It is with a heavy heart I say good bye to Bob Spencer who passed on April 10th, 2021.
Bob’s wife Lucy called me at the very beginning of April 2021 to let me know of his declining medical situation, sadly I knew this was coming as I just saw him 2 weeks before and he told me in his Bob way. Days later Lucy reached out again to let me know he had passed. Bob was always willing to share his great stories of what is now computer history and often told me “none of us knew what we were doing, we just built these gadgets.”
This is my tale of how I met one of the key engineers of the MITS Altair
When I first meet Bob, I had no clue of how I was about to gain a connection to computer history beyond my growing up with many of the first computers. It was a summer morning when I first arrived at Bob’s home at the base of the Sandia mountains in Placitas, New Mexico. He was a referral from another client of mine so I figured this would be business as usual, was I about to be surprised. As I pulled into the long driveway off in the distance I saw a man wearing a tan jumpsuit filling water troths for horses, when I got out he turned and said hello and he would be with me as soon as he was done. See where Bob and his wife Lucy live they are visited by wild horses and Bob feeds and gives them water as part of a daily routine, so he told me. When he was finished with the water he came over and introduced himself then took me inside his home to being work on his new computer, next to the new computer was his 20-year-old Pentium machine he was using almost up till that day. By the end of my visit and after our conversations about “old computers” his wife Lucy looked at Bob and said “Are you going to tell him?”
With a pause Bob sat back and then let loose about his job many decades ago for a little company called MITS. That was when I learned who Bob was, the engineer who developed quite a bit of the Altair 8088 and completely designed and built the proto type of the MITS Attaché sold as the “Icom Attaché”.
At the end of this first visit to Bob’s he took me to his barn/garage to show me his pride and joy, an MG that he bought to drive to MITS daily. He told me stories of Paul Allen driving around in the car and the friendship he had with Paul Allen all the way up till the passing of Allen. However, the reason he took me to the barn was to find the very first magazine publication by another one of Bob’s good friends, David Bunnell (of PC Magazine). David hand delivered this very first issue of his first publication to Bob personally at MITS.
After that first meeting Bob and I would occasionally talk on the phone but also spend many hours when I would visit him regularly, talking about his memories and interactions with Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Ed Roberts, David Bunnell and many more. One day I said to Bob, let’s sit and capture your history on video, he was all too happy to right then and there. Bob would tell me he did not get why so many people like myself are still playing with and reviving old computers but he feels happy folks are doing it. He said how important the history is but so much of it is forgotten or overlooked for the fancy new devices of today. There were times he would call me up just to tell me a story from back in the day before he forgot it. He recently told me the first meeting he had with Paul Allen when Paul came to Albuquerque to demonstrate Basic on the Altair. Paul struggled trying to get the paper tape of basic to load on the Altair, it was a disaster at first but Paul got it to work ultimately after some time and was quite relieved.
I am glad to have known Bob, he will never be forgotten in my mind and will always have a big place in my adventures in Retro Computing! Every time I paid Bob a visit he would always say good bye with the same four-word phrase that I will end this tale with “Until we meet again”.
Good bye Bob and we will meet again!
Here are some links to Bob’s obituaries and 2 of the 3 videos I have of him sharing his memories working at MITS, the Altair and people that were all part of the computer revolution.