Sunday, April 4, 2010

H. Edward Roberts, PC Pioneer, Dies at 68 this man truly changed the world

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.
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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.

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.