Computer pioneer Ed Roberts: 1941-2010

The man who arguably inspired the creation of Microsoft has died at the age of 68. Ed Roberts launched the Altair 8800, one of the earliest home computers, and gave Bill Gates his first big break.

Roberts and his company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems marketed a series of electronics kits in the early 1970s, including electronic calculators. In 1974 MITS launched the Altair 8800, a computer kit which started from $439 at a time when comparable machines cost thousands of dollars.

The machine featured on the front cover of the January 1975 edition of Popular Mechanics, an edition read by a man named Paul Allen who then showed it to his friend Bill Gates. The pair believed the cheap machine could spark a mass audience for computing which would make software a profitable outlet and offered to develop a programming language for the machine, known as Altair BASIC.

Roberts agreed to distribute it under license and it proved successful; it was also widely copied by hobbyists, prompting an infamous letter from Gates accusing them of theft. Gates and Allen formed “Micro-Soft” to take care of the business side of the licensing deal, and the rest is history.

In 1977, Roberts sold MITS and began studying medicine before becoming a doctor in Georgia for the rest of his working life.

Gates and Allen said today that “Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution, and didn’t always get the recognition he deserved. He was an intense man with a great sense of humor, and he always cared deeply about the people who worked for him, including us. 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.”

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