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Ed Roberts Interview

Article from Historically Brewed, the magazine of computer history nostalgia! Historically Brewed is now known as Classic Computing magazine. Classic Computing is published by the Historical Computer Society.


Ed Roberts is the Father of the Personal Computer. Now, you can argue the point, but it is generally accepted that the MITS Altair, circa 1975, was the first mass produced, commercially successful personal computer, and Ed Roberts, with some help, masterminded its creation and success. Here is a short version of that great American success story, as it was printed in our very first issue.

The Altair Leslie (Les) Solomon was the Technical Editor for Popular Electronics during the summer of '74 and he was looking for a good computer article and project to print. Both he and Editorial Director, Arthur Salsberg wanted to publish a piece on building a computer at home. Solomon had received some articles, but they were not what he was looking for. "A rat's nest of wires," as he would describe them. But, Solomon encouraged his writers to send in their best ideas. Ed Roberts was one of "Uncle Sol's" writing contributors. A man who loved to fool with gadgets and electronics, Roberts started a small electronics company in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1968. MITS (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems) mostly sold radio transmitters for model airplanes through the mail. But, by the early 70's, MITS was selling calculator kits and doing fairly well. At the end of 1973, the calculator market changed drastically, other companies were selling fully assembled calculators for below $50, while Roberts' kits were $99.95. He had to think of something quick or go broke. He had toyed with the idea of developing a computer kit before, but never followed up on it. Now, he decided to go for broke. If this didn't work, then he would just close up shop. Roberts decided on the Intel 8080 chip for his project, rejecting the older 8008 and new Motorola 6800. He was able to get an excellent deal on the chip in volume - $75 a piece for a $360 chip! By mid-1974, Solomon had decided on supporting Roberts' article and kit. He staked the reputation of PE on the expertise of MITS. In July 1974, Radio Electronics had published an article on a 8008 based computer kit called the "Mark-8". Les Solomon needed an 8080 based project to beat out RE. MITS worked feverishly on the computer, creating an expandable main circuit board that had a data bus with 100 separate paths. It was capable (in a miniature way) to do anything that a large mainframe computer could do. Les Solomon's daughter, Lauren, gave it it's name "Altair" because that was where the Enterprise on STAR TREK was going that night. He had asked her for a name idea and had asked what they called the computer on STAR TREK. "Computer," she said. Altair was the better name. The Altair kit appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. In kit form, MITS offered the basic model with 256 bytes of RAM, standard binary switches and LEDs on the front panel and power supply for $400. Hoping to sell around 200 kits, Ed Roberts and MITS were overwhelmed to receive thousands of pre-payed orders. Electronic hobbiests were willing to have paid the $360 just for the chip itself, so why not get an entire computer for $400? It took MITS almost a year to catch up the orders. Over 10,000 Altairs were sold by MITS. The Altair was the first commercially successful computer ever. It started the personal computer revolution which has since consumed our planet. Imagine the world just 18 years ago (almost 21 years ago now, DG) when there wasn't a computer in every pot.

- O.K., well that pretty much sets you up for our interview if you weren't already familiar with the story that began it all. Ed Roberts is now a doctor and lives in a small Georgia town named Cochran. I drove to his office one weekend earlier this year to talk personally with a man who I have read so much about. Our informal discussion spread well over two and a half hours, here are the highlights:

"HB": Do you remember the "T.V. Typewriter" and did it influence you at all? Were you excited about its appearance?

Ed: I remember the T.V. Typewriter and we were building something like it if I'm thinking about the same thing - we built a computer terminal which we actually sold off and on up to when Pertec took over. We used a Burroughs display which was a neon display that had dot matrix output. It had a modem built into it and you could put the phone receiver right into the top. It was something similar to what Lancaster had written about. He was a real pioneer with mail order kits and a lot of the stuff that he did served as a model for M.I.T.S. The one thing that I remember he did that really impressed me was sometime in the mid '60's. He created a decimal counter made out of small scale integrated circuits that could count from 0 to 10. You could stack these things to make a bigger counter. It was really neat even though it doesn't sound like much these days. We used a Teletype more than anything else on those initial machines. Those old ASR-33's with the paper tape gave you a way to input and output as well as a way to load data. You could buy them used for only a few hundred dollars at the time.

"HB": That was kind of a gift from heaven at that time - the ultimate peripheral!

Ed: Yeah, you got your line printer, your input / output device and your mass storage.

"HB": When you first decided that you wanted to create a personal computer, what were some of the things that you thought it must have, and did you ever say I definitely don't want it to be like this?

Ed: The basic ground rules for a personal computer from a technical standpoint is that it had to be a real, fully operational computer that was fully expandable and at least in principal could do anything that a general purpose minicomputer of the time could do. "Minicomputer" was the term them and referred to any 16-bit or 8-bit machine. And, those were the ground rules. We wanted to make a machine that was, from a users stand-point, not degenerative at all. The main difference between our machine and where others were, is that we used microprocessors and everything was the latest state of the art. We never used core memory even though we did look at core. At the time we began work on the Altair, core memory was still significantly cheaper than IC based memory.

"HB": You used static memory first and then dynamic, right?

