".