Dr. Ed Roberts - Altair's dead daddy.

Today Dr Ed Roberts died of pneumonia at the age of 68. He invented the Altair computer. The whaa? The Altair. It's the computer that began the PC revolution, and the progenitor of the thing on your desk or in your pocket.

In 1975, huge tech companies or universities had computers. They filled a room and you had to book time to get to use one. Every nerd dreamed of having one on his desk, to mess around with. Then Dr Ed Roberts designed and sold the Altair as a kit, but it was available as a complete unit for a bit extra. It had no keyboard or monitor. It was a box with switches and lights. In the picture to the left, he's posing with a terminal, which was added later, to make it easier to work with the machine. Imagine programming your computer by flipping a row of switches on the front, and reading the output only through a row of red lights. Crazy.

But at the time, it was the only computer you could buy for less than a zillion dollars. Here's a YouTube video explaining the Altair's importance better than I can. Members of the Home Brew Computer Club (of which Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak were members) went crazy over it, simply because it was a computer they could mess with. The big achievement for the club was when one member found that the Altair would produce FM noise from it's circuits, and by placing a radio next to it, you could hear this noise as a pitch. Before long, they had the Altair playing "Daisy" over the radio. The club went apeshit.

Another interesting part of the Homebrew Computer Club's history is Bill Gates' open letter to the club, stating that using a programming language without paying for it is wrong. It's fascinating to see that, even in the early seventies, the future giants of the tech industry were showing their colors. Gates the litigious entrepreneur and Steve Wozniak the open source tinkerer.

So, although the Altair bears about as much resemblance to your laptop as a penny farthing does to a Lamborghini Gallardo, it was the daddy of them all, and it's daddy died today. Don't cry into your keyboard. It's bad for it.

Triumph of the Nerds is a three part documentary that tells the whole story of the computer industry's beginnings. It's available on YouTube, and it's really good. Each one hour episode divided into six parts each.

Or you can buy the DVD if you're not into open source sharing.


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