Technology
The Kit That Launched the Tech Revolution

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Personal computers, laptops, and tablets were only a dream in 1975. Back then electronics hobbyists were mesmerized by the cover story of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine. The cover photo showed a metal box with rows of toggle switches and LEDs under a label that read “ALTAIR 8800.” Boldly printed over the photo were these words: “PROJECT BREAKTHROUGH! World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” Though primitive by today’s standards, the Altair 8800 is widely credited with jump-starting the personal computer era.

The Altair 8800 microcomputer was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.
The Altair 8800 microcomputer was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.

The Altair was developed by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), a nearly bankrupt company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The company’s president and chief engineer was the late Ed Roberts, a no-nonsense visionary who had dreamed of building his own computer since high school.

Ed Roberts, president and chief engineer of MITS. I took this photo for the back cover of Electronic Calculators (1974), a book we co-authored. This photo was taken in Ed's office about 20 feet from where Bill Gates would end up a few years later.
Ed Roberts, president and chief engineer of MITS. I took this photo for the back cover of Electronic Calculators (1974), a book we co-authored. This photo was taken in Ed’s office about 20 feet from where Bill Gates would end up a few
years later.

The MITS story and its Popular Electronics connection comes to mind every time I browse the latest edition of Make: magazine, for a number of projects that have appeared in Make: have attracted well-deserved media attention. Will something as revolutionary as the Altair 8800 someday emerge from the pages of Make: magazine? Perhaps the Altair 8800 story might inspire a creative individual or team to follow the lead of Ed Roberts and transform their dream into the next big thing.

The MITS Story

MITS was founded in the fall of 1969 when Robert Zaller, Stan Cagle, and I met at Ed Roberts’s house in Albuquerque, to form a company to manufacture a model rocket light flasher that I had described in the September 1969 Model Rocketry magazine. That article began my career as a writer, but Ed had much bigger ambitions.

This model rocket light flasher launched MITS, Inc. when details for a DIY version were published by Forrest Mims in Model Rocketry magazine in September 1969.
This model rocket light flasher launched MITS, Inc. when details for a DIY version were published by Forrest Mims in Model Rocketry magazine in September 1969.
During 1969–70, MITS, Inc. was headquartered in the garage of Ed Robert’s home at 4809 Palo Duro Avenue NE, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Meetings were held in the bedroom at the right side of the front door and engineering was done in the garage.
During 1969–70, MITS, Inc. was headquartered in the garage of Ed Robert’s home at 4809 Palo Duro Avenue NE, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Meetings were held in the bedroom at the right side of the front door and engineering was done in the garage.

After we sold only a few hundred model rocket light flashers, telemetry transmitters, and sensor modules, we decided to try something new during the summer of 1970. That spring I had written my first article for Popular Electronics, a feature on LEDs. When I asked technical editor Les Solomon if the magazine would like an LED light wave communication project and kit to accompany the feature story, he replied yes. Within a few months Ed and Bob had designed a prototype that I began testing. The prototype, which we called the Opticom, could send voice up to 1,000 feet. Popular Electronics published the LED article as its November 1970 cover story. Also included was the Opticom article. Its parts list offered a kit of all parts for $17 postpaid, about $75 in today’s money.

Although we didn’t realize it at the time, the Popular Electronics connection provided by those two articles set the stage for much bigger developments at MITS. While I soon left MITS to become a full-time writer, Ed stayed on to develop the MITS 816, the first digital calculator kit. His article about the 816 calculator was featured on the front cover of the November 1972 Popular Electronics. Ed gave me an 816 for writing the assembly manual for the calculator kit.

The MITS 816 was followed by a series of calculator kits and assembled models. All went well until serious competition arrived from Japan. MITS was nearly bankrupt by 1974.

That summer MITS’s Popular Electronics connection came to the rescue. The cover story of the July 1974 Radio-Electronics magazine, Popular Electronics’ main competitor, was a breakthrough project that provided full details about the Mark-8, a DIY microcomputer designed by Jonathan Titus. The computer’s controller was Intel’s 8008 8-bit microprocessor. While the article included an offer for a manual and a printed circuit board, it did not offer a kit of all the required components. Nevertheless, the Mark-8 lit the rivalry fuse.

The Altair 8800

Popular Electronics’s editor Art Salsberg and technical editor Les Solomon were aware that Ed Roberts and MITS engineer Bill Yates were working on a microcomputer project using a more advanced processor, Intel’s new 8080 chip. They soon agreed to publish a major cover story about the computer.

