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The Ed Roberts Tribute page

This page is largely copied from an earlier (c. 2004) home page article.  I will post complete transcripts of the entire e-mails sent and received from Ed Roberts, Joe Killian, and myself soon.  4-2-2010 trf


How many IMSAI 8080's were made?
According to a July 2002 e-mail from the IMSAI 8080 creator Joe Killian,

"I remember passing the 17,000 mark.  I believe it never went past 20,000"  [between December of 1975 and September 1979]. 

Fischer-Freitas Company produced another 2100+ machines between November 1979 and June 1986.  These machines can be identified by the Fischer-Freitas Company back panel label. 

Systems produced after June of 1980 were supplied with the one-piece front panel masked which consisted of a laminated Mylar mask assembly adhered to a clear acrylic backing panel.

I have long stated that IMSAI produced more computer systems than any other up until the closure of the founding company in 1979.  My information was based on an early communication from our old friend Stan Veit.  Before his death, Les Solomon (former Technical Editor for Popular Electronics magazine) informed me (through mutual friend Stan Veit) that he doubted over 12,000 Altairs were produced. Since no other production estimates seemed to exist, it was from this statement that I made my assumption.

Ed Roberts, founder of MITS (the firm that introduced the pioneering Altair 8800) offers an opposing claim, excerpted from an e-mail reply to IMSAI's former Chief Engineer Joe Killian after their first communication ever on June 28, 2004.  An excerpt follows:

(Ed Roberts:)  "By the time the first IMSAI's appeared the 8800B was in production and was a significant improvement over the earlier designs in a number of ways.  For some reason  the A and B seems to have gone unnoticed in the history of personal computers even though there were close to 30,000 of the B's  manufactured.   The Altair 680 and its variants also have disappear into history even though there were well over 10,000 of these models produced."

Until his first-ever contact with me on June 27, 2004, Ed Roberts has remained relatively silent over the years regarding much of his early history.  I will continue to offer, as made available, additional insight and clarification of the early Altair/Roberts history that may have been omitted or mangled in other published histories of the beginnings of the microcomputer industry.

I had copied the Roberts e-mail and my reply to IMSAI creator Joe Killian, who then made the first-ever contact with former mega-competitor Ed Roberts.  Joe copied me on his e-mail to Ed, and one of the more profound statements made by Joe speaks volumes of the burgeoning growth that followed the introduction of the Altair:

(Joe Killian:"Your card size, bus connector and signal definitions were copied, by IMSAI, Processor Tech, and countless others, either for complete systems or add-in boards.  This was the sincerest form of flattery, done because I and others saw supporting your design as the best business path to pursue.  I do think that this support in the form of add-in cards and alternate platforms using the same bus was fortuitous for all of us, in that it snowballed into the fledgling industry's standard.   I've always sort of felt that my choice of using your bus, and thus IMSAI quickly being out there as a second MITS compatible machine, tipped the balance on the part of all the others wanting to enter the microcomputer market. 

"Without such a standard, I would guess that neither MITS nor the industry would have taken off nearly so quickly.  Nothing else from your machine was copied in the design of the IMSAI (save the use of the 8080 chip, of course).  By contrast, I had the dubious privilege along the way of examining a competing chassis that copied my IMSAI chassis right down to holes I put in for options that we never used."

A letter from Ed Roberts  (6-27-2004)  A major brouhaha recently erupted when a well-meaning friend e-mailed MITS founder Ed Roberts (of pioneering and epic Altair 8800 fame) text of a newsgroup post that claimed IMSAI was the first to use what later became known as the "S-100 bus", an interconnect method using a specific electrical interconnect and board outline for microcomputer use.  Prior to the introduction of the IBM PC in 1983, the "S-100 bus" was the most popular and prolific microcomputer platform in the world, served by many hundreds of manufacturers and software providers.  That founding honor has always been attributed to Ed Roberts and his pioneering Altair 8800, first announced in the January, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine

The Altair bus structure, an original design created by Ed Roberts and cohort Bill Yates for a personal computer designed around the Intel 8080 microprocessor, became the de-facto bus standard for a revolutionary modular method of building and enhancing system performance of then-new microcomputer systems. 

