Ed Roberts and MITS

Excerpted from an Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper article, 04/27/97.
Written by Bo Emerson.

Ed Roberts, founder of MITS (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems), designed the first personal computer before there was a demand for a single unit. MITS had sold thousands of handheld electronic calculators and in 1974 there was no real purpose for a desktop computer. Ed Roberts surveyed the market to see who might buy their own computer and he couldn't find a single person who wanted one. He built one anyway. Says Roberts, " I was bullheaded, my assumption was that there were a bunch of nuts out there like me that would like to have a computer." "To engineers and electronics people, it's the ultimate gadget."

The first machine, a kit for hobbyists, included an Intel 8080 microprocessor, a 256 byte RAM card and a panel of switches. The price: $395. Like the electronic calculator, his creation made the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in January 1975.

The name Altair was taken from a "Star Trek" episode. Says a MITS colleague, Roberts and company were workaholics but "they'd stop everything to watch 'Star Trek.' "

They planned on selling 400 units the first year but sold 800 in the first month. The company doubled their sales each year, reaching $20M in sales in 1977. MITS sold thousands of units long before Apple shipped a single computer!

Among those intrigued by this computer were Harvard students Bill Gates and Paul Allen. In the spring of 1975 Allen arrived at MITS headquarters in Albuquerque carrying a version of a computer language called BASIC, on a roll of paper tape. It worked, sort of, and Roberts hired Allen as manager of software. Gates, 19 years old, came on board later that summer at $10 an hour.

MITS eventually sold about 50,000 units, most of them pre-assembled, along with keyboards and monitors from another supplier. Roberts saw the competition springing up around him and was ready to sell when Pertec Computer offered to buy MITS in mid 1977. "They had a lot of money and I didn't," he explains.

Gates and Allen went on to build the multibillion-dollar Microsoft empire partly from operating software they wrote for the Altair.

Roberts took his share of the MITS sale and moved his family back to southern Georgia, his mother's native land. He planned to grow corn and soybeans but farming lost it's appeal "after about 10 or 15 seconds." In 1984, at age 42, he entered Mercer University's first class of medical students. It wasn't a new idea: As a teenager growing up in Miami he had worked as a scrub technician for heart surgeons at Jackson Memorial hospital.

Ed Roberts, creator of the first personal computer, left the "fast track" pace of the computer business for the challenges of being a small-town physician. At 55, he now practices medicine in a small south Georgia town, (pop. 4390) living with his wife, two Great Danes and a raft of IBM clones.

Typically, he's still inventing, working on "tele-radiology" software that will improve the transmission of medical records, and researching medical literature on the Internet.

Ed's thoughts on:

Success:

"I had enough money at one time. It's not what you expect it to be. You end up with a lot more toys than you have time to play with."

Living in a small town:

"Everytime I get the urge to go back to a city, I go to Atlanta during rush hour and I lose my enthusiasm."

Breaking his silence:

"Apple started claiming to have invented the personal computer and it pissed me off! "

The computer revolution:

"You'll read that Bill Gates envisioned it all, which is a crock. He didn't envision any of it. Nobody did."

On working with Paul Allen and Bill Gates:

Allen was easy to work with, while Gates was not. If he didn't get his way, "he acted like a spoiled kid, which is what he was."

Don't you wish you stuck with computers and became a billionaire like Bill Gates:

"The implication in that question is, 'Do I wish I stayed and done something important?' But I feel that what I'm doing now is important," he says, "I serve a useful purpose."