I was recently watching the movie “War Games” and couldn’t help but get a bit nostalgic over the technology in Mathew Broderick’s room. The JVC Vidstar VHS deck, the HUGE 8 inch floppy drive and, of course the IMSAI 8080. My father had the JVC (which was the first VHS deck ever made) and an Altair 8800, the IMSAI 8080’s main competitor. Feeling all warm and fuzzy, I went down memory lane…
The Altair 8800 was, arguably, the first and, perhaps, most important, home computer kit that was affordable. The 8800 held several ‘firsts’ including an industry standard setting bus-the S-100-and was the computer that got Microsoft off of the ground.
First sold in 1975, the 8800 was designed by Forrest M. Mims and Ed Roberts. The company, MITS, sold the kit for about five hundred dollars and thousands were sold in the first month. The computer would be featured on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine. MITS shipped the magazine the only prototype and, unfortunately, it was lost in transit. A mock up was sent to the magazine for photographing. Les Soloman, an editor for the magazine, eventually received an actual computer, serial number 0001.
The computer featured Intel’s then-new 8080 microprocessor. The processor, at the time was over $300, way too expensive for the 8800. However, Ed Roberts was adept at buying in OEM quantities and was able to purchase the processor for $75 a piece, thus making the computer affordable.
Mind you, in the 1975, this computer would have come with the case, power supply, mother board and CPU card only. You would have to purchase a memory card, interface boards and some kind of storage and I/O devices. It was bare bones, but you could configure it any way you wanted.
The computer also lacked an operating system. This is where Microsoft came in. The story goes like this: Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed a version of BASIC for the computer without actually having the computer. When they demoed the language to Ed Roberts, it crashed. They came back the next day and it ran flawlessly. Roberts agreed to sell the Basic. It pretty much got Microsoft off of the ground. In the ensuing years, Gates would write two letters to the hobbyists pleading his case against software piracy. See, there were more copies of Basic being used than were actually sold.
All in all, the Altair 8800 (which, supposedly, got its name from a Star Trek episode) was the spark that lit up the personal computer scene. Before the two Steve’s begat Apple, there was MITS and the Altair 8800.
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