The Ed Roberts Tribute
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
www.imsai.net) which pre-dated the Altair by several months. The Altair
was better known but actually second."
No wonder he went ballistic! Actually,
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
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: