Microsoft founder mourns death of Henry Roberts, the man who launched his career

Only a few days more on this earth and Henry Edward Roberts would have had the chance, like millions of curious Americans, to peruse in person the latest machine-of-the-future to emerge from Silicon Valley. That would be the Apple iPad, of course, the tablet-gadget which goes on sale in the US this morning.

It was not to be and that seems a sin, because Roberts was widely considered the humble and not terribly famous father of the modern personal computer – and thus also of an entire industry that has come to brighten, simplify (some would say complicate) the lives of almost all of us in one way or another. He died in Georgia on Thursday, after a long bout of pneumonia, at the age of 68.

While his may have never been a household name, in the lore of computing it was always huge, bigger even than those other legends of the industry, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. That is because, without Roberts, their company would not have been born. Or at least not in the way that it was.

It was in 1975 that they spotted an article on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine, trumpeting the MITS Altair 8800. It was a small kit for electronics hobbyists to build a very simple computer – there was no screen, just an array of flashing red lights with lots of switches inside – and Roberts had invented it. Enthusiasts themselves, Mr Gates and Mr Allen decided they could write software to make the machine actually do something useful.

It was an offer Roberts – who at the time was struggling to dislodge debt incurred by an earlier electronic calculator business gone belly-up – could not refuse. The two young men eventually moved to Albuquerque, where MITS was based, after creating a software programme that they dubbed Altair-Basic. (Basic comes from Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.) To do it they formed a company. That was called Microsoft.

"The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things," Mr Gates and Mr Allen said in a statement issued after Roberts' death. "We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then."

They added: "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."

"In the early days it was pretty useless," Mr Gates, who had rushed to Georgia this week to be at the side of his old mentor, would later say of the Altair. "People just bought it thinking that it would be neat to build a computer."

It wasn't just the building of it that got Roberts' juices running but also but the very notion that anyone could own a computer of their very own – a personal computer, in other words. Until then computers to most people meant big, mysterious, humming appliances on university campuses that surely could never find their way into ordinary homes.

"My assumption was that there were a bunch of nuts out there like me that would like to have a computer," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper in 1997. "To engineers and electronics people, it's the ultimate gadget."

"He came up with the idea that you could have one of these computers on your own," said his son, David Roberts.

Ed Roberts himself looked back some years later and called his effort an "almost megalomaniac kind of scheme" fuelled by youthful ambition. "But at that time, you know, we just lacked the, eh, the benefits of age and experience," he commented in an interview for a 1996 documentary on the birth of the PC called "Triumph of the Nerds". "We didn't know we couldn't do it."

While the Altair was a big seller, Roberts would later fall out with Gates and Allen when they began selling BASIC to other companies (they eventually made up, of course).

He finally sold MITS, the company that made the kit, and went on to become a vegetable farmer and then, after years of medical studies, a general practitioner in Georgia.

As for every other new advance in computer electronics that surfaces almost daily, there was always a part of Roberts that remained engaged and fascinated, according to his son. "He did think it was pretty neat, some of the stuff they're doing with the processors." And the iPad? "He was interested to see one."