Tech Pioneers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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Computing as we know it today is like many other major inventions in history in that it happened in fits and starts. But in many cases, there was no one pivotal moment that shaped history, no image for people to hold onto, such as when the Wright Brothers soared into the sky in the first successful airplane, or Neil Armstrong took a few steps on the moon. That isn’t to say that the invention of the PC or the CD ROM or the World Wide Web weren’t just as groundbreaking (if not more so), but it does mean that for many people, there are very few names to attach to these developments. Here we take a look at some of the lesser-known pioneers of computing and the stories behind the technology we use today.

If you’re a history buff, you might also like The Pioneers of Computer Programming and The Pioneers of the World Wide Web.

David Bunnell

As the United States struggled to catch up to the USSR in the post-Sputnik "Space Race," there was a concerted effort to miniaturize components that might be part of a space capsule. This effort became a major goal in computer design, and Marcian Edward "Ted" Hoff Jr., employee No.12 at Intel, is credited with a major breakthrough in this area with his concept of a universal processor. This new type of processor carried all the necessary computational components on one chip, rather than having a series of interconnected chips performing different functions. Hoff’s insight brought us the microprocessor.

Initially, microprocessors were used as embedded systems, processors programmed to do a specific thing and made part of a device. They were the "brains" of devices like calculators and digital watches. A fledging electronics company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) moved into the electronic calculator business in 1971. MITS had been founded in 1969 by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims in 1969 to design, build and sell model rocket electronics kits to hobbyists. When this venture was not successful, Roberts bought out Mims and turned to electronic calculators. (Mims went on to a successful career as a magazine columnist and writer of instructional technology-related books).

The MITS calculator business really took off when MITS’ Model 816 calculator kit was featured on the November 1971 cover of Popular Electronics magazine. This helped calculator sales top $1 million in 1973.

In the middle of the MITS boom, Roberts hired David Bunnell as a technical writer to fill the void left by Forrest Mims’ departure. Bunnell had come from a background of teaching and political activism. He had no technology experience, but despite this, he soon rose to the position of vice president of marketing.

Shortly after Bunnell’s hire, MITS’ business took a downturn due to a major price war in the calculator business. In response, Roberts turned in another direction, and developed a general-purpose programmable computer kit based on the Intel 8080 chip. This single act launched the personal computer revolution. In 2010, Bunnell wrote a tribute to Roberts following his death, where he called Ed Roberts "the catalyst for the personal computer revolution and everything that followed."

Roberts sent the kit off to Popular Electronics for a review and one of the first things the electronics editor, Les Solomon, wanted to know was, "what do you call this kit? Does the model have a name?" When told that it did not but that he could name it, Solomon told people that his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, had chosen the name Altair because that was the next destination of the Starship Enterprise (although this story has been disputed, both Solomon and Bunnell have told me that it is factual).

The Altair appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics and that, along with Solomon’s enthusiastic review, created such a stir with readers that initial orders for the kit far exceeded MITS’ production capability.

Among those whose attention was caught by the Popular Electronics article was a Honeywell programmer Paul Allen. Realizing that the Altair presented an entrepreneurial opportunity if a programming language for the computer could be developed, he persuaded his childhood friend, Bill Gates, then a student at Harvard, to get involved. Together, they determined that BASIC, a language developed in 1964 by Dartmouth College professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, could be implemented for the Altair and was straightforward enough to be usable by kit purchasers.

Their implementation was successful. Allen flew to Albuquerque and demonstrated it to Roberts. He was hired as vice president of software. Gates stayed at Harvard, continuing to work on BASIC, and was listed as "software specialist" on MITS’ roster.

Gates then dropped out of Harvard and moved to Albuquerque to work full time on the product. In July 1975, MITS signed a contract for the Altair BASIC with Gates and Allen, giving it exclusive rights to the product and the right to sub-license to other firms (with Gates and Allen receiving royalty payments). When MITS did not license the product to other manufacturers, Gates and Allen’s company, "Micro-Soft," brought the contract to arbitration and was awarded the rights to license the product directly to other firms.

Although by 1976 MITS had 230 employees and sales of $6 million, there was now a great deal of competition in the fledgling personal computer industry and, in December 1976, Roberts signed a letter of agreement with Pertec Computer Corporation for Pertec to acquire MITS. David Bunnell explained the sale to me this way, "Ed got bored with the whole thing, and I think he realized the world was moving too fast for him to stay ahead of the curve. He did the buyout because he knew in his heart that MITS was doomed. There was no way MITS could have survived. The center of the PC universe had already shifted from Albuquerque to Silicon Valley."

Roberts retired to the rural Georgia of his youth and became a farmer, but when nearby Mercer University began a medical school in 1982, Roberts was in its first class and graduated with an M.D. in 1986. After interning in internal medicine, he established a medical practice in Cochran, Georgia. He died in 2010.

Bunnell went on to co-found PC Magazine and, after its sale to Ziff-Davis, founded PCWorld, MacWorld, and BioWorld. He is the recipient of the only lifetime achievement award from the Computer Press Association. He has also authored several books and is active in charity and political activities in the San Francisco Bay area.

It is my understanding that Gates and Allen also went on to successful endeavors.

John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…