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Proto-PC Inventor Henry Edward (Ed) Roberts, Inspiration for Microsoft, 1941-2010

Ed Roberts, creator of an early precursor to the PC, was cited by Bill Gates and Paul Allen as an inspiration for the founding of Microsoft. Roberts died today, at age 68.

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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.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.

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