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Ed Roberts (computer engineer) : biography

September 13, 1941 - April 1, 2010

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. The article gives his date of birth as September 13, 1941. He is most often known as "the father of the personal computer". He founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in 1970 to sell electronics kits to model rocketry hobbyists, but the first successful product was an electronic calculator kit that was featured on the cover of the November 1971 issue of Popular Electronics. The calculators were very successful and sales topped one million dollars in 1973.

A brutal calculator price war left the company deeply in debt by 1974. Roberts then developed the Altair 8800 personal computer that used the new Intel 8080 microprocessor. This was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, and hobbyists flooded MITS with orders for this $397 computer kit.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen joined MITS to develop software and Altair BASIC was Microsoft's first product. Roberts sold MITS in 1977 and retired to Georgia where he farmed, studied medicine and eventually became a small-town doctor.




  • Part 2 in the February 1975 issue.
  • Part 2 in the December 1975 issue.

Altair 8800 computer

Roberts decided to return to the kit market with a low cost computer. The target customer would think that "some assembly required" was a desirable feature. In April 1974 Intel released the 8080 microprocessor that Roberts felt was powerful enough for his computer kit but each 8080 chip sold for $360 in small quantities.Young (1998), 155–158. Roberts felt the price of a computer kit had to be under $400; to meet this price he agreed to order 1000 microprocessors from Intel for $75 each.Ceruzzi (2003), 227–228. Roberts did the circuit design and Bill Yates did the circuit board layout. The company was down to 20 employees and a bank loan for $65,000 financed the design and initial production of the new computer. Roberts told the bank he expected to sell 800 computers but he guessed it would be around 200.

Art Salsberg, editorial director of Popular Electronics, was looking for a computer construction project, and his technical editor, Les Solomon, knew MITS was working on an Intel 8080 based computer kit. Roberts assured Solomon that the project would be complete by November to meet the press deadline for the January 1975 issue. The first prototype was finished in October and shipped to Popular Electronics in New York for the cover photograph, but it was lost in transit. Solomon already had a number of pictures of the machine, and the article was based on them. Roberts and Yates got to work on building a replacement. The computer on the magazine cover was an empty box with just switches and LEDs on the front panel. The finished Altair computer had a completely different circuit board layout than the prototype shown in the magazine.

MITS products typically had generic names such as the Model 1440 Calculator or the Model 1600 Digital Voltmeter. The editors of Popular Electronics wanted a more alluring name for the computer. MITS technical writer, David Bunnell, came up with three pages of possible names, but Roberts was too busy finishing the computer design to choose a name. There are several versions of the story of who selected Altair as the computer name. At the first Altair Computer Convention (March 1976), Les Solomon told the audience that the name was inspired by his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren. "She said why don't you call it Altair – that's where the [Star Trek] Enterprise is going tonight." "Les Solomon entertained a curious audience with anecdotes about how it all began for MITS, The name for MITS's computer, for example, was inspired by his 12-year-old daughter. She said why don't you call it Altair – that's where the [Star Trek] Enterprise is going tonight." The December 1976 issue of Popular Science misquoted this account giving credit to Ed Roberts' daughter. His only daughter, Dawn, was not born until 1983. Both of these versions have appeared in many books, magazines and web sites.

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