Whether the computer he designed, the "Altair 8080" was the world's first personal computer or not will continue to be debated and unresolved forever. What is indisputably true though is the Altair was the first computer an average person could actually afford and actually buy. It sparked the birth of an industry whose profound impact on the world is still growing exponentially.
When the Altair was announced on the cover of January, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics with the accompanying article I had ghost-written for Ed and his chief engineer, Bill Yates, the industry began. Over the course of the next two years, the first software company, Microsoft (then Micro-Soft with a "dash") was born to create software for the Altair; a host of companies sprang up to develop ad-on circuit boards, other products and Altair "clones," the first computer retail stores opened, the first computer magazines were launched, and I was fortunate to get the assignment to organized the world's first computer convention--the World Altair Computer Conference.
In tribute to Ed Roberts, who died on April 1, 2010, at the age of 68, I have written the following short article about the day I met him and got the job that totally set me off on a new course in life, one which I could never have imagined.
How I got to Know Ed Roberts
I was 26 years old when I first met Ed during the summer of 1973. In response to an ad in the Albuquerque Journal, I tore out the Albuquerque map from the Yellow Pages and set out on my bicycle in search of 6328 Linn NE Avenue, the "World Headquarters" of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, my resume neatly placed in a manila envelope in my backpack.
Finding MITS, or as I started calling it, "Micro, etc." was not so easy and as I got closer to where I thought it should be I noticed the town was looking shabby and more than a bit sleazy. Riding past the New Mexico Fairgrounds, I couldn't help but spot the hookers and drug dealers of every color hanging out at the corners and in front of dilapidated motels and liquor stores. As I glided block after block there was a nagging question in my head--just what kind of company could possibly be in this neighborhood?
I had imagined a shiny large steel multi-level building with lots of windows, a big parking lot filled with Mercedes, a thick granite column on the corner with MITS beautifully chiseled out of gold--but now I was pretty sure this wouldn't be exactly what I'd find. Linn Avenue turned out to be only one block long, which explains why even though I had a map I had ridden right by it and had to turn back. My heart was racing a bit faster as the excitement of finding a job which might lead to a better future but there was nothing at all on Linn Avenue that I could see even remotely housing an electronics company.
only commercial building was called the “Cal-Linn Building” and it was
a one-story mini shopping mall with a massage parlor on the corner,
next to a bail bondsman next to a check-cashing place and one more
office that had no signage that I could see from the street. Perhaps
this is it I thought, they like to keep a low profile, their factory is
in Idaho and this is just where they count the money.
There was a crudely lettered sign on the door:
Micro Instrumentations Telemetry Systems
Come on in!
(Sorry, we have no receptionist)
A couple people were sitting at typewriters in front of what normally would be a retail sales window and it looked like there were offices down the hallway and perhaps more space to the left so I walked up to a freckled, red-hair woman with old lady glasses that said she was all business and asked her if this was the place looking for a talented young technical writer. She replied, "yes" without looking up as she continued to type.
I was poor in those days, but it didn't stop me from being cocky. "Well, I'm going to be your newest employee and I've brought my resume."
"Is that so," she replied, still not looking up, "you'll have to interview with our Enginerring VP Bill Yates and then if you happen to get through that, you'll have to meet the big Ed and he's not in a very good mood today, so good luck."
She picked up the phone and said something to the effect, "Mr. Yates, there's some fool here who thinks he's going to be our next tech writer. Do you have time to see him or shall I tell him to take a hike."
Bill Yates was in no way related to Bill Gates and once Bill Gates arrived at MITS there was some ocassional confusion between the two but for the moment Gates was still at Lakeside High School and Yates was the person I needed to impress. He was a shy but friendly man only a few years older than me with short brown hair, wire rim glasses and an unhealthy looking thin face devoid of any effects of the New Mexico sun, a dedicated engineer, I thought, who only went outdoors after sunset. I liked him instantly.
"So you want to apply for our writing job," he said, as I sat in front of his desk an office no bigger than the average bathroom. I wasn't going to hold back, "You bet and I'm the best writer you could hire. I worked for awhile at Intel (I lied) and I know Frederico Faggin on a personal a basis (another lie)."
