January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

AT 8:30 ON A BLEAK WINTER morning in Cochran, Ga., Ed Roberts arrives at Bleckley Memorial Hospital and makes rounds. About 11 a.m. he crosses Peacock Street to a one-story white cinder-block office building with a simple sign in front: H. Edward Roberts, M.D. Adult Internal Medicine. “We treat the usual range of stuff,” says the genial 55-year-old internist. “You know, hypertension, strokes, the usual colds and flu.”

Few of the cotton-and-peanut-farming town’s 4,500 residents know that Roberts was once someone other than the man they should see when they’re running a fever—that in 1974, in Albuquerque, Ed Roberts designed and built the first successful personal computer. His innovation, the Altair 8800, launched an industry, one that could have made Roberts a billionaire, and for a time Bill Gates worked for him. But not long afterward, Roberts sold the company he’d founded, missing out on the fortune that might have been his. Remarkably, he has no regrets. “Sure, there are lots of things I’d like to own,” he says with a shrug, “but not a lot I’d trade to get them.”

Finishing with the morning’s last patient, Roberts looks back for a moment on the life he walked away from. “It all seems like a long time ago,” he says. “For a while, we were the largest producer of computers in the world.” But wary of increasing competition and under financial pressure, Roberts sold Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in 1977 for $6 million. “I was working all the time, and my fifth son was born just before the Altair came out,” he adds. “One of the primary regrets in my life is not having spent more time with my kids when they were little.”

The older of two children born to an appliance repairman and a homemaker, Roberts grew up in Miami intrigued by electronics but in love with medicine. The first in his family to attend college, he left the University of Miami in his junior year when his first wife, Joan, became pregnant with the first of their six children. He joined the Air Force, which sent him to Oklahoma State for a degree in electrical engineering and then to its weapons laboratory in Albuquerque. In 1968, when he could look into applying to medical school, Roberts, 27, learned that he was considered too old.

Still in the military, Roberts designed the first handheld calculator in the U.S. in his spare time, as “an entrepreneurial gambit,” he says. It was a huge hit, and as his new company grew to over 150 employees, Roberts set out to create a PC. Named for a Star Trek episode, the Altair 8800 was a far cry from today’s PCs; for one thing, it had no keyboard, just a panel of switches. But among those who instantly grasped its significance were a 19-year-old Harvard student named Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen. Without having seen the Altair, the pair whipped up a version of the computer language Basic and brought it to Roberts. He hired Allen on the spot, and Gates came aboard over his summer vacation. (Roberts recalls Gates as cocksure and smart-alecky. “He was a bright kid, but he thought he knew everything,” says Roberts. “I never knew whether to spank him or fire him.”) The two went on, of course, to make billions selling PC software with their own company, Microsoft.

After he sold MITS to a company called Pertec Computer Corp., Roberts remained with the new firm, only to see his next brainstorm—a laptop computer—shot down as unmarketable. Frustrated, he pocketed his $3 million share of the Pertec deal and moved his family to a farm in Wheeler County, Ga., where he’d spent childhood summers. In 1982, when Mercer University in Macon, Ga., opened a medical school, Roberts joined the first class. Six years later, at 47, he set up his practice in Cochran. “We needed him desperately,” says hospital nurse Alaina Dykes, who appreciates the fact “that he’s so patient, so ready to give that pat on the back that makes people feel cared for.”

Divorced from Joan in 1988, Roberts lives now with Donna, a nurse he married in 1991, in a small brick house in town. His five sons are grown, and his only daughter, Dawn, lives with her mother on the Wheeler County farm. Professionally, Roberts has never questioned his move from computers to medicine. “If I had everything to do over again,” he says, “I’d do what I did. Most of the time, I’ve been the only doctor on call here at night. That’s mattered a lot to folks—and it’s mattered to me.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Cochran

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