I remember the Altair and it changed the world

Summary:Without Ed Roberts, we might not have had Microsoft.

Please forgive this not-entirely-government post, but when Jason Perlow wrote about Ed Roberts passing today, I had to chime in.

The Altair was either the first or second computer I actually owned (I can't recall if it came before or after the Timex Sinclair), but I remember the Altair vividly.

I remember soldering in all the connections on the S-100 bus and wiring in all the connections to the front panel.

I remember my friends wondering what that thing was in my dorm room, because I had the mobo sitting out on a slab of plywood, wires streaming everywhere.

I remember searching the Trenton Computer Festival, horse-trading for parts, because back then I was a starving college student, there was no eBay, there was no Weird Stuff Warehouse. Scoring a few 2102 memory chips was a major win that day.

I remember meeting members of the Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey, who back then founded some of the earliest personal computer companies, almost all S-100 suppliers. They took in a very annoying kid and I learned more from them at late-night diner runs than I did in some full semester CS classes.

I remember spending weeks toggling in the boot loader on the Altair's front panel, bit-by-bit -- literally bit by actual bit (I had a lot more free time back then). I also remember the day my Dad decided to switch off the circuit breaker powering my room to install an extra plug for my Mom. And I remember having to toggle in the boot loader, bit-by-bit, all over again.

I remember Microsoft as "that BASIC company" and then later learning that Ed Roberts became a doctor.

But most of all, I remember the Altair as the computer that taught me that whether or not I worked for a big company, computers were something you could hold, touch, build, tweak, and make your own -- in a day when the big computers had rooms of their own.

And I thank Ed Roberts for giving Bill and Paul a chance. For without Ed, we might not have had Microsoft.

Say what you will about Microsoft, it's changed the world and with Bill Gates' philanthropy, he's also healing the world.

So, in a sense, Ed Roberts became a healer twice over -- both a doctor himself, and giving an early chance to a man who'd invest billions to heal others.

Rest in peace, Ed Roberts.

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware

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In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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