"Oh, is that right," Yates then confessed, "I'm not all that familiar with Intel, suppose you tell me what they are up to these days."
Good thing I had spend the prior evening doing research at the Albuquerque Library. "They just came out with the 4040 microprocessor, and it's really hot. You should get your hands on one."
"Look, Mister Yates," I continued, "I know all about transistors and capacitors and how to wire together circuit boards to build the type of kits you make here. I can start first thing tomorrow or even today if you'd like."
"Well, it starts at $110 a week and if you pass the 90-day probation period you'll get a raise, probably up to $120 or something like that."
This bit of news freaked me out, like, how am I ever going to buy a Ferrari on this salary, I thought, but then it was a foot in the door at a real, though somewhat funky, electronics company, so I swallowed my pride and said, "Mr. Yates, I'd be honored to work here at Micro Insturmentation Telemetry Systems and you'll never regret hiring me."
"Well then," he chuckled, "you can have this job if you pass one final test, and that is you'll have to be interviewed by our founder Ed Roberts. Never mind he's in a foul mood because that's par for the course around here. Just be a little less cocky, call him "sir," and you'll be fine.
Yates led me down the hallway to the last office, which was about five times the size of all the other offices and introduced me to the founder of MITS, the future Father of the Personal Computer Industry, Dr. H. Edward Roberts, a massively huge man sitting in an over-sized leather chair behind his over-sized desk drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette. The first thing I noticed besides his large neck, massive jowls and cloudy blue eyes was his ashtray, a circular glass ashtray about two feet in diameter spilling over with half smoked cigarette butts. Behind him was a five gallon coffee pot, the kinds you'd expect to see in the community room of your local church. There were stacks of documents, electronic magazines and engineering drawings piled everywhere, on his desk, his bookcase and even on the floor.
My first impression of Ed Roberts was this an incredibly driven man, determined to get things done perhaps before his bad habits kill him. And like Yates, he wasn't much older than me.
Roberts offfered me a cigarette and because I felt so desperate to land this job, had no where else to turn, banished from teaching and my bridges to the newspaper world burned, I accepted, "Thank you, sir, do you mind if I use your lighter?" I tried not to inhale.
Before Roberts could ask me anything I recited much of what I had told Bill Yates. Ed was curious about my experience with 4004 micro, so I told him, "yeah, it's really fast and powerful enough to control a thermostat in temperature sensitive labs, maybe you can do something with it."
He then threw me a wild curve. He said, "I think you're mostly making all this stuff up and I really doubt if you know Dr. Faggin or even worked at Intel, but I do like your spunk. I'd like to have more 'well-rounded' people around here--people who are aware of the real world out there so when we get bored with all this technical mumbo-jumbo we can have other more important things to talk about. You know I was an officer in the Air Force stationed right here in Albuquerque and it was during this time I started MITS because I really love model rockets. Do you know anything about model rockets or how about bee-keeping?"
I didn't know anything at all about model rockets or bee-keeping, but luckily for me I do know a great deal about World War II. Among Ed Roberts many interests, it turned out, was he loved reading about history and fancied himself somewhat of a World War II buff. It just so happens, at the time I had read extensively about the Eastern Front, the battles for Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad and in particular, the largest tank battle ever at Kurst and amazingly enough, this is what landed me the job at Micro, etc.
Ed Roberts and I were destined to be great
friends. Just like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, we were in many ways
polar opposites. He was somewhat militaristic conservative and a I was
a flaming liberal but our minds were somehow similarly tuned. We both
liked electronics but would be bored to tears if we didn't have a
multitude of other things to discuss. It was these other interests
that brought us together and us historical allies in the digital
The last time I saw Ed, was at the opening of Paul Allen's museum in Albuquerque called "Startup" and dedicated to the beginnings of the personal computer industry and of Mits and Microsoft. I was taken aback to see him in a wheel chair. As you can see from the photo at the beginning of this article, he wasn't in the greatest shape. This was in November, 2006. The photo of Paul Allen and myself above was also taken at this event. I took the photo of the Cal-Linn building, where MITS and Microsoft both started, on the following day. The inscription is part of a stone monument near the far corner of the building, where, believe it or not, Microsoft had its first office.