MARKS OF ESTEEM
History of the Microcomputer Revolution
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 its 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 in-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
You see, people looked past the limitations of this first computer
kit, and realized that someday things would get a lot better. Ed Roberts 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
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.
History of the Microcomputer Revolution
The Historic Background.
The Revolution Begins.
The Washington State Connection.
High School Kid’s Computer Company.
What good is a computer without Software?.
Send in the Clones.
The First Operating System Standard.
Home Brewing and Computers Named Apple.
The Killer Application.
The Deal of The Century.
A Walk in the PARC.
Send in the Clones again - Freud would have said GUI-Envy.
The PC Industry at Age 11 in 1986.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?.