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Brief History of the Altair

The MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, founded in January 1970; see below) Altair 8800 was announced on the January 1975 cover of Popular Electronics. The article, written by Ed Roberts and Bill Yates, announced that could buy and build a powerful "personal" computer kit for only $397. The kit included only the parts to build a case, power supply, an 18-slot card cage (with four slots available), an i8080-based CPU card, and a memory card with 256 bytes of memory (not 256k or 256mb, but 256 bytes). The case was painted a nifty color of "robin's egg blue", playing off of the color used by IBM in the early 70's on its mainframe computers, so as to convey that, yes, the Altair was a "real" computer.    

Here's an interesting tidbit I received in an email from Forrest Mims:

"Regarding the date MITS was founded, our first meeting was in Ed Robert's kitchen at 4809 Palo Duro, NE, in Albuquerque shortly after my first article on a model rocket light flasher was published in the September 1969 issue of MODEL ROCKETRY."
 
"Our first product was the TLF-1 model rocket light flasher, which was based on my design."
 
"We incorporated in January 1970, each of us providing a $100 check for startup funds. My check was written in the lawyer's office. It is dated '16 Jan 1970.'"
 
"Ed may have said we began in 1968 because he had founded Reliance Engineering earlier. We had been talking about starting a company in 1968, also, but did not have a reasonable product idea until my 1969 light flasher."

     In spite of the seemingly limited configuration, thousands were ordered within the first few months after the article appeared.



 

     Today computer users and hobbyists express amazement at the size of this kit, noting that no peripherals were available and the memory size was limited to 256 bytes. However, the computer was an "open" system and within a year MITS and many other start-ups had created expansion cards (primarily through necessity because of the weak performance of the early MITS memory boards) to make the Altair a viable computing platform. The "Altair Bus" that made the expansion possible was later the "S-100 Bus" and later adopted as an industry standard. The S-100 Bus is now formally known as the IEEE-696 Bus. Unfortunately, MITS' success was short-lived. Ed Roberts sold MITS to Pertec in May 1977. Pertec killed the Altair product line just over one year later in July 1978. By the early 80's, consumer demand for S-100 based machines had all but vanished, having been replaced by easier-to-use "micro-computers" from IBM, Commodore, Apple, and Tandy among others. By the mid-80's, S-100 systems all but disappeared from the consumer market, but continued in the industrial, development and business system market for several years into that decade. At the peak, over 100 companies -- both large and small -- designed, built, and marketed S-100 expansion cards and systems.

 

     Ever wonder where the name "Altair" came from for the 8800? Ed needed a name and after batting it around for a while with Forrest and Lee Felsenstein, couldn't come up with one. Ed promptly asked his daughter, who happened to be a Star Trek fan. At that moment, she happened to be watching the episode "Amok Time" which among other things mentions they are on the way to the planet Altair-6 to participate in the inauguration of the planetary president, being one of six starships so doing that. The young lady promptly offered up the name Altair, and it has since became part of our computer history lessons.

 

     For historical purposes, here are links to the original two-part Popular Electronics article on the Altair:

    While cleaning out some old magazines, I came across this article on the 10th anniversary of the Altair. This article, written by Forrest M. Mims, III, a co-founder of MITS and long-time technical writer, includes a nice interview with Ed Roberts. For historical purposes, here is a link to the original Popular Electronics article.
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