One evening Ed called to ask if I would stop by to see the first prototype of their nameless computer, so I hopped on my bicycle and rode the five blocks to MITS. No one was at the front desk, so I rolled my bike inside and headed for the engineering department. Thanks to the calculator bust, the manufacturing section was strangely quiet, and only Ed and Bill were in the building. They were standing by a metal box about the size of a thick briefcase on a workbench. Its front panel was lined with several rows of switches and LEDs. Hanging from the wall behind the bench were Bill’s intricate layout patterns for the PC boards inside the box.

Ed invited me to take a close look at his latest creation, which he described as a hobbyist-level minicomputer that would generate major excitement among electronics hobbyists when it was published in Popular Electronics. Ed then asked the question that was the real purpose of my visit: “How many do you think we’ll sell?” Based on sales of MITS model rocket gear, the Opticom and the calculators, I was not optimistic that a bare-bones computer would do much better. So I said a few hundred at most.

Ed was disappointed by my response, for he was confident that the computer would easily sell in the hundreds. But we were both wrong. During the months following the Altair 8800 article in the January 1975 Popular Electronics, MITS sold thousands of assembled and kit Altairs, even though the early models had only 256 bytes of RAM and no keyboard or monitor beyond their front panel switches and LEDs. The price of the basic kit was $439, around $1,925 in today’s dollars.

The Altair’s Legacy

Computers require a language and programs. Paul Allen knew that very well when he spotted the Altair on the cover of Popular Electronics at Out of Town News, a Harvard Square newsstand. He bought the magazine and hurriedly walked to the Harvard dormitory where his friend Bill Gates (Figure D) resided. Allen and Gates soon contacted Ed Roberts, and the collaboration that followed resulted in the founding of Microsoft.

http://youtu.be/pqAg0GJLPGk

Ed’s Altair and Microsoft’s version of the BASIC programming language ignited the spark that began the computer revolution that soon led to the personal computers introduced by Apple, Radio Shack, IBM and a host of other firms. While those exciting days are history, the Altair’s role is not forgotten. The one Ed gave me for writing the Altair’s manual was displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for more than 15 years and is now a part of their virtual museum.

Altair-8800-front2

DIY Altairs and Other Vintage Computers

The Altair 8800 lives on in pampered working versions cared for by enthusiastic computer historians, engineers, and hobbyists. You can share their passion for the earliest days of personal computing with replica Altair kits, PC boards, and assembled versions available online.

Classic computer collector Rich Cini designs replica PC boards of early computers, including the Altair 8800. He has also developed an Altair emulator that programmers will find interesting. Cini highly recommends S100computers.com and the N8VEM Home Brew Computer Project. These sites specialize in PC boards compatible with the S-100 bus that Ed Roberts designed to interconnect the boards of the original Altair 8800.

Grant Stockly (altairkit.com) and Mike Douglas (altairclone.com) sell Altair replica kits complete with custom-made cabinets carefully copied from the original Optima housing. Douglas’ price is notable in that itʼs identical to the original MITS price — $439 — even though a dollar in 1975 equals around $4.50 today.

Going Further

You can learn much more about the founding of MITS, Ed Roberts, and the Altair online. On the tenth anniversary of the Altair, I wrote about those exciting days in “The Altair Story: Early Days at MITS” (Creative Computing, November 1984).

“Idea Man,” Paul Allen’s memoir reviewed in Make: Volume 27, includes details about MITS and the founding of Microsoft.

For a personal encounter with those heady days, visit the StartUp Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. The museum’s StartUp Gallery displays many examples of early computer technology and presents a well-designed historical account of MITS and the Altair, all largely made possible by a grant from Paul Allen along with the loan of many computer artifacts from his personal collection.

The entrance to StartUp memorializes Ed Roberts’ vision for personal computers: “The idea that you could have your own computer and do whatever you wanted to with it was fantastic.”

The StartUp Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque features exhibits about the history of MITS and the Altair. Ed Roberts’ vision for personal computers is memorialized at the entrance.
The StartUp Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque features exhibits about the history of MITS and the Altair. Ed Roberts’ vision for personal computers is memorialized at the entrance.
At the grand opening of StartUp, Minnie Mims photographed Paul Allen (right) and MITS founders Ed Roberts (seated), Forrest Mims (left), and Robert Zaller.
At the grand opening of StartUp, Minnie Mims photographed Paul Allen (right) and MITS founders Ed Roberts (seated), Forrest Mims (left), and Robert Zaller.

