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Ed Roberts died yesterday in Georgia. He was the founder of MiTS, the designer of the Altair 8800 and as close to being the father of the American personal computer as anyone can get. I say the American personal computer because French readers constantly correct me on this. Where, again, are all those French computer companies?
I knew Ed Roberts, though not very well. I never worked for or with him but I met him many times even years after he gave up computers for medicine in his late 30’s. That transition from digital hardware to medicine is key to Ed’s story and I think provides the crux of this column, which is just one of probably dozens of published remembrances of the man.
Ed sold MiTS and started medical school less than three years after introducing the Altair 8800. In one sense this could be seen as a logical transition from a dodgy electronic kit company that had almost gone under many times. It was Ed cashing-in to some degree and assuring the financial health of his family. But it was also much more. It was a recognition that even in 1978 Ed Roberts was being left behind by computing.
It was an amazing experience to visit Ed’s medical practice, which was run with the help of many computers — MiTS computers. More than two decades past the height of his success, Roberts was still using he same hardware and using it well. In addition to Altairs with 8080 processors there were 8088’s, 8086’s, and even Motorola 68000’s. And every one of those was running some medical or back-office application connected to a terminal.
Twenty years into his medical career Ed could still program his Altairs in assembler. So it isn’t that he lost his touch for technology. It’s that his era had passed. Ed’s was the era of ascii terminal computing. An ADM3a was Ed’s violin. And an Apple II (worse still a Macintosh or even a Windows box) was, therefore, his nemesis.
Linux might have called him back but by the time it was available Ed wasn’t.
Think back a couple columns to that discussion of engineers and their half-lives. Suddenly Ed leaving Albuquerque with a pocketful of money makes a lot of sense. He was two half-lives (75 percent depleted) into his digital career. It was time for something new. And that’s not sad in any way, because Ed Roberts got to have two careers, two professional adventures, and did a great job with both.