While serving at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, Ed Roberts, and Forrest M. Mims III decided to use their electronics background to produce small kits for model rocket hobbyists. In 1969, Roberts and Mims, along with Stan Cagle and Robert Zaller, founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in Roberts' garage in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started selling radio transmitters and instruments for model rockets.
The calculator was successful and was followed by several improved models. The MITS 1440 calculator was featured in the July 1973 issues of Radio-Electronics. It had a 14 digit display, memory, and square root. The kit sold for $200 and the assembled version was $250. MITS later developed a programmer unit that would connect to the 816 or 1440 calculator and allow programs of 256 steps.
In addition to calculators, MITS made a line of test equipment kits. These included an IC tester, a waveform generator, a digital voltmeter, and several other instruments. To keep up with the demand, MITS moved into a larger building at 6328 Linn NE in Albuquerque in 1973. They installed a wave soldering machine and an assembly line at the new location. In 1972, Texas Instruments developed its own calculator chip and started selling complete calculators at less than half the price of other commercial models. MITS and many other companies were devastated by this, and Roberts struggled to reduce his quarter-million-dollar debt.
In January 1972, Popular Electronics merged with another Ziff-Davis magazine, Electronics World. The change in editorial staff upset many of their authors, and they started writing for a competing magazine, Radio-Electronics. In 1972 and 1973, some of the best construction projects appeared in Radio-Electronics. Art Salsberg became editor in 1974 with goal of reclaiming the lead in projects. He was impressed with Don Lancaster's TV Typewriter (Radio Electronics, September 1973) article and wanted computer projects for Popular Electronics. Don Lancaster did an ASCII keyboard for Popular Electronics in April 1974. They were evaluating a computer trainer project by Jerry Ogdin when the Mark-8 8008 based computer by Jonathan Titus appeared on the July 1974 cover of Radio-Electronics. The computer trainer was put on hold and the editors looked for a real computer system. (Popular Electronics gave Jerry Ogdin a column, Computer Bits, starting in June 1975.)
One of the editors, Les Solomon, knew MITS was working on an Intel 8080 based computer project and thought Roberts could provide the project for the always popular January issue. The TV Typewriter and the Mark-8 computer projects were just a detailed set of plans and a set of bare printed circuit boards. The hobbyist faced the daunting task of acquiring all of the integrated circuits and other components. The editors of Popular Electronics wanted a complete kit in a professional looking enclosure.
The typical MITS product had a generic name like "Model 1600 Digital Voltmeter". David Bunnell, Mits VP and future publisher of PC Magazine, PC World and Macworld, suggested Roberts call the new machine "Little Brother." Roberts thought better of this idea and considered calling it the PE-8. As a last resort, Roberts left the naming of the computer to the editors of Popular Electronics. At the first World Altair Computer Convention organized by Bunnell in March 1976, editor Les Solomon told the audience that the name was inspired by his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren. "She said why don't you call it Altair - that's where the Enterprise is going tonight." The Star Trek episode is probably Amok Time, as this is the only one from The Original Series which takes the Enterprise crew to Altair (Six).
A more probable version is Les Solomon thought PE-8 sounded rather dull, so Les, Alexander Burawa (associate editor), and John McVeigh (technical editor) decided that: "It's a stellar event, so let's name it after a star." McVeigh suggested "Altair", the twelfth brightest star in the sky.
Ed Roberts and Bill Yates finished the first prototype in October 1974 and shipped it to Popular Electronics in New York via the Railway Express Agency. However, it never arrived due to a strike by the shipping company. The first example of this groundbreaking machine is thus lost to history. Solomon already had a number of pictures of the machine and the article authored by Roberts but ghost written by Bunnell was based on them. Roberts got to work on building a replacement. The computer on the magazine cover is an empty box with just switches and LEDs on the front panel. The finished Altair computer had a completely different circuit board layout than the prototype shown in the magazine. The January 1975 issues appeared on newsstands a week before Christmas of 1974 and the kit was officially (if not yet practically) available for sale.
Customers would ask Intel if they could get the same low prices that MITS were paying for 8080 family chips. Some salesmen said that MITS was getting cosmetic rejects or otherwise inferior chips. In July 1975, Intel sent a letter to its sales force stating that the MITS Altair 8800 computer used standard Intel 8080 parts and that no one should make derogatory comments about valued customers like MITS. The letter was reprinted in the August 1975 issue of MITS Computer Notes. The "cosmetic defect" rumor has appeared in many accounts over the years despite the fact that both MITS and Intel issued written denials in 1975.
Ed Roberts optimistically told his banker that he could sell 800 computers and he knew they needed to sell 200 over the next year just to break even. When readers got the January issue of Popular Electronics, MITS was flooded with inquires and orders. They had to hire extra people just to answer the phones. In February MITS received 1,000 orders for the Altair 8800. The quoted delivery time was 60 days but it was months before they could meet that. Roberts focused on delivering the computer; all of the options would wait until they could keep pace with the orders. MITS claimed to have delivered 2,500 Altair 8800s by the end of May. The number was over 5,000 by August 1975. MITS had under 20 employees in January but had grown to 90 by October 1975.
