In the early 1970s, computer professionals and hobbyists still
awaited turns to use the few computers available to them in the
world at the time.
By the end of 1974 however, the magazine Popular Electronics
was regularly receiving plans for personal computers from people
around the USA, but Les Soloman, the technical editor who evaluated
most of these, didn't believe they were as good as they should
be, and eventually contacted a friend to have a go at doing something
Ed Roberts, Les' pal, was the president of an Albuquerque,
New Mexico company called MITS. A gadget freak who had received
electronics training in the Air Force before launching the company
from his garage with a couple of other ex-Air Force officers,
Ed had started out by selling mail-order radio transmitters for
model airplanes, calling the company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry
Systems, which became MITS. By 1969, he'd bought out his partners
and moved his company to a larger location, manufacturing calculators
and calculator kits for the home hobbyist.
In 1972, Texas Instruments developed their own semiconductor
chip and literally wiped out the market for companies like MITS
by selling calculators at less than half the going price.
Ed had been toying with the idea of building a kit computer
in any case, and when the calculator market fell apart for him
in 1974, and his friend Les Soloman got in touch looking for
a personal computer to promote, Roberts jumped in feet first.
With a price-target set under $500, and Les joining in on some
hard core head-banging in development, Ed wanted his computer
to be expandable like the new minicomputers that were then beginning
to enter big businesses, with individual circuit boards for specific
purposes that could communicate internally ~ sort of mimickimg,
eventually, a large mainframe in miniature.
When ready, the name for the new machine came from Soloman's
12-year-old daughter, Lauren, who suggested Altair ~ the destination
for the Star Ship Enterprise during an episode of Star Trek that
she happenned to be watching.
News of the new MITS Altair personal computer was first broken
in an article about it in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics,
which described it as the "World's First Minicomputer Kit
to Rival Commercial Models." No one had truly anticipated
how primed the market was for an affordable personal computer,
and there was an immediate onslaught of orders that Roberts and
Soloman could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. Thousands
of electronics hobbyists and programmers piled in, with none
really still sure of how the computer would be used. Folks just
knew of the potential,.. and were desperate to have it.
Roberts' small company couldn't even begin to meet the huge
tide of demand for the machine, and as a result, the original
Altairs were sent out as big empty boxes with a CPU card containing
an Intel 8080 processor, 256 bytes of memory, and a toggle-switch-and-LED
front panel. There was no monitor, keyboard or software programs.
Entering data required one to manipulate the switches on the
front ~one at a time~ for every binary digit. No promised peripherals
were delivered with the original order.
The Altair was in fact sold as a kit, with operation dependent
almost entirely on the skill of the end-user and builder. Not
surprisingly, most of the first machines never even managed to
work at all, but that didn't stop the flood of computer-starved
hobbyists and programmers clamouring to be among the first consumers.
Folks went ahead and bought computers that didn't work, tinkered
with them, made them work and wrote programs of all description
to work on them. And all the action continued to bring more people
Amongst all of this, two programmers in Boston saw the ad
for the Altair in Popular Electronics and realized that a program
they'd written could work here also. Paul Allen, who had left
college to work for TRW and later Honeywell in Boston, and Bill
Gates, a freshman at Harvard, immediately got in touch with Ed
Initially, Ed was skeptical since dozens of programmers had
been approaching him ever since the article appeared, and yet
nothing significant had really managed to even run on his machine.
But like many of those now-anonymous others, Allen and Gates
followed through anyway, and six weeks later demonstrated to
Roberts their BASIC program running on an Altair computer, and
though it didn't ~at the time~ really do anything much beyond
merely announcing its presence, immense possibilities were at
Roberts immediately took on Allen as Director (and entire
department!) of Software at MITS, while Gates went back to school,
only to return again later in1975 to live Albuquerque and work
part time writing MITS programs.
When the initial excitement over the appearance of the MITS
Altair eventually began abating, it's limitations started becoming
evident. The kit contained nothing more than the housing, a power
supply, a circuit board with 256 bytes of onboard memory, a front
panel board, and a motherboard that was the main piece of circuitry.
There were 18 slots for additional circuit boards, but there
were actually no such boards available! To make matters worse,
attaching the front panel board required hours of work and dozens
of wires before users could even begin to communicate with the
computer. Even after setting it up correctly, there was still
no permanent storage, which meant that users could put information
into the machine and manipulate it, but as soon as they turned
the computer off or moved to another application, the information
was lost. Temporary storage amounted to only about a paragraph's
worth of information at a time, and entering the information
using machine language in the form of numeric codes bit by bit
through the switches was tedious, time consuming, and awkward.
