Henry E. "Ed" Roberts died on April Fool's Day, according to his obituary in the Post-Gazette.
But Ed Roberts was no fool. Far from it. He was a pioneer of the personal computer revolution with his Altair, the first computer an individual could actually own.
And without his willingness to take a chance on two callow youths and their untested software, there probably would be no Microsoft today.
Ed founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in 1970 in his garage and sold electronic calculator kits to hobbyists. After booming competition in calculators cut his profits, Ed designed the Altair 8800 (the name taken from a Star Trek episode), a computer that used the new Intel 8080 processor.
Sold as a kit or assembled, and featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine, the Altair was a hit with hobbyists, who flooded the company with orders at $397 per kit.
Ed expected to sell a few hundred Altairs, but he had unknowingly tapped the mother lode of people who wanted to get their hands on a computer and MITS sold thousands of the blue machines. This was when computers resided at universities or corporations and were tended by acolytes who meted out computing time in small slices.
The Altair, with its 4K of memory, was far from the modern computer. Its front panel was a series of switches and red LED lights. Programming was tedious. Toggles were set to certain positions and an "enter" switch loaded the code. This had to be done repeatedly until the entire program was loaded. For all your effort, you could run a program that made the lights blink in a certain way.
Among the first add-ons MITS offered was a paper tape reader for storing and entering programs.
Then Ed Roberts received a letter asking whether he was interested in a program for the Altair that would allow it to understand the BASIC computer language. He said yes and two Harvard students, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, started work on writing Altair BASIC on a self-made simulator running on a minicomputer at the university. They flew the program on paper tape to MITS. Mr. Allen finished the program on the plane. It had never been tested on the Altair.
The first time it was loaded it displayed the words "Altair BASIC" and then crashed. But the next day, when it was asked the answer to 2+2, it typed back 4.
Mr. Gates joined Allen in Mr. Albuquerque in 1975 and the two formed a company called Micro-Soft.
Altair BASIC would become the first of a long line of BASIC operating systems that the company put out, followed by Windows. The company changed its name to Microsoft.
Altair BASIC also captured the crown as the first known pirated software. In a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, a copy of the paper-tape program was "liberated," copied and handed out free at the next meeting, raising the ire of Bill Gates.
In 1977, Ed sold MITS and bought a farm in rural Georgia where his grandparents had lived. He farmed and went back to college for a medical degree.
From 1988 until his death at 68 from pneumonia, he practiced medicine in the small town of Cochran, Ga.
Unlike Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Ed Roberts never became fabulously rich from being in on the ground floor of personal computers. But he was a pioneer nonetheless.
When it became obvious he was dying, Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen went to the side of their old mentor.
In a statement they said: "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."
An understatement I'd say.
But Ed's son, Dave, had another perspective. "He came up with the idea that you could have one of these computers on your own. Basically he did it to try to get out of debt."