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Nuts & Volts Magazine (January 2003)

The Altair 8800

By Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.


I'll never forget the day I saw my first personal computer. I was about 10 years old, attending a small New Jersey school, when I walked into the classroom where it was kept. It was an Altair 8800, which my school had acquired in 1976. Seeing that machine for the first time, it was a bit like all of my dreams from watching Star Trek and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey had come true.

The Spark That Ignited a Revolution

The Altair — as it was initially sold —  was little more than an incredibly difficult to assemble computer kit — basically a computer case with some circuit boards and a processor. It also initially had next to nothing in the way of peripherals. Unlike today's PCs, not even a keyboard was bundled with it. And a mouse? Fogetaboutit, as they say back in New Jersey. So my school's Altair was hooked up to a converted Western Union teletypewriter, which was being used as its keyboard and print-out device. The monitor — a converted television set — would come a little later. Programs were entered in and saved to paper tape, which the machine punched, a bit like a player piano.

While there had been one or two personal computer kits that had sold in small quantities, the Altair was the first to be manufactured in what then seemed like large numbers — about 10,000 were ultimately sold. It was powered by an Intel 8080 processor, and shipped with 256 bytes of RAM (that's bytes, not kilobytes). But we're getting ahead of ourselves. By early 1974, Ed Roberts was an Albuquerque, NM businessman with a venture he dubbed Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, or MITS for short. It was hardly the roll-off-your-tongue business name that would later distinguish such personal computer heavyweights as Apple, Commodore, and Dell, and in the classic marketing book, Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout, the authors argued that the combination of both poor business and product names contributed to the eventual death for the Altair — once a company whose products had a friendlier (not to mention catchier) name came along. (In other words: Apple.)

The Magazine Cover That Launched an Industry

At the time, Roberts' company — which had made its money selling electronic kits and pocket calculators — was a quarter million dollars in debt. But Roberts was fortunate to have the ear of Les Soloman, the technical editor of Popular Electronics magazine. At the time, using a computer meant timesharing a mainframe, and Soloman knew there was intense interest among electronic hobbyists in building a small personal computer, one that could be used anytime, rather than waiting in line. By 1974, Soloman was receiving a regular supply of plans, diagrams, and articles on the subject of how to build a personal computer, but he worried that most of the plans weren't up to snuff. He contacted Roberts, whom he had known from previous articles he had submitted. Roberts suggested designing a computer around the then — brand-new Intel 8080 chip. That chip was the key to the Altair — and also a big part of its hype. Intel normally sold its chip for $360.00 each, a price that they created to spoof IBM's 360 mainframes, which sold for millions of dollars each. But Roberts was able to keep the final retail price of his Altair kit at only slightly more than the 8080 chip itself, by buying cosmetically-damaged "seconds" in quantity from Intel at $75.00 a chip.

The Trek Connection

The famous story of how the Altair got its name is that Roberts asked his young daughter for some suggestions, and she came up with the idea of naming it after a planet the USS Enterprise was visiting on Star Trek that week — Altair. (At the risk of outing myself as a proto-Trekkie, this was probably the "Amok Time" episode, where Kirk and crew were scheduled to visit Altair, but end up at Spock's home planet, Vulcan.) The Altair name has some additional science fiction resonance — it was also the planet where Leslie Nielson and crew met Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. Robbie's capabilities would run rings around the Altair 8800, but they'd probably still find some common kinship.

Enter Bill Gates and Paul Allen

Roberts had hoped his Altair kit would sell a couple of hundred units, while he looked for other, more lucrative projects. Little did he know that he'd be taking 200 phone orders a day for the computers, or that people would actually drive out to Albuquerque and camp out overnight waiting to pick up their kits. (Roberts sold 1,500 Altairs in its first year of sales.) Or that he'd be launching his eventual successor as king of the personal computer world: Microsoft.

Roberts was painfully aware that his computer lacked the software necessary to do anything useful. Fortunately, help arrived in the mail, in the form of a letter from two equally experienced veterans of 1970s computing: Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Yes, that Bill Gates and Paul Allen). At the time of the Altair's announcement in Popular Electronics, Paul Allen was a programmer employed by Honeywell, where Gates had worked during summers, and Bill Gates was a sophomore at Harvard. In an eerie foreshadowing of how the IBM PC came to have a Microsoft operating system, Gates and Allen were in the right place at the right time: the Altair desperately needed a pre-written operating system to make it more than just a plug-in doorstop, and Gates and Allen got there first by modifying an existing operating system. The BASIC language was originally created in 1964 at Dartmouth, and was used on numerous mainframes as an easy-to-learn computer language, perfect for beginners. Gates and Allen worked in marathon 24-hour sessions to adopt the language to the peculiarities of the Altair, and then licensed the result to MITS.

Soon thereafter, Allen accepted a position with MITS as director of Software Development, where he stayed until the end of 1976, when he and Gates resumed their nascent Micro-Soft business, complete with hyphen.

The Altair Begets a Clone

Just as the first IBM PC would eventually begat numerous clones, the Altair had a clone of its own: the Imsai 8080. Many users of both computers actually consider the Imsai to be a much better design, given its higher specification power supply, an anodized aluminum chassis, and a more functional front panel design. All for the same $439.00 as a kit, or $621.00 assembled price of the Altair, only slightly more than what the Altair initially cost. Upgraders could insert Imsai cards into an Altair, and via Imsai's "Memory Sharing Facility," an Altair and Imsai processor could co-exist in the same platform for parallel computing. The Altair's sales eventually topped 10,000.

While Altairs served on the front lines of personal computer usage for the rest of the 1970s, their time was gradually numbered. Roberts sold the MITS name to Pertec, a manufacturer of tapes and disk drives for mainframes. By then, the Apple II, the TRS-80, and other personal computers had entered the market and began to cut drastically into the Altair's sales. Pertec eliminated the model within a couple of years of their acquisition. But the Altair had served its initial role well: the personal computer revolution was set to go, and just needed a spark.  NV

If you've used or had experience with the Altair, how about sharing your story with us in the comments below?