The BASIC program developed by Allen and Gates did solve the
last problem, but itself required 4096 bytes of memory ~ i.e.
16 times the space availabe. Higher density memory boards and
a better method for entering programs quickly were desperately
needed to move forward. Paul Allen was involved in helping the
hardware designers create a 4K (4096 byte) memory board that
would allow Altair to run BASIC, but there were problems getting
two or more to work together, which was essential to using BASIC
and entering data. There was also the problem of how to
load and store the BASIC program itself. Allen and Gates had
initially used paper tape, but there were serious drawbacks,
including expense, expediency, efficiency, and security. Audio-cassette
recorders were considered, but proved to be slow and clumsy,
but a lead was eventually taken from IBM, which was using disk
drives that were expensive but efficient.
Meanwhile, the MITS 4K boards being distributed weren't working!
Bill Gates told Roberts that the boards were inadequate, but
Roberts insisted that MITS keep sending them out. User frustration
mounted in response to this, and an out-of-work hobbyist named
Bob Marsh eventually started a company called Processor Technology
in April, 1975, which began selling 4K boards that did
work. Roberts retaliated by tying purchase of the popular BASIC
program to his 4K boards, to prevent erosion of his marketplace,
but hobbyists began making their own copies of BASIC and distributing
them for free.
Processor Technology continued to distribute its 4K boards
and develop other Altair-compatible products, while other companies
began developing hardware and software for use on the Altair.
To keep up with the competition, he came out with a new computer
called the 680b, again attempting to appeal to the masses by
creating a low-cost computer. Thousands of orders were again
received, but again, there were problems, and even after a complete
redesign, the new computer was not very successful.
Meanwhile, more companies came on line, selling boards and
chips, software, and even comparable computers. Nevertheless,
MITS managed still to hang on to its lead as the primary seller
till late 1976, when Commodore bought MOS Technology, a small
semiconductor company that had come up with an affordable computer
kit built around its own chip.
A large and established company with extensive distribution
capabilities had at last entered the microcomputer marketplace,
and Tandy Corporation too was looking for an affordable microcomputer
to start selling out of its Radio Shack stores. Competition was
getting fierce, and MITS was in trouble. It had grown too big
too fast and had too many projects going on at the same time.
Quality control was hopeless, products were failing, and customers
Ed Roberts apparently isolated himself now, accepting no one's
counsel, and communication within the company began to break
down. By the end of 1976, Paul Allen and Bill Gates both left
MITS to devote time to Microsoft, a company of their own that
they'd been developing on a back-burner for sometime.
Complicating matters further, Roberts began insisting that
retailers selling the Altair should not sell any other brand
of microcomputer, which ~unsurprisingly~ went down poorly, and
so while MITS was still on top, Commodore and Apple were becoming
evermore formidable competitors.
In May 1977, Roberts finally sold MITS to Pertec, a company
specialized in disk and tape drives for minicomputers and mainframe
computers. He apparently chose Pertec from several other offers
because they gave him his own private research and development
lab alongwith the freedom to use it exactly as he pleased. Problems
however developed when Pertec discovered that MITS came without
the rights to BASIC, the program Gates and Allen had written
and licensed under their own company, Microsoft, before ever
coming to MITS. The issue went to court; Gates and Allen won;
Roberts was furious; and Pertec was upset.
The acquisition spelled the end for MITS. Pertec had come
in without actually realizing that the company was facing its
worst competition to date. New ideas and ways of working were
introduced to address the crisis, but the MITS people began quitting
in droves. Even Roberts became fed up, left the company, and
even left the very industry as well, eventually going to medical
school and becoming a doctor. Pertec continued making Altairs
for about a year after the acquisition, but within two years,
all traces of MITS were gone.
At the end of the day, even though it lasted only a few years,
history records MITS with it's Altair as the true root of the
personal computer industry. Alongwith the first affordable microcomputer,
it also pioneered computer shows, retailing, magazines, users'
groups, software exchanges, and many hardware and software products.
In an era when the development of microcomputers still seemed
impractical if not impossible, MITS built one and forever changed
the world for all humankind.