Who Invented the Computer? Ed Roberts and the Altair 8800
Who Invented the Computer? This is the fortieth installment in our ongoing series.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1974 — Ed Roberts, CEO of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), sat pondering late at night in his office. He had a problem, a big problem: MITS was on the edge of failure.
The bank that had backed him during MITS’s rise, was concerned about their investment and had scheduled an early morning meeting. Roberts knew he had to come up with something to keep his loans from being called.
The next morning, in the middle of an uncomfortable discussion, Roberts made an audacious declaration. He told the bankers that he was in the middle of creating something no one thought possible: a personal computer kit for hobbyists. To his surprise the bank extended his loans and looked forward to seeing a prototype.
Up until this time, the only people with access to a computer were computer scientists and engineers who worked for a governmental agency, university, or private company that possessed one. Ordinary technology fans could only read about them and dream of one day working with a computer. Roberts was determined to change things.
Experienced with microprocessors, which had been invented three years earlier in 1971 by Intel, Roberts began cobbling together a kit. He included a metal case with switches and lights, Intel’s new 8080 chip, a power supply, boards with 256 bytes of memory, and a booklet of instructions for assembling the finished machine.
By October, Roberts had built a prototype of a personal computer kit for anybody who could afford one. By today’s standards, it was a very primitive machine. There were no connections for a keyboard or monitor, just lights and switches.
It was also difficult to use. Since programming was done in binary, users had to flip multiple switches numerous times. If the user made a mistake inputting the program, then they had to start over from the beginning. Results were also in binary via lights on the front of the machine. To top it off, users would have to build their computer by following the instruction manual.
Towards the end of 1974, Popular Electronics magazine was interested in writing about computer projects. One of the editors knew of Robert’s kit and suggested a feature article.
Robert’s originally named his computer the PE-8 (Popular Electronics 8-bit) but the magazine’s editorial staff thought it needed a catchier name. No one is entirely certain how the final name came about. One explanation is that a senior editor spoke about the device at home and his daughter, a fan of the TV program Star Trek, suggested it be called Altair, “because that’s where the Enterprise is going tonight.” Whatever the rationale, the computer eventually came to be known as the Altair 8800.
Original projections for sales of the 8800 were 200 kits, but within six months of the magazine hitting the newsstands, more than 5,000 were sold. Clearly, Ed Roberts had sussed out a need.
As fascinating as the 8800 was, however, there really wasn’t much practical use for it. It could only be programmed to do simple addition, square numbers, and computer sums. None of that seemed to matter to eager techies, however, who were excited to finally have a personal computer. Many were so eager to get their hands on a kit that they began sleeping outside MITS production facilities.
Influence of the Altair 8800
The 8800 would gain fame for the impact it made in two locations. The first was in Boston, where Honeywell programmer Paul Allan shared the Popular Mechanics article with Harvard University student Bill Gates.
Sensing a business opportunity, Gates called MITS and told management that he and Allan had written a software program for the 8800. Roberts was intrigued and invited them to come to Albuquerque to show their program.
Since they had no program, Gates pulled an all-nighter to write Altair Basic. While flying to New Mexico, Allan wrote the bootstrap loader that would instruct the 8800 computer to read data off the teletype into memory.
The demonstration went well. Roberts was delighted and agreed to license Altair BASIC from Allen and Gates. The duo soon moved to Albuquerque and, while both were briefly employed by Roberts, they soon formed an official venture of their own, using a portmanteau of the words "microcomputer" and "software" to arrive "Micro-Soft." (The hyphen didn't stick around very long.)
Homebrew Computer Club
The Altair 8800’s second major impact was on the west coast. As Gates and Allan were setting out on the road to fame and fortune in New Mexico, in Menlo Park, Calif., 35 individuals gathered in a garage and formed the Homebrew Computer Club. Membership included doctors, engineers, ham radio enthusiasts, and anyone with an interest in electronics and computing.
In the spring of 1975, the club got it hands on an 8800 and were soon trying to find new uses for the device. Member Steve Dampier was the first to make a real breakthrough. After using the switches to program the computer he placed a transistor radio next to it.
To the thrill of everyone in attendance, the noise made by the 8800 as it ran the program interfered with the radio’s receiver. By manipulating the length of the loops in his software, Dampier made the radio mimic the tune of the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill.” The Club gave him a standing ovation.
From there, the club members were off to the races. In short order they figured out how to connect a keyboard and monitor to the 8800, along with a teletype printer.
Club members continued trying new things with the 8800, and with other computers as they were created. Over time, they would become the core of the nascent personal computer industry in the region known as Silicon Valley.
One prominent Homebrew member was Steve Wozniak. He admitted that he had given up on computers until he saw the Altair 8800. The following year he built the Apple-1 computer and, together with fellow member Steve Jobs, sold 50 copies of their machine to a small company. This was the beginning of the multinational technology titan Apple Inc.
Ed Roberts built the Altair 8800 to save his company. It was truly a primitive machine, but its creation would become the hinge moment that inaugurated the personal computer age. It showed that computers could serve a crucial role in disciplines other than just science and business.
Perhaps more importantly, the 8800 was the seminal machine that proved years of specialized training were not required to utilize computers. The personal computer industry soon rapidly deployed computers to users around the world, and the information age hasn't stopped booming since.