Honoring the Father of the PC

Henry Edward Roberts's Altair 8800 started the era of home computing, and inspired a young tinkerer named Bill Gates to write software

Bill Gates and Paul Allen might stand astride the world, but they both paid homage last night to the passing of the man who booted up their careers. The Microsoft founders got their start in the computer biz writing software for the Altair 8800, a forerunner of home computing first created by Henry Edward Roberts, BBC reports.

That program, Altair-Basic, became the foundation for Microsoft’s ascension after Gates and Allen moved to Albuquerque to work on their early version of Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC).

“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,” Gates and Allen said in their joint statement on Thursday.

Roberts died on April 1 of pneumonia at the age of 68.

The Altair 8800 represented a $395 DIY kit for early computer geeks in 1975, or about $1557.56 in 2009 dollars. The switch-operated machine contained no display and used the Intel 8080 microprocessor.

Roberts created the device for his company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), which he originally founded to sell electronics kits to model rocket hobbyists. He eventually sold the company in 1977.

Just about everyone owes a debt of gratitude to Roberts, given that his invention helped usher in the era of home computing and everything that has followed. The future that we at PopSci enjoy writing about has evolved in large part from Roberts’s work.

Both Bill Gates and Paul Allen have also since gone on to become wildly successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists, with Gates in particular making recent waves regarding the future of nuclear power, some far-out geoengineering schemes, and vaccines for the developing world.

[via BBC]