Saturday, April 3, 2010


H. Edward Roberts, PC Pioneer, Dies at 68


Published: April 2, 2010

Not many people in the computer world remembered H. Edward Roberts, not after he walked away from the industry more than three decades ago to become a country doctor in Georgia. Bill Gates remembered him, though.

@ New York Times

William Berry /Atlanta Journal-Constitution

H. Edward Roberts with the Altair 8800 computer in 1997.


As Dr. Roberts lay dying last week in a hospital in Macon, Ga., suffering from pneumonia, Mr. Gates flew down to be at his bedside.

Mr. Gates knew what many had forgotten: that Dr. Roberts had made an early and enduring contribution to modern computing. He created the MITS Altair, the first inexpensive general-purpose microcomputer, a device that could be programmed to do all manner of tasks. For that achievement, some historians say Dr. Roberts deserves to be recognized as the inventor of the personal computer.

For Mr. Gates, the connection to Dr. Roberts was also personal. It was writing software for the MITS Altair that gave Mr. Gates, a student at Harvard at the time, and his Microsoft partner, Paul G. Allen, their start. Later, they moved to Albuquerque, where Dr. Roberts had set up shop.

Dr. Roberts died Thursday at the Medical Center of Middle Georgia, his son Martin said. He was 68.

When the Altair was introduced in the mid-1970s, personal computers — then called microcomputers — were mainly intriguing electronic gadgets for hobbyists, the sort of people who tinkered with ham radio kits.

Dr. Roberts, it seems, was a classic hobbyist entrepreneur. He left his mark on computing, built a nice little business, sold it and moved on — well before personal computers moved into the mainstream of business and society.

Mr. Gates, as history proved, had far larger ambitions.

Over the years, there was some lingering animosity between the two men, and Dr. Roberts pointedly kept his distance from industry events — like the 20th anniversary celebration in Silicon Valley of the introduction of the I.B.M. PC in 1981, which signaled the corporate endorsement of PCs.

But in recent months, after learning that Dr. Roberts was ill, Mr. Gates made a point of reaching out to his former boss and customer. Mr. Gates sent Dr. Roberts a letter last December and followed up with phone calls, another son, Dr. John David Roberts, said. Eight days ago, Mr. Gates visited the elder Dr. Roberts at his bedside in Macon.

“Any past problems between those two were long since forgotten,” said Dr. John David Roberts, who had accompanied Mr. Gates to the hospital. He added that Mr. Allen, the other Microsoft founder, had also called the elder Dr. Roberts frequently in recent months.

On his Web site, Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen posted a joint statement, saying they were saddened by the death of “our friend and early 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.

When the small MITS Altair appeared on the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics, Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen plunged into writing a version of the Basic programming language that could run on the machine.

Mr. Gates dropped out of Harvard, and Mr. Allen left his job at Honeywell in Boston. The product they created for Dr. Roberts’s machine, Microsoft Basic, was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest software company and would make its founders billionaires many times over.

MITS was the kingpin of the fledgling personal computer business only briefly. In 1977, Mr. Roberts sold his company. He walked away a millionaire. But as a part of the sale, he agreed not to design computers for five years, an eternity in computing. It was a condition that Mr. Roberts, looking for a change, accepted.

He first invested in farmland in Georgia. After a few years, he switched course and decided to revive a childhood dream of becoming a physician, earning his medical degree in 1986 from Mercer University in Macon. He became a general practitioner in Cochran, 35 miles southeast of the university.

In Albuquerque, Dr. Roberts, a burly, 6-foot-4 former Air Force officer, often clashed with Mr. Gates, the skinny college dropout. Mr. Gates was “a very bright kid, but he was a constant headache at MITS,” Dr. Roberts said in an interview with The New York Times at his office in 2001.

“You couldn’t reason with him,” he added. “He did things his way or not at all.”

His former MITS colleagues recalled that Dr. Roberts could be hardheaded as well. “Unlike the rest of us, Bill never backed down from Ed Roberts face to face,” David Bunnell, a former MITS employee, said in 2001. “When they disagreed, sparks flew.”

Over the years, people have credited others with inventing the personal computer, including the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Apple and I.B.M. But Paul E. Ceruzzi, a technology historian at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in “ History of Modern Computing” (MIT Press, 1998) that “H. Edward Roberts, the Altair’s designer, deserves credit as the inventor of the personal computer.”

Mr. Ceruzzi noted the “utter improbability and unpredictability” of having one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century come to life from such a seemingly obscure origin. “But Albuquerque it was,” Mr. Ceruzzi wrote, “for it was only at MITS that the technical and social components of personal computing converged.”

H. Edward Roberts was born in Miami on Sept. 13, 1941. His father, Henry Melvin Roberts, ran a household appliance repair service, and his mother, Edna Wilcher Roberts, was a nurse. As a young man, he wanted to be a doctor and, in fact, became intrigued by electronics working with doctors at the University of Miami who were doing experimental heart surgery. He built the electronics for a heart-lung machine. “That’s how I got into it,” Dr. Roberts recalled in 2001.

So he abandoned his intended field and majored in electrical engineering at Oklahoma State University. Then, he worked on a room-size I.B.M. computer. But the power of computing, Dr. Roberts recalled, “opened up a whole new world. And I began thinking, What if you gave everyone a computer?”

In addition to his sons Martin, of Glenwood, Ga., and John David, of Eastman, Ga., Dr. Roberts is survived by his mother, Edna Wilcher Roberts, of Dublin, Ga., his wife, Rosa Roberts of Cochran; his sons Edward, of Atlanta, and Melvin and Clark, both of Athens, Ga.; his daughter, Dawn Roberts, of Warner Robins, Ga.; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

His previous two marriages, to Donna Mauldin Roberts and Joan C. Roberts, ended in divorce.