The Altair 8800 computer was profitable and the expansion bus allowed MITS to sell additional memory and interface boards. The system came with a "1024 word" memory board populated with 256 bytes. The BASIC language was announced in July 1975 and it required one or two 4096 word memory boards and an interface board.
MITS Price List, Popular Electronics, August 1975.
|Altair 8800 Computer||$439||$621|
|1024 word Memory Board||$97||$139|
|4096 word Memory Board||$264||$338|
|Parallel Interface Board||$92||$114|
|Serial Interface Board (RS-232)||$119||$138|
|Serial Interface Board (Teletype)||$124||$146|
|Audio Cassette Interface Board||$128||$174|
|Teletype ASR 33||N.A.||$1500|
MITS had no competition for the first half of 1975. Their 4K memory board used dynamic RAM and it had several design problems. The delay in shipping optional boards and the problems with the 4K memory board created an opportunity for outside suppliers. An enterprising Altair owner, Robert Marsh, designed a 4K static memory that was plug-in compatible with the Altair 8800 and sold for $255. His company was Processor Technology, one of the most successful Altair compatible board suppliers. Their advertisement in the July 1975 issue of Popular Electronics promised interface and PROM boards in addition to the 4K memory board. They would later develop a popular video display board that would plug directly into the Altair.
A consulting company in San Leandro, California, IMS Associates Inc., wanted to purchase several Altair computers but the long delivery time convinced them that they should build their own computers. In the October 1975 Popular Electronics, a small advertisement announced the IMSAI 8080 computer. The ad noted that all boards were "plug compatible" with the Altair 8800. The computer cost $439 for a kit. The first 50 IMSAI computers shipped in December 1975. The IMSAI 8080 computer improved on the original Altair design in several areas. It was easier to assemble, the Altair required 60 wire connections between the front panel and the mother board (backplane.) The IMSAI motherboard had 18 slots. The MITS motherboard consisted of 4 slots segments that had to be connected together with 100 wires. The IMSAI also had a larger power supply to handle the increasing number of expansion boards used in typical systems. The IMSAI advantage was short lived because MITS had recognized these shortcomings and developed the Altair 8800B which was introduced in June 1976.
In the first design of the Altair, the parts needed to make a complete machine would not fit on a single motherboard, and the machine consisted of four boards stacked on top of each other with stand-offs. Another problem facing Roberts was that the parts needed to make a truly useful computer weren't available, or wouldn't be designed in time for the January launch date. So during the construction of the second model, he decided to build most of the machine on removable cards, reducing the motherboard to nothing more than an interconnect between the cards, a backplane. The basic machine consisted of five cards, including the CPU on one and memory on another. He then looked for a cheap source of connectors, and came across a supply of 100-pin edge connectors. The S-100 bus was eventually acknowledged by the professional computer community and adopted as the IEEE-696 computer bus standard.
For all intents, the Altair bus consists of the pins of the Intel 8080 run out onto the backplane. No particular level of thought went into the design, which led to such disasters as shorting from various power lines of differing voltages being located next to each other. Another oddity was that the system included two unidirectional 8-bit data buses, but only a single bidirectional 16-bit address bus. A deal on power supplies led to the use of +8V and +18V, which had to be locally regulated on the cards to TTL (+5V) or RS-232 (+12V) standard voltage levels.
The Altair shipped in a two-piece case. The backplane and power supply were mounted on a base plate, along with the front and rear of the box. The "lid" was shaped like a C, forming the top, left and right sides of the box. The front panel, which was inspired by the Data General Nova minicomputer, included a large number of toggle switches to feed binary data directly into the memory of the machine, and a number of red LEDs to read those values back out.
Programming the Altair was an extremely tedious process where one toggled the switches to positions corresponding to an 8080 opcode, then used a special switch to enter the code into the machine's memory, and then repeated this step until all the opcodes of a presumably complete and correct program were in place. When the machine first shipped the switches and lights were the only interface, and all one could do with the machine was make programs to make the lights blink. Nevertheless, many were sold in this form. Roberts was already hard at work on additional cards, including a paper tape reader for storage, additional RAM cards, and a RS-232 interface to connect to a proper teletype terminal.
Around this time Roberts received a letter from a Seattle company asking if he would be interested in buying its BASIC programming language for the machine. He called the company and reached a private home, where no one had heard of anything like BASIC. In fact the letter had been sent by Bill Gates and Paul Allen from the Boston area, and they had no BASIC yet to offer. When they called Roberts to follow up on the letter he expressed his interest, and the two started work on their BASIC interpreter using a self-made simulator for the 8080 on a PDP-10 minicomputer. They figured they had 30 days before someone else beat them to the punch, and once they had a version working on the simulator, Allen flew to Albuquerque to deliver the program, Altair BASIC (aka MITS 4K BASIC), on a paper tape. The first time it was run, it displayed "Altair Basic," then crashed, but that was enough for them to join; the next day, they brought in a new paper tape and it ran. The first program ever typed in was "2+2," and up came the "4." Gates soon joined Allen and formed Microsoft, then spelled "Micro-Soft".