It was later modified in small but improved ways by a group of after-market and competitive manufacturers in order to enhance and expand capabilities and performance.  By the end of 1976, it was now generally recognized as the "S-100 bus", an appellation attributed to Cromemco co-founders Roger Melen and Harry Garland sometime in the latter part of 1976.  In 1978 it became an officially recognized bus standard, now referred to as the IEEE-696 bus.  Many of us who were involved in one manner or other in those first days of microcomputers still affectionately refer to the bus as the "Roberts bus".  This reference was always used as a kind of humorous "secret society" buzz phrase, although "Altair/IMSAI bus" became the generally accepted notation in the first part of  1976.

The first e-mail-  I was enjoying a pleasant early Sunday morning sitting on the patio, reading the paper, sipping coffee, and listening to the tomatoes grow when I heard the plaintiff call of my e-mail alert.  There on the Subject line read the following:

"Thief of intellectual property"

The sender was Ed Roberts, founder of MITS, the company that produced the pioneering Altair 8800.  Now, had the word "theft" been used instead, I would have been more objective in reading the content.  But use of the term "thief" just hit me wrong.  The text content was curt and sharply worded, accusing me of "rewriting history".  He didn't include citation of such malfeasance, nor an explanation of where this rage was coming from.  This was personal!  I never had occasion to speak or otherwise communicate with him before, having assumed he was living a bucolic life on his farm and enjoying a well-earned rest and retirement.

I considered three possible approaches to my rejoinder; one profane, one patronizing, but settled on the moderately chosen "polite, but firm" choice.  I found my reply to flow from the heart, chiding him for jumping on erroneous information, but leaving the door open for reconciliation.  I also made clear that I would correct any misinformation, cite my original source of information, and credit the corrections to those providing it.  The lengthy, but respectful reply was one of my better works.

He replied back soon thereafter, apologizing for possibly jumping the gun with insufficient information.  It seems that someone misinterpreted an old post to a newsgroup by me that told of pre-Altair efforts by Joe Killian and Bill Millard to produce a microcomputer for business use.  The e-mail sent to Ed included the following from a newsgroup post...

"I went to your site and saw a technical error.  You list the Altair as the first S-100 computer.  It is not, the Altair originally had no bus.  When they started shipping they adopted the IMSAI S-100 bus (see which pre-dated the Altair by several months.  The Altair was better known but actually second."

No wonder he went ballistic!  Actually, that article told of an early predecessor to the IMSAI 8080 that was developed prior to the announcement of the Altair, but tentatively  based on a DEC bus instead of what became known as the S-100 bus, introduced by MITS in the Altair.  The article was sent to Ed by a "well meaning friend", and subsequently incensed Ed to the point of "Attack Mode".

Ed's later reply was tendered in a polite and conciliatory fashion; not in the gruff manner depicted in computer history books and the Turner Network Television movie "Pirates of Silicon Valley".  I hope to nurture the line of communication with him, and to clarify much of the misinformation that has propagated over the years about him and the Altair.

I wish to state for the record that the Altair 8800, introduced in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine, paved the way for many companies (including IMSAI) to produce improved and add-on components and systems which eventually developed into the phenomenon known as "the computer revolution".  Altair was first, IMSAI was better, proven by the large number of systems and kits sold, and acclaimed acceptance by users and value-added resellers alike.

I replied to Ed that I have always rejected the notion that the IMSAI 8080 was the first "computer clone" since it doesn't resemble the Altair in any way other than choice of bus and cabinet color.  Color choice was carried over from Bill Millard's days working for, and with IBM.  But history is written by authors and preserved according to relevance and "spin".  -trf

Happily, all seems to be reconciled, with the unexpected result that Ed Roberts and IMSAI 8080 creator Joe Killian have "virtually" met and communicated in a polite and respectful manner for the first time ever, a direct result of my having copied e-mail communications to each during resolution of the misunderstanding.  A further benefit is revelation of significant  details that add to the collective history of the earliest "personal computers".  Ed has offered correction of several distortions of history which I have posted to the comp.os.cpm newsgroup.  Hopefully, those opposing viewpoints and corrections will propagate.  I will provide additional information as time and necessity dictate.

Ed Roberts offered an "unbiased" review of the IMSAI 8080 in early 1976.  My thanks to Michael Holley for these interesting links to a review of the IMSAI 8080 by Ed Roberts published in the April 1976 MITS publication "Computer Notes: