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One of the great pioneers of computer industry passed away today. Dr. Ed Roberts, founder of MITS, marketed a device that was based around the then new Intel 8080 microprocessor. The Altair Microcomputer was introduced in 1975 as the cover article for Popular Electronics. Among the readers of that issue of the magazine was Paul Allen. Paul Allen was a close friend of Bill Gates. And this chance reading of that particular issue of the magazine by Allen leads to what is, perhaps, Dr. Roberts’ biggest contribution to computing: the eventual hiring of Gates and Allen to supply the Basic language which allowed Roberts’ Altair to be useful to many non-programmers.
While I, personally, never owned an Altair, I did have the opportunity to play with one, years after its introduction. I saw many, many of the computers at ‘hamfests’, flea markets for ham radio enthusiasts. It was around 1976 when I first saw one in person and about two years later, in 1978, when I got to use one. Of course, it was running Microsoft Basic, the very Basic the Gates and Allen wrote. I do have, however, very vivid memories of that particular issue of Popular Electronics (and, in fact, had the copy as recently as ten years ago.) I must have read that article dozens of times. Of course, we already had a computer: the Mark 8, which made an appearance in Popular Electronics’ rival magazine, Radio-Electronics in 1974. The Mark 8, though, was no where near as powerful and was quickly replaced in our house with a Signetics based 2650 microprocessor driven computer. At least with the 2650, we had a version of Basic called ‘Tiny Basic’, which was simply a stripped down, feature incomplete version of Basic.
Mr. Roberts, while a pioneer, was probably not the best businessman and, unfortunately, MITS did not survive the 1970’s. His contributions, however, made a tremendous impact on the industry and, to a lesser extent, the whole planet. The Altair was, for years, sort of the icon for the home computer and a cousin of the computer, the Imsai 8080, was made famous in the movie ‘War Games.’ Few know his name, but he was a true pioneer.
Mr. Roberts was 68.