His sons said Dr. Roberts never gave up his love for making things, for tinkering and invention. He was an accomplished woodworker, making furniture for his household, family and friends. He made a Star Wars-style light saber for a neighbor’s son, using light-emitting diodes. And several years ago he designed his own electronic medical records software, though he never tried to market it, his son Dr. Roberts said.

“Once he figured something out,” he added, “he was on to the next thing.”

Forgotten legend: Cochran funeral set for builder of first PC
@ Macon Telegraph
Funeral services for Dr. Henry Edward Roberts, a physician and one of the computing world’s influential figures, will be held Monday in Cochran. He died Thursday after a months-long bout with pneumonia.

Roberts, who was 68, made a name for himself when, in the mid-1970s, he built and sold a primitive home computer called the Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) Altair 8800, a screenless box of a machine with red light bulbs on its face that was operated by toggle switches.

The device, named after a star by his daughter Dawn, is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which notes on its Web site that the machine is the one “that inaugurated the personal computer age.”

A young Bill Gates, who went on to found Microsoft, was inspired by Roberts’ creation. Gates, who later became an associate of Roberts’, visited Roberts at a Macon hospital last week.

Roberts, who, after selling his company, became a farmer and then a medical doctor — a graduate of Mercer University’s charter medical school class in 1986 — told The Telegraph in a 1995 interview that he coined the term “personal computer” in a marketing meeting for his Altair machine. He spoke of the frustration of being a somewhat forgotten pioneer.

“History has been rewritten,’’ Roberts, who wrote computer software on the side, said in the interview. “I’ve been to computer stores in Macon and asked them ‘Who invented the personal computer?’ Every time I’ve asked that question, they’ve always told me it was Apple. ... We developed an entire industry before Apple ever shipped its first personal computer. When the fiction becomes bigger than the fact, you go with the fiction. Besides, Steve Jobs is more photogenic.”

According to the Telegraph’s 15-year-old profile of Roberts, Gates “and his pal Paul Allen ... adapted the computer language BASIC for the Altair. ... The first time they tried it on an actual Altair machine was when Allen demonstrated it for Roberts. Miraculously, it worked. Roberts struck a deal with the young computer whiz on the spot.”

Though Gates was not a Roberts employee, Roberts “did hire him as a contractor to upgrade Altair BASIC,” the story noted.

After selling the computer company (his share of the sale was $3 million), Roberts, a Miami native and father of six, settled on his family’s ancestral farm in Wheeler County, outside Alamo, south of Dublin. There he dropped out of sight, at least to the computer society.

“I intentionally kept a low profile,” Roberts told The Telegraph.

But farming, raising cows, pigs, soybeans and corn, didn’t pan out for him. “I decided I wasn’t smart enough to make it farming,” Roberts said. “It’s a lot easier to make a living building computers.”

In 1982, when he was in his late 30s, he enrolled in the fledgling Mercer medical school.

“That charter class was made up of some really outstanding people, many of them older than the usual age for entering medical students, and all of them risk takers to a degree. Because Mercer at that time was a risk-taking opportunity if you wanted to be a doctor,” recalled Dr. Doug Skelton, past dean of the college’s medical school, who started there in 1985. “I heard the story after I got there about a person being in the class who had been involved in the development of the personal computer. And I thought, ‘That’s certainly far-fetched.’ But I began to check it out a little. Some people sent me some articles ... and it’s true!”

Skelton recalls the 6-foot-4 Roberts, who had a military background from the Air Force and an electrical engineering degree, as “very, very bright, obviously.”

“He did not tolerate fools easily,” Skelton said Friday. “For him, I think at times, dealing with the details of the medical education curriculum were a little boring. He was probably jumping ahead to the end of the chapter. ... But he really wanted to be a country doctor, pretty much in the old tradition in Georgia.”

Told of the Microsoft founder’s hospital visit to see Roberts last week, Skelton said, “I like Bill Gates even better hearing that he did that.”

Roberts, whose funeral is at 11 a.m. Monday at Cochran First Baptist Church, practiced medicine for more than 20 years in Bleckley County.

Dr. Richard Anderson, a Cochran dentist and close friend of Roberts’, called him “probably the smartest person I have ever talked to. ... He’s very versatile about any subject that you wanted to cover. He was a mortician at one time. He was a veterinary assistant at one time. Of course, he was an electrical engineer.”

“I think the community has suffered a major loss,” Anderson said. “When he went into the hospital, I think back in October, his practice was put on hold, put on standby.”

Dr. Jean Sumner, an internist who was a Mercer classmate of Roberts’, said he was “a person who cared about people and who really enjoyed practicing medicine because he could help people. ... I know he meant a lot to the area around Cochran.”

Sumner, who practices in Wrightsville, said, “He was brilliant. While we were all studying to get through medical school, Ed was studying to get through medical school and he was starting a software company. ... He could solve problems, and he had a mind that was really unmatched.”

The 1995 Telegraph piece noted Roberts’ passion for gadgets and scuba diving, mentioning how he was “the guy who wears a dive suit styled after the uniforms on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’; the guy who owns nearly 300 movies on laser disc ... the guy who has a compulsion for the latest technology.”

The article also quoted Roberts, then 54, about getting older and still working.

“I think retirement is bad,” he said. “Humans don’t tolerate it too well. If you want to die, retire.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

Read more: