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Ed Roberts started a revolution, creating the world's first commercially successful personal computer and giving a teen-age Bill Gates his first job writing software.

Today, Gates is a household name. But Roberts?

Will, you'd know him if you lived in this town of cotton-and-peanut farmers. Roberts traded his PC for an M.D., and today is one of only two full-time doctors in Bleckley County.

"The implication is that the (PC) is the most important thing I've ever done. And I don't think that's true," Roberts said from his windowless office in a five-room clinic.

"Every day, I deal with things that are equally if not more important, here with my patients."

Medical journals and electronics magazines are stacked on Roberts' desk. Amid the books on the shelves behind him sits the computer he invented - metallic box of switches and flashing lights and a monitor with a small bubble screen known as the Altair 8800.

A similar version is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

"Somebody else was bound to invent it. We just got lucky," Roberts said.

Raised in Miami as the son of an appliance repairman, Roberts earned a degree in electrical engineering after joining the Air Force.

He was stationed at its weapons laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., when he designed in his spare time a hand-held electronic calculator, the first in the United States.

He was running a small company out of his garage, Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems, or MITS, producing the calculators, but his business was facing increased competition from bigger companies and imports.

"I was just looking for something to pay the bills," he said of his move to PCs. "We were losing our shirts in the calculator business."

That's when Popular Electronics magazine, which had promoted Roberts; calculator, came up with a challenge that he couldn't refuse. The magazine wanted to find someone who could build and sell a computer for less than $400.

At the time, computers cost thousands of dollars.

Roberts used a cosmetically blemished chip that he got for a good price from Intel, and built a metallic box to house it, then devised a "loop" command which enabled the computer to repeat the process of carrying out commands.

The PC had no permanent memory and - for a while - no keyboard or monitor, but it did have a limited short-term memory.

"There was a lot of effort before he got something that worked," recalls MITS colleague Paul Van Baalen.

Roberts only daughter (he also has five sons) suggested that her father name the computer "Altair," after a planet by the same name on the television show "Star Trek."

In January 1975, a Popular Electronics cover store about the Altair 8800 changed history.

That first machine, a kit for the hobbyist included the Intel 8080 microprocessor, a 256-byte RAM card and a panel of switches. The price: $397.

MITS sold nearly 1,000 of the mail-order computers its first year. The company would double sales every year, raking in $20 million by 1977. Twenty years later, PC sales world-wide total more than $167 billion annually.

"I don't thing anybody realized what would happen," Roberts said. "I don't think anybody really had that kind of understanding of the long-term impact. When it started, it was just a bunch of hard-core electronics nuts who were bored."

Roberts, who had moved MITS to Atlanta in 1975, knew his computer needed software to make it useful. He was inundated with letters from people who said they could provide a computer language.

"We were getting about 10 letters a day from people. I would tell them, 'Whoever writes it first gets the job,'" Roberts said.

Paul Allen and his friend Bill Gates pitched their Basic computer language and got the job. Allen was hired as a manager of software. Gates was hired later that summer at age 19 for $10 an hour to write software.

MITS eventually sold about 50,000 units, most of the pre-assembled, along with keyboards and monitors from another supplier. But Roberts saw competitors springing up and was ready to sell when Pertec Computer Corp. offered $6.5 million for his business in mid 1977.

"It was fun when we started," he said. "It was a challenge. But by the time we sold to Pertec, it had become too corporate. I was being a manager, not a developer."

He worked for Pertec as head of computer development, but was upset that Pertec shot down his idea for a portable computer as unmarketable.

The final straw came when Gates and Allen sued Pertec. As part of the MITS sale agreement, they received a percentage for every copy of BASIC sold the the Altair, up to a certain number.

When sales exceeded expectations, the pair successfully sued Pertec to stop it from selling their language.

"It left a really bad taste in my mouth," Roberts said. "And at about that time, I was ready for something new. I believe about every five years people need to make a radical change."

Frustrated, be pocketed his $3 million share of the Pertec deal and moved his family to a 1,200-acre farm in Wheeler County, Ga., where he'd spent childhood summers. Although he quickly lost interest in growing corn and soybeans, he wrote some farming software.

Then in 1984, when Mercer University in Macon opened a medical school, Roberts enrolled in its first class. Six years later, at 47, he set up his practice in Cochran, a town of 4,300 people, 115 miles south of Atlanta.

"I always had the intention of going to medical school," Roberts said. "I just got sidetracked for a couple of years."

Roberts said he ended up in Cochran be default. He'd been working at different hospitals - and Cochran, 30 miles southeast of Macon, was the most undeserved area.

He sees about 50 patients a day with maladies ranging from the flu to cancer.

Gates and Allen declined to be interviewed about the Altair days. Roberts, while gracious about Allen, hasn't had kind things to say about Gates.

"He;s kind of like Elvis Presley. He never got to grow up," Roberts said.

Pertec eventually went bankrupt, Intel was established as the major producer of microcomputer chips and Gates and Allen went on to create MIcrosoft and become billionaires.

Roberts says he has no regrets about his lost fame and fortune, and would do it all the same if he had it to do over. Still, computers are never far from his mind.

When he;s not tending to the injured or ill Roberts is working with Van Baalen on software to lessen the hassle of maintaining medical laboratory records for federal audits.

"He left the revolution," Van Baalen said, "but he never really left the business."

See also:


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