The torch-passing symbolism is nearly impossible to ignore: The very day a revolutionary new device, the iPad, hit the media, the inventor of another revolutionary computer has died.
Ed Roberts is perhaps best known as the developer of the MITS Altair 8800 in 1975, a device which is widely credited for having sparked the revolution in personal computing. The Altair 8800 was a build-it-yourself hobbyist kit consisting of switches, with no display, and MITS had little faith that they'd sell even 200 units, enough to break even on the project. But thanks to a cover story in an issue of Popular Electronics, MITS was flooded with offers, receiving several thousand in the first month alone—and two of the people it inspired were Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
The Altair 8800 was actually the system that ran Microsoft's first-ever product, Altair BASIC, and the computer and its founder are directly responsible for the rise in personal computing, kickstarted by Microsoft. Gates and Allen issued a joint statement this afternoon in response to the sad news:
We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and early mentor, Ed Roberts, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.
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. We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then.
More than anything, what we will always remember about Ed was how deeply compassionate he was – and that was never more true than when he decided to spend the second half of his life going to medical school and working as a country doctor making house calls. He will be missed by many and we were lucky to have known him.
Roberts died this afternoon in Georgia, of pneumonia.