Ed: The original machines had 256 bytes of static, and that was the minimal configuration. That board in the machine came that way and was expandable up to 2 Kb. We later developed a 2 Kb, 4 Kb and ultimately a 16 Kb memory board before I left; there may have even been a 32 Kb board. We did sell both static and later dynamic memory.

"HB": HCS has a few MITS Altair memory boards. OK, did any particular type of minicomputer influence you? I've read that it was a PDP that you most favored.

Ed: We had a Nova 2 by Data General in the office that we sold time share on, and as a matter of fact that was how we got into building a little terminal. The front panel on an Altair essentially models every switch that was on the Nova 2. We had that machine to look at. The switches are pretty much standard of any front panel machine. It would have taken forever if we would have had to re-decide where every switch had to go. These guys had already figured it out. That's pretty much the way technology works. If you were going to build a machine today that would allow front panel control, it would look just like an Altair, or Nova, PDP-10 or any of those front panel computers. There are certain switches you need to get an address in, to get data in, to single step it, look at output and reset it.

"HB": What were the series of products that MITS had? You had your radio remote control devices, then went to calculators and then computers right?

Ed: The very first product that we made and was featured in Popular Electronics, was an optical communicator; it was a laser communicator, but it used infrared diodes and wasn't really a laser. We had lenses that we produced ourselves, and it was sold as a kit. They had a range of 500 or 1000 feet. It was actually a pretty good little product. We sold 100's of them which was pretty good for only two of us working out of a garage. There was only one calculator ever featured in Popular Electronics I believe; we made the 816 a & b, the 1440, which had square root, we made a machine which had fourteen digits and square root and memory, also we made a hand held scientific machine. I think we made two or three different models of those. We also produced a scientific metric converter, logic analyzer, function generators and a whole bunch of products over the years.

"HB": And as far as the Altairs, let's see, there was the original 8800, 8800a, 8800b, 680, 680b and your turn-key 8800b and 680b. What other peripherals?

Ed: When I left MITS in 1977, we offered about forty different computer products. We offered two or three memory variants, I/O boards, serial and parallel cards, disk controllers and D to A converters. I think we also had a controller for the really big drives that we produced for somebody. We had another machine and I'm not sure what Pertec did with it after I left, but it was a self-contained computer that came with either a 40 digit or 64 digit display. It was sort of an "Apple" before the Apple ][ came out. As a matter of fact, it was somewhat like what Processor Technology came out with later. With the Sol computer, they used the "Altair Bus" and incorporated a keyboard and the display control in one box. It was still an Altair bus compatible machine. That's a bit of a sore point that everyone changed the name of the bus.

"HB": Yeah, I've read a lot about that.

Ed: Nobody wanted to steal the name, they did that because they hated to give us credit every time they talked about their own product. A bunch of vendors got together and decided to call the bus "S-100". We should have copyrighted the name or patented the bus, but we never did that. Anyway, the Sol was an Altair based bus machine and really was an "Apple" before the Apple ][. It was a good machine and they were good competitors. As a matter of fact, the company that I think about out of all of the old companies more than any other is Processor Tech, for a couple of reasons. Number one, they were good competition, building good products, mostly add-on products. They were the first people to build add-on products for the Altair that I felt were of any quality. There was tons of junk stuff being built, but those guys did good work.

"HB": I've always heard good things about Processor Tech. We have a Sol, and it is an interesting twist on the Altair's design.

Ed: And the funny thing is, that I bet every time I have made that comment in any in-depth interview, the only story that is ever told about MITS and Processor Tech, is about the first ever Altair Convention in Albuquerque. It was David Bunnell's idea (MITS' Director of Marketing), and I said "Dave, this is crazy, we're not going to get people to come all the way to Albuquerque to go to this convention."

"HB": But they did!

Ed: They did! Tons of them! He was absolutely right. Anyway, Processor Tech showed up and they had a suite up on the ninth floor of this Airport Marina Hotel where the convention was, and they had a sign down in the lobby that said "Processor Technology". David Bunnell tore up their sign or made them take it down or something. I was unaware of this and didn't have anything to do with it. It created more flack to hurt us then if we had just ignored it.

"HB": Yes, I too have read that you were responsible for that.

Ed: David worked real hard on the convention and it made him mad that those guys were going to get some benefit from what he had done. But anyway, that's the only story that gets printed. Nothing that I have ever said good about Processor Tech ever gets printed. They identified some of the problems in the Altair and created good products to fix them. It's hard to really say anything bad about them. You know, it's the stuff that sells when you're writing an article . . .

"HB": All the bad stuff - the dirt! Yeah, I'm not trying to get at any of that. For me, it's just interesting to talk to you and to hear what you have to say about the events of the time. I'm trying to constantly think of somethi ng to ask you that is different from anything published before. The basic story has been told so many times already. I just remembered one somewhat silly question that I wanted to ask you - what type of computer do you use now?

Ed: All of the machines that I have now are PC based machines. At the house, I've got a 486DX4/100, NEC Versa portable 33 and a Z-Lite 486 black and white, which I really like.

"HB": I remember reading somewhere that you really liked your "gadgets" too! I guess that hasn't changed over the years!

