Footnotes in History – Ed Roberts, MD

Henry Edward Roberts, M.D. passed away on April 1, 2010 at the age of 68. Dr. Roberts lived his final years in his native Georgia, practicing medicine and living the life of a gentleman farmer. He is survived by his wife, Rosa, his six children and his mother.

You’re probably wondering why I posted this. After all, the obituary could have been for anyone living in small town America. Change the name, the dates, location, etc. and it could have been in your paper in your hometown.

What you may not know is what Dr. Roberts accomplished before he became an M.D. at the age of 45. Yes, 45. And no, it didn’t take him that long to get through medical school.

You see, Dr. Roberts had a whole professional career before he decided to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. During that career, Dr. Roberts changed the world.

Henry Edward “Ed” Roberts left the United States Air Force in 1969 to start a business in Albuquerque, NM. His business partner, Forrest Mims, III, was an avid model rocketry hobbyist and had developed an electronic payload for the rockets he built. Ed was an Electrical Engineer, so the two of them decided to start Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems and offer Forrest’s electronic payload as a kit.

The kit was a hit and before long, M.I.T.S. was creating kits for all sorts of devices. At one time, M.I.T.S. was one of the largest suppliers of electronic calculators in the U.S.. If not wealthy, it made Ed financially comfortable. That is, until the Japanese electronic firms declared a price war on calculators. In a few short months, M.I.T.S. went from being flush with cash to facing bankruptcy. Ed knew he had to develop a new kit. Something that no one had done before.

Inspiration and desperation are different sides of the same coin, either of which will drive men beyond their comfort zone. They will compel a man to do something incredible and achieve fame or notoriety for their actions. We’ll probably never know which one Ed was experiencing when he made his decision on his next product. The fact that he was facing $300,000.00 in debt leads me to believe it might have been the latter. What came from Ed’s struggle would change the world. Henry Edward Roberts created the first commercially successful micro
computer in the world. It was called the M.I.T.S. Altair 8800, it only cost $397.00 and it was revolutionary.

Ed Roberts’ creation set the world on fire. Finally, there was a computer that anyone could afford. M.I.T.S. was swamped with orders after the Altair 8800 was featured in Popular Electronics magazine in January 1975. For a while, it seemed M.I.T.S. could do no wrong. Orders piled up, production delays caused shipping dates to slide, but no one who ordered an Altair cared. All of them waited patiently for their box to arrive.

The Altair 8800 inspired dozens of midnight entrepreneurs to fill the large void in the wake of its success. Most of those companies no longer exist. However, there is one in particular that survived and outlived M.I.T.S. and another, Apple, which while not directly spawned by the Altair 8800, came into existence when one of its founders, Steve Wozniak, became caught up in the frenzied hobbyist computer scene. When he saw what the Altair 8800 could do, or rather couldn’t do, he designed and built a micro computer for himself. As for the other computer company, I’ll write about it in another article.

With the success of the Altair 8800, M.I.T.S. grew very rapidly. As much as Ed enjoyed the fruits of success, he quickly tired of the long days and constant grind of running a company which was growing exponentially. In December of 1976, just two years after the famous magazine cover debuted, Ed Roberts sold M.I.T.S. to Pertec Computer, a supplier of disk drives to M.I.T.S. He pocketed $2M for his efforts.

Soon thereafter, he bought a farm in Cochran, Georgia, became a gentleman farmer and attended medical school at Mercer University.

And that’s how a country doctor from Georgia changed the world.

About Mark Andrews

Software Engineer, Geek, Family Man
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