Ed Roberts: Father of the PC--Part I - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

02/28/06

Ed Roberts: Father of the PC--Part I

Dr. Ed Roberts Dr. Ed Roberts
The Altair 8800. The Altair 8800.

Most doctors start young, going to medical school right out of college. But one Georgia doctor got a much later start after a career on the cutting edge of electronics.

Today, Dr. Ed Roberts practices in Cochran, Georgia. The seat of Bleckley County offers small-town charm and small-town pride.

"The city of Cochran and the county of Bleckley is a very patriotic and caring community," Mayor Gene Towns told us.

The town values its history, like an impressive 19th-century home that town leaders want to see restored to its full glory. The town doctor, it turns out, is a very important part of another kind of history.

Dr. Roberts has been practicing here for nearly two decades.

"I was working here part time, working in Cochran part time," he told us. "And they had two doctors in town. One of them died, and the other one said he wasn't going to die practicing medicine, so he retired. And they were left without a doctor. So I went ahead and opened the practice here. At the time, I don't know that I really planned on staying here for the rest of my life. But it looks like that's what's going to happen."

But he wasn't always a doctor. In the 1970s, he ran an electronics company in Albuquerque called MITS, and was on the verge of bankruptcy when he had what some considered a crazy idea.

"We tried to do a marketing survey, which consisted of just asking people we knew, and nobody said they'd buy a computer," he said. "I couldn't find a single person that would buy a computer."

His financial backers also doubted his plan for the Altair 8800, the world's first personal computer.

"And I had a meeting with our bankers just before it happened, to see if we were going to continue to keep our line of credit or were they going to foreclose on us," Dr. Roberts said. "And I was asked to estimate the number of computers we'd sell in the next year. And I estimated 800 and was accused of being a wild-eyed optimist. We had months shortly thereafter where we sold two or three thousand."

It launched an industry. "Every decision we made, in terms of personal computers--marketing, pricing, all that--was new," said Roberts. "Absolutely no precedent for anything we did. We made some mistakes."

Within a couple years, the market was flooded with competition and Roberts sold his operation to a bigger company called Pertec, where he worked on another crazy idea: the laptop. His boss wasn't buying it.

"And he told me, he said, 'Look Ed, we're not really sure people will need computers on their desk, but we're damn sure certain that they don't need to carry them around with them,'" Roberts recalled. "And I said, 'I think you're probably right. And I think the best thing for me to do is just to get out of the way and move back to Georgia and start farming.'"

Roberts says in those days, he never shied away from such drastic career changes. "Well, I went back and farmed for two or three years and realized fairly quickly that I wasn't smart enough to farm. Said, 'You better do something else.' I always wanted to go to medical school."

Already in his late 30s, he was told he was too old. "They said, 'If you're over 26, don't waste our time or yours,' and that was kind of the standard thing." That was before legislation forbidding age discrimination; ultimately, Roberts went went to medical school in the early '80s.

While others went on to make billions in the industry he started, Roberts doesn't regret his choice. "One of the questions I've gotten asked frequently by people is that, 'Don't you wish you'd stayed in computers and were still doing things important?'" he said. "Maybe said some other way. But I feel like what I do here is important."

Though he admits medicine's got its own challenges: "I never had a computer vomit on me or do things worse than that. You know, never had a computer bleed on me. Some of those less exciting moments in medicine that you could do without."

Still, it's at his small-town medical practice that he makes a difference now.

In all, Roberts sold over 60,000 Altairs before getting out of the business. Companies that came after, of course, have raised that number significantly and made some billionaires along the way.

In fact, the world's richest man, Bill Gates of Microsoft, once worked for Dr. Roberts. In the mid-1970s, he and his partner Paul Allen wrote the original software for the Altair. Hear was Roberts has to say about that in part two of our special series, coming up tomorrow on THE News at 5.

Reported by: Charles Gray, cgray@wtoc.com

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