A PC Pioneer Passes On

By  |  Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Ed Roberts died today in Georgia at the age of 68. The development of the personal computer was too collaborative for any one person to deserve the honor of being the father of the industry…but as I think about it, I can’t think of anyone with a better claim on the title than Roberts. He may not have invented the PC, but he surely invented the PC industry.

Roberts cofounded MITS in Albuquerque in 1969 and served as its president. The company made rocket kits at first, and then calculators, and was struggling when Roberts made the decision to launch the Altair 8800, the first PC to gain any traction. When it appeared on the front cover of Popular Electronics magazine’s January 1975 issue, a couple of young geeks got so excited by the issue they picked up at Harvard Square’s Out of Town News that they wrote a version of the BASIC programming language for it even though they didn’t have an Altair. They relocated to Albuquerque and ended up founding a company to write software for the system. The geeks were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and they called their company Micro-Soft.

The Altair also inspired the founding of Silicon Valley’s legendary Homebrew Computer Club, whose membership included numerous important PC-industry figures–including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who started their own computer company to compete with MITS in 1976.

MITS’ dominance of the PC business was brief (by 1977, when the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Commodore PET came out, the Altair already felt like a machine from an earlier era). But in many ways the business model that sprung up around MITS’ computers–including clones, upgrades, peripherals, books and magazines, computer stores, Intel processors, and Microsoft software–lives on to this day.

In 1977, Roberts sold MITS and returned to his boyhood home state of Georgia, where he eventually fulfilled a long-time dream by earning a medical degree and becoming a country doctor.

I asked David Bunnell, who was VP of marketing at MITS and went on to found PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld, among other businesses, to remember his friend and colleague:

In my mind, Ed Roberts will always be the Father of the Personal Computer Industry. Whether the Altair was the first PC or not isn’t that material, what really matters is Ed launched the most dynamic, fastest growing industry the world has ever seen. There would be no Apple, no Google, no Facebook without his initial contribution. And for me, personally, he taught me all about the excitement and rewards of being an entrepreneur.

And here’s a statement from Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

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