0 thoughts on “The Kit That Launched the Tech Revolution

  1. When I was in high school, a friend’s father had a similar vintage Imsai. It took about 10 minutes of keying in the bootstrap on big white toggle switches to get the cassette loader to run, then the OS, then Collosal Cave… which would play for about 10 minutes before a bug or a static discharge would start it all over again.
    The (several thousand dollar) 8″ floppy drive adapter they added later, which included a bootloader, was an enormous help.

  2. Grant Stockly (altairkit.com) doesn’t appear to have updated his site since 2007. I don’t think he’s selling kits anymore.

  3. Forty years ago today (Jan. 08, 2015, when this article was posted online), MITS was beginning to be flooded with phone calls about the POPULAR ELECTRONICS cover story: The Altair 8800. Yes, it was a primitive 8-bit computer–but it was a real computer and it was available as an affordable kit or completely assembled. Looking back on the Altair today is like seeing a photo of a Model T in a history book. But when the Altair arrived four decades ago, it created a revolution in hobby electronics that led directly to the Apple, the TRS-80 and all the other machines that pioneered today’s PC era.

  4. Forrest, can I just jump in and say “thanks!” for those Radio Shack Engineering Mini Notebooks? You taught me to love electronics. My dad and I sat down and built a couple of those circuits when I was a kid. I still have the books, and pull them out often.

    1. Yeah, me too. You were the leader in the field of electronics education for young people, in the 1970’s. Your books are fantastic …

    2. Ditto… I have a couple of those books on my shelf and they are normally my first ‘go-to’ references. When I first saw the ‘Country Scientist’ columns in the San Antonio Express News, I was instantly hooked. I remember thinking; “that name is familiar”… it took me a little while to put the two together. Thanks Mr. Mims!

  5. It’s important to commemorate anniversaries of important technological turning points. By looking at the circumstances, the resources available and the decisions that were made we can understand better why one idea has a permanent effect and another fizzles. In the mid/late ’70s I was knee deep in 6502 machine language programming on 2nd gen microcomputers like KIM-1 and Commodore. That led to a career in applications programming for me.
    Today on a plane I was talking to a marketing guy about 3D printing. He wanted to know what the end state of quick and inexpensive additive fabrication was. I had to disappoint him because in my opinion the final effect of that tech can’t be known because it’s indeterminate from this vantage point. In the same way that 8-bit microcomputers were the genesis of personal digital electronics, among other things, but that outcome could never have been predicted.
    The most productive effect of any new tech is probably when it motivates a lot of smart people with time on their hands to think differently, and convinces them to try doing something in a new way.

  6. You missed the very first micro-computer that was posted in Radio-Electronics in March 1974 before Popular Electronics. It was the Scelbi-8 that used an Intel 8008 CPU with 1 KB of RAM and it had its own Basic. I have the manuals for it, and a Google search will show when it was produced before MITS did the Altair 8800.

    And Jonathan Titus make a kit called the Mark-8 also using the Intel 8008 that was posted in Radio-Electronics in Julay 1974. I have these plans, too. So your claim of the first microcomputer is wrong by two counts!

  7. I remember that within about 12 months, a competitor to the Altair 8800 sprang up, the IMSI computer which looked identical but used paddle switches (both were mimic’ing the PDP-11, I believe.) These computers *looked* SERIOUS, like PDP-11’s costing $20,000 at the time, and that look went a long way towards legitimizing the field of personal computing.

    The IMSI that I saw was using either an 8080-1 or 8085 processor. I saw these computers at a computer club at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, shortly after they were released, when I was 14 years old.

    The biggest problem in these early computers was persistent storage, and the lack of a ROM/Bios – not even a boot loader – every program had to be entered by hand via the toggle switches. I think it was not until someone invented a casette-based storage system that allowed you to load and store memory from Phillips cassettes, that you could use these machines productively.

  8. This brings a smile to my face– my high school physics club built one of these and thus became the first school in Alabama to have its own computer. A classmate’s dad worked at Bell South and was able to get us a teletype terminal with a paper-tape punch and reader for i/o (after toggling in the bootstrap, of course). Good times!

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Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (forrestmims.org), an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

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