Dr. Henry Edward Roberts, an early personal computer developer who helped inspire Bill Gates to start Microsoft, died Thursday. He was 68.
Though he lived in Cochran at the time of his death, Roberts had close ties to Gainesville.
His second cousin Jim Hardman of Gainesville spoke of him as a man of many talents.
“He was known as the father of the personal computer,” Hardman said. “When he was living in Albuquerque, N.M., he developed his computer, and it was revolutionary.”
Roberts, whose build-it-yourself computer kit concentrated thousands of dollars worth of computer capability in an affordable package, inspired Bill Gates and his childhood friend Paul Allen to come up with Microsoft in 1975 after they saw an article about the MITS Altair 8800 in Popular Electronics.
The Altair was operated by switches, and with no display screen, it looked like little more than a metal box covered in blinking, red lights.
Hardman said Gates and Allen worked for Roberts for two years. They created a computer language that would run what became known as DOS.
“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,” Gates and Allen said in a joint statement released Thursday. “The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things. We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed.”
Roberts, who spent time in the U.S. Air Force and earned an electrical engineering degree from Oklahoma State University in 1968, according to information provided by his family, later went on to careers as a farmer and a physician. He continued to keep up with computer advances, though. He recently told Gates he hoped to work with new, nanotechnology-enhanced machines, according to son David Roberts.
“He did think it was pretty neat, some of the stuff they’re doing with the processors,” said David Roberts, who confirmed Gates rushed to Georgia Friday to pay respects.
After leaving the computer world, Roberts moved to Georgia and became a farmer.
“Edward always wanted to be a farmer, so he bought at 10,000-acre farm,” Hardman said. “He did that for about four years, and then he decided that he wanted to be a physician.”
Roberts attended Mercer University and was the oldest person to graduate from a medical school in Georgia, Hardman said.
“After medical school, he took part of his fortune and bought the hospital, drug store and part of downtown Cochran,” Hardman said.
Roberts became an internist, but his interest in electronics continued.
“After Edward went into practice, he was always developing some new device,” Roberts’ first cousin Billy Hardman said. “He must have been a real smart fella because he was always working on something.”
“He developed a device that would pre-warn of an upcoming heart attack,” Jim Hardman said. “The guy was an international player; what he developed literally changed the world.”
Though Roberts had several careers, he’ll likely most be remembered for his contributions to the computer field.
“Because of him, a computer no longer required an entire room,” Jim Hardman said. “It went from being immobile to being mobile.”
Roberts died in a Macon hospital after a long bout with pneumonia, according to his family.
A funeral is planned for Monday in Cochran.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.