Ed: That's true! Isn't it true about most people who like computers though? I remember I made a comment at that show which got some publicity and I haven't heard much about it recently. I don't know if you remember when Carter was running for President, but he made the comment that he "used to lust after women" or something like that. Well, all of us who were connected with computers then lusted after computers. Computer users now are very different kinds of people, mostly business users. To have a computer in the old days was better than sex; it was really something exciting.

"HB": I can tell you from my experience working at CompUSA, that the majority of people buying computers - don't even know why they're buying one, they just think they "should" have one! That's not really a good reason to buy one, but that's what is going on in 1995.

Ed: Yeah, the difference is that then, people lusted after the machines and wanted them. To a large extent, they didn't know what they were going to do with them, but they knew that they wanted one. These were mostly people who used computers professionally.

"HB": What do you still own? Did you keep some of your favorites?

Ed: There are two Altairs in here and both are "brand new". They have never been used, just checked for power. There is an "a" model and a "b". They were wrapped up until recently. We had a Japanese crew come in and take some pictures.

"HB": Do you have any favorite user stories you would like to share?

Ed: There was a dentist in Chicago who was one of our very first customers. He wanted to use the Altair to control a massive model railroad. And that was a real eye opener to us that people were coming up with applications and ideas that we had never even imagined. It makes me think of that old adage that if you gave and infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, that one of them would write King Lear!

"HB": And with the computer - sooner or later, someone will come up with something amazing!

Ed: And that was something that always intrigued me. When I was going to school between '65 and '68 at Oklahoma State, which was a very "forward thinking" school believe it or not, they had an IBM 1620 in an open lab. No one monitored the machine. This was a big machine with a lot of money invested into it. It was open to engineering students and we would go down there and just put our name on a roster to use it. It was fantastic! And that had probably more impact on my feelings later on about computers than anything else. Computers had always been sort of "Mecas" up to that point.

"HB": Did you ever have one of the minicomputer companies buy an Altair just to check it out?

Ed: It must have been around late 1975 or early 1976, I remember it was before we moved into our new building, but anyway, we met with IBM in the MITS' executive lunch room. The lunch room was located behind my back office, through an alley and in the Dairy Queen! That's what we all called the MITS' executive lunch room! Anyway, IBM showed up with a bunch of lawyers and wanted us to be a witness in their case against Memorex I think it was. Apparently Memorex was suing IBM for monopolistic practices. IBM came up with some figures that showed MITS and our Altair to be increasing the supply for computers in the world by 1% each month. They wanted to use us in court to show that we were producing more computers than even they were at that time! I think that was a big reason why they came to MITS, but also I think they came to check out what we were doing.

"HB": Can you remember the most famous or unforgettable person who bought an Altair?

Ed: The guy who did some of the special effects for Star Wars, or I believe Star Wars, came out to MITS and bought some equipment. I can't remember his name. Lets see, we also sold stuff to the Secret Service, the FBI and the CIA. They were bought up by all kinds of people.

"HB": For the most part, they could take the place of any minicomputer at the time.

Ed: It took the industry a long time to realize that microprocessors and microcomputers were also very useful. People went through this thing where there were "supercomputers", there were "computers", there were "minicomputers" and then there were "microcomputers". Everyone assumed that when you said "microcomputer" you were talking about a performance thing. A microcomputer was really a technology and that was one of the arguments which went on at the time - the term "microcomputer" didn't same a thing about it's performance, they were missing the whole point. Microprocessors were approaching the power of minicomputers even with the Intel 8080.

"HB": I guess really the only thing that minicomputers had over micros at the time was the fact that some were 16 and 32 bit which made them somewhat more substantial. Right now with the high end Pentiums and PowerPC's, you essentially have the raw processing power of the supercomputers of fifteen years ago which cost millions of dollars.

Ed: I made a prediction actually, which everyone at the time thought was a joke, that the personal computer would destroy IBM. They made a big hit with the PC, but almost went belly up here recently.

"HB": I remember that, they laid off thousands all over the world, but somehow they seem to have made a come back. Their "ThinkPad" is extremely popular and their "Aptiva" systems are doing modestly well.

Ed: There's nothing "Gee Whiz" about their desk machines is there?

"HB": No, nothing that I have seen. In my personal opinion, I still think Apple is the biggest innovator out there. I'm no engineer, but they still seem to consistently come up with the new original ideas and everyone else copies them.

Ed: You know, Dave Bunnell, who still keeps up with most of the new technology says that the thing that is kind of interesting to him, is that if he goes to a meeting with PC users or a meeting with people who use Apples; the Apple users look a lot more like the early MIT's customers than the PC users. With the Apple users, you can see the same enthusiasm and excitement they have about their machines. They seem to "love" their computers which is a different kind of mentality.

"HB": I think you're right, Mac people are still very enthusiastic about their computers. I guess it has to do with being a minority or something.

Ed: Yeah, they're still kind of considered the "little guys" amongst PC users.

"HB": And maybe back in the Altair days the hobbyists and electronics guys were kind of a minority too - a specialty group of people who had to stick together because everyone else thought they were sort of weird.


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