He Did Compute

As I sit here typing on my computer and you, somewhere out there in the cyber world,  are reading what words I type, we can all take a moment and give a heartfelt, rousing round of applause of thanks.  In the computer world, every one knows who Ed Roberts was and how he changed the face, size and shape of computers.  Those who lived anywhere around Cochran, Georgia, knew him as a country doctor, a farmer, and a good friend.  This is the story of Dr. Henry Edward Roberts, the founder of the personal computer.  It was Roberts’ first computer, the Altair 8800,  which ignited a boom not only in small businesses but in homes and consequently in cell phones and many other devices.  Albeit that someone else would have come along with their own manageable sized computer, it was Dr. Roberts, of Bleckley and Wheeler County,  who revolutionized the world in which live.

Ed Roberts was born in Miami, Florida in September 1941 on the cusp of World War II.  Despite the horrific results of the war, World War II brought out the need to move into the modern world, a world with computers.  When his father, Henry Melvin Roberts, joined the service, his mother, Edna Wilcher, returned home with Ed to live on her family farm in Wheeler County, Georgia.  
Ed intended to become a doctor when he entered the University of Miami in the late 1950s.  There he met and married his wife, Joan Clark.  Ed interest in electronics began in high school when he built his first computer and a heart and lung machine.  His father was a tinkerer who made a career of repairing electric appliances in his Miami shop.   One day, a doctor saw promise in an  electronics future for Ed and recommend that he shift majors.

To make ends meet for his growing family, Ed joined the U.S. Air Force.  After years of studying in Air Force schools, Ed obtained a degree from Oklahoma State University and began work in lasers.  When Ed began to seek out his dream of going to medical school, he was turned away for being too old.

Ed Roberts went back to work on weapons systems.  A fan of model rocketry, the budding scientist began to development systems which would improve model rockets.  Roberts joined with Forrest Mims to form, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry systems. 
Mims and Forrest developed an LED communicator which would transmit voice signals over a distance of 100 feet.  When sales did not amount to their expectations, Roberts resigned himself to being a science writer.

Then things began to chance.  Building on his experience with programable computers, Roberts joined with William Yates to build one of the first handheld, programmable calculators.  Although primitive by today’s standards, when an article by Roberts and Yates appeared on the cover of the November 1971 issue of Popular Electronics, sales began to accelerate.    When Texas Instruments introduced a line of more affordable calculators, Ed and his company was forced to retool and seek a product which was not yet on the market.

At first, Roberts and his associates scrimped and saved, all in an attempt to design, market and sell small computers that the average person, or at least an average person with an electronic or mathematical mind, could use.    The result was the Altair 8800, the world’s first home computer.  Again, a cover story on the January 1975 Popular Electronics on Robert’s build it yourself computer, was seen by computer enthusiasts around the world.

One of those persons who saw the article were a relatively unknown Harvard student, who went by the name of  Bill Gates.   Gates, an early promoter of computer software, was fascinated and offered to partner with Roberts and his associates.  Robert’s company signed an agreement with Gates and his associates in July 1975.  And, as they say the rest is history.

Armed with a virtual fortune following the sale of his computer company, Ed Roberts returned to Middle Georgia, to follow his life long dream, to practice medicine.  Roberts bought a farm in 1977 in Wheeler County.  When he found out that Mercer University in Macon was opening a medical school, Roberts jumped at the chance to enroll in the first classes, which began in 1982.  

@ Macon Telegraph

Contrary to the disbelievers, who thought he was too old to be a doctor, the 1986 graduate of Mercer opened his practice in Cochran, Georgia in 1988.  Ed was 46 years old.
Ed Roberts had realized his dream and he was back home in the role of the middle-aged country doctor with a very large farm, a place to go to unwind.    

In 1986, Dr. John C. Belcher, historical and feature columnist of the Dublin Courier Herald, interviewed Roberts on his Wheeler County farm, where Roberts’ new company, Data Blocks,  was busy making computers.  A rare combination of physician and electronic engineer, Doctor Roberts told Doctor Belcher, that he was working on the design of wheel chair which would obey the patients voice command. 

Roberts invested in the downtown area, buying the town’s drug store and its hospital.  Roberts did not leave his electronic knowledge in the classrooms at Mercer. Instead, he developed a device, which could warn of impending heart attacks in his patients. 

Ed Roberts’ cousin, Jim Hardman said, “Because of him a computer no longer required a whole room. It went from being immobile to being mobile.” Another cousin, Bill Hardman remarked, “He must have been very smart because he was always working on something.

In an indirect way, Dr. Edward Roberts changed the history of the world.  It was Bill Gates, who visited Ed on his death bed, who proclaimed, “He was willing to take a chance on us and we have always been grateful to him.  The country of Mozambique put his image and his invention on a postage stamp. 

Ed Roberts’ mother, Edna, moved to Dublin about 2005 and lived in a house in the King’s Forest neighborhood.  Edna Roberts was registered nurse and a member of Jefferson Street Baptist Church.  She died in 2015 and is buried in the Stuckey Baptist Church in Dodge County next to her son.   Ed’s sister Cheryl, who also lived in Dublin, died on March 6, 2010 just 26 days before her brother.  

Ed Roberts died on April 1, 2010 in the Medical Center in Macon after a long and losing
bout with pneumonia.  His dream of becoming a country doctor being stricken from the top of his bucket list, Edward Roberts’s name will go on forever as one of the scientists who changed the history of the world.