Altair 8800June 4, 2017
On the cover of the January 1975 issue of the magazine Popular Electronics you can see an image of the world’s first microcomputer, Altair 8800, assembled on the basis of the company Intel’s latest microprocessor 8080. The microcomputer was sold by mail in the form of a set of parts for manual assembly by a tiny company from the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This company was called MITS and was headed by a certain Ed Roberts. He was the first to realize that the new chip concealed the possibilities of a real computer and hurried to stake out a claim. It was the right step, because a year later dozens of companies competed on the market, but for the time being MITS was the only one.
The name Altair was invented by Roberts’ daughter, it was the name of a star from the popular TV series Star Trek. The whole assembly kit cost $ 397, whereas only a processor from Intel sold for $360. In fact, the cost price of the 8080 chip did not exceed $75, and the price of $360 was assigned by Intel to spite the corporation IBM, with its popular 360 series which cost millions. MITS bought chips from Intel at cost. Roberts was an optimist and hoped to sell 200 sets of Altair during a year. He simply could not imagine how many people would like to have their own computer. An order for 200 sets was received by phone during a day. In the end, Roberts was just overloaded with orders.
What did users get for a fair sum of $397? Strangely enough, almost nothing. The kit was just a bunch of parts and a box for the case. Users had to solder and test the assembled units by themselves, and if the assembly was successful, they became programmers and created programs for their Altair in machine language, that is, using zeros and ones. There was no keyboard, no display, no long-term memory in the computer. The entire amount of RAM was 256 bytes. Programs were introduced by switching toggle switches on the front panel, and the results were read from the LED indicators. And, nevertheless, people loved their Altairs, because they were real PERSONAL computers.
Of course, the 8080 was a real processor, although it was tiny, and allowed more. Roberts prudently equipped Altair with the S-100 expansion bus, and new devices that expanded the system’s capabilities were not slow to appear, among them memory expansion cards, teletype input, devices for work with punched tape, etc. However, only exceptional enthusiasts could write programs using zeros and ones. To make the computer really useful for many people, a language of a higher level was required. And at this point, fate brought Roberts together with two friends – Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who claimed that they had what he looked for, namely, the Basic language for Altair. The whole world still feels the consequences of this meeting:-). Roberts agreed to work with the newly-fledged firm Micro-soft (with a hyphen) and punched tapes with BASIC began to sell for $150, but this is a completely different story.