When 256 bytes of memory was something to get excited about
The Altair 8800 debuted on the cover of Popular Mechanics in January of 1975. It wasn’t the first personal computer available commercially, but it was the cheapest and the smallest. For just $297 ($395 with a case) readers could order a kit to assemble a microcomputer of their very own, complete with the just released 8 bit Intel 8080 processor. Never mind that the picture on the cover of the magazine wasn’t the Altair but instead a box mocked up at the last minute, after the Altair prototype got lost in the mail.
The Altair was manufactured by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), a small electronics company out of Albuquerque that was known primarily for making calculators. MITS founder Ed Roberts hoped he might sell 400 computers, which was gutsy for a product with very little existing market. But there was a new generation of computer hobbyists who had learned to program in BASIC and FORTRAN in college courses, and over 1,000 Altairs were sold in the first two weeks.
MITs wasn’t prepared for the scale of demand, and the 60 day delivery turned out to be a joke. Many of the kits that went out were incomplete and instructions were nowhere to be found. If you managed to put the darn thing together, the only built-in input were eight switches on the front of the computer. To input an instruction, you would move all the switches to the desired position and click an ‘input’ instruction.The output consisted of led lights that would blink in patterns (to interface with the computer more easily you would have to buy or build your own peripherals). The computer had 256 bytes of memory.
I like to think the Altair was a bit like the first Velvet Underground album. It wasn’t slick, but to the few that were lucky enough to receive it, it was dynamite (a possibly apocryphal quip attributed to Brian Eno says the album only sold 10,000 copies “but everyone who bought it formed a band”). The most famous of these early recipients were two college students named Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who would build and license a programming language interpreter to MITs for use with the Altair. The Altair was also demo-ed front and center in early meetings of Berkeley’s famous Homebrew Computer club, which would come to count Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members.
In the early years of computing, computers were expensive behemoths that lived at universities that only a lucky few could access. It was a big deal when they became devices an individual could reasonably purchase and use at home. The Altair wasn’t particularly accessible, but it led in short order to computers from Apple, Commodore, and IBM that were much more user friendly.
And now that we’re all walking around with devices many orders of magnitude more powerful than the Altair in our pockets, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve come a very long way in a short period of time. It’s no wonder that we’re still trying to figure out the best way to live with personal computers; how to sort out the help from the harm. Like the tinkerers who took a chance on the Altair, we’re putting together a machine for which we have no instructions, knowing only that we’re onto something big.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy
The Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History