Micro History Part 5

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 5 - The world's 1st Commercially Available Microcomputer

In January 1975, Popular Electronics magazine's cover featured a picture of the Altair 8800 computer - the world's first microcomputer which used the new Intel 8080 processor - sold mail order by a tiny company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This company's name was MITS - which stood for Model Instrumentation Telemetry Systems - and it's owner was a fellow named Ed Roberts who had previously written some articles for the magazine.

Ed Roberts company built electronic equipment, but his company had fallen onto hard times and was a 1/4 million dollars in debt to his bank. His company had sold electronics kits, calculators and the like , but he realized that the new Intel chip could have the capability to be used in an actual computer. Faced with looming financial ruin, Roberts decided he would make a last ditch attempt to save his business by selling a complete computer in kit form, based on the new Intel 8080. He contacted Popular Electronics magazine, and they agreed to do the cover story on it. Roberts didn't even have a name for his computer. He asked his daughter what would be a good high-tech sounding name, and she suggested Altair - which was the name of a star in the popular tv series Star Trek.

Through shrewd negotiations, he was able to offer the kit for $ 397. Intel agreed to sell him cosmetically blemished chips for $ 75 each, instead of the going price of $ 360. This price was somewhat of an-house joke at Intel, because they decided to price their new microprocessors at $360 to poke fun at the IBM 360 Mainframe computers, which cost millions of dollars.

Roberts estimated if he got lucky he would sell enough computer kits to keep his business afloat while he looked for other revenue sources, possibly 200 kits in a year. Like many things which have happened in the microcomputer industry since, he had absolutely no idea what impact his computer kit would have on the future of the world. Once the article appeared, the phones started ringing, and Ed Roberts and the rest of the world was soon amazed at how many people wanted to have their own computer. Things never settled down - in one day they sold 200 computers over the phone. People sent checks in sight unseen - completely on the faith they would some day receive their kit in the mail. MITS's cash flow flip-flopped virtually over night - and over time they would receive thousands of orders for the Altair 8800. Some fanatics even drove to Albuquerque and camped out in the parking lot to wait for their kits.

And what were people waiting for? Quite literally for a computer in absolutely completely disassembled bare bones kit form. To build this thing you'd have to be an electronics technician - it would take hundreds of hours - and after it was built it only had 256 characters of memory, no keyboard, no monitor, no permanent memory, and then you had to be a computer programmer to program it in machine language; zeros and ones. What could you do with it ? Hardly anything. But it was a real computer; a personal computer that people could own - and they loved it.

You see, people looked past the limitations of this first computer kit, and realized that someday things would get a lot better. Ed Robert realized the limitations of his kit, and worked hard at creating other peripherals which would make the Altair a more usable computer. This included making boards with more memory, the capability to hook it up to a teletypewriter, and the ability to store programs permanently on paper tape, and hopefully on cassettes and maybe even floppy disks. But he and the others knew that software - not hardware - was the solution to making things really better. With usable software, people could write their own programs to do really useful things.

Roberts was already aware that the Intel 8080 had the power to run Basic - the computer language that had been invented at Dartmouth college and which was now in the public domain. Basic was easy to learn, and then people could really start getting some use out of their computers. The problem was - there was no Basic language available anywhere for the newly invented Intel 8080. But one day Ed Roberts got a letter from a company which said they had already created a version of Basic which would run on the Intel 8080, and next week we'll get back to learning more about the Washington State connection in the microcomputer revolution.

On to Segment 6, "What good is a computer without Software?"

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