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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”