Whatever Happened to the First Personal Computer?
The story of the Altair
by John C. Dvorak
Some people believe the personal computer revolution began in 1977 with the Apple II. This doesn’t make a lot of sense because the little-known Apple I predated the better-known Apple II. People will argue until the next century about exactly what was the first machine. Let me settle the issue. The first personal computer was the famed Altair 8800 based on the Inter 8080 microprocessor, invented by Ed Roberts.
There were other microcomputer-style lash-ups before the Altair for sure, but this was the one that captured the public’s imagination in a big way, justifying its “first PC” title. Its creator, like many of those who make significant contributions in various fields, is a forgotten hero. Taking Don Lancaster’s “TV Typewriter” one step further, Roberts turned a vision into a personal computer.
In 1973, Lancaster, a prolific contributor to Radio Electronics and computer Shopper, described his machine as “a computer terminal for time-sharing services, schools, and experimental uses. It’s a teaching machine, particularly good for helping preschoolers learn the alphabet and words.”
Though certainly visionary, Lancaster was really talking about a terminal. People wanted more. Many electronic hobbyists dreamed of owning their own computer–they were tired of being kept out of the computer lab.
A sharp editorial staff at Popular Electronics scouted around for a computer article that would satisfy its readers. Some of the legendary magazine’s contributors, including Harry Garland and Roger Melen, went on to play big roles in the microcomputer industry. Garland and Melen were the founders of Cromemco, one of a dozen or so firms that with a little business sense could have become an Apple Computer. The key connection was with Popular Electronic’s technical director, Les Solomon, who had met Roberts before. So when Solomon heard about Roberts’ MITS, it came as no surprise. In fact, Solomon’s daughter named the computer the Altair after a Star Trek episode.
NO BEACH BUMS ALLOWED
Roberts grew up in Miami, but he wasn’t your typical beach bum. He had dreamed of becoming a doctor. To get an education, he joined the Air Force and studied electrical engineering. While working in the laser division of the Air Force weapons lab in Albuquerque, N.M. he started a company with a few friends to sell model-rocketry equipment. They called the company Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems–MITS.
It soon became obvious that model rocketry wouldn’t bring them riches, so Roberts bought his partners out and changed the company’s direction by entering the calculator kit business. It was a shrewd move and his product was promoted on the cover of Popular Electronics, a holy writ for hobbyists. The good times didn’t last, however. Texas Instruments entered the calculator business, slashed prices, and killed the MITS product.
Constant change, Roberts said, was “a character flaw” of his, but it also saved him. He’d toyed with the idea of building computers before, but now he got serious in a hurry. Designing around Intel’s 8080 CPU, he got Popular Electronics interested and borrowed $65,000 by convincing a bank that he could sell 800 computers in a year.
When the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics appeared with a cover story on the MITS Altair, the orders started flowing in and Roberts had spawned an industry. Anyone with $397 could now buy a computer, and they did. Checks overflowed the coffers.
Like other more recent companies, MITS shipped its system with no software, and Roberts knew he had a problem. So, when a couple of youths called and said they had a version of BASIC they’d like to show him, Roberts invited them to Albuquerque.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen didn’t have a finished BASIC when they first called, but after Roberts expressed interest, they designed and finished it in a hurry. Roberts was elated with the finished product and made Allen director of software. Gates also moved to Albuquerque and together with Allen founded a company called Microsoft.
Needless to say, the Altair excited hobbyists in California’s Silicon Valley, and some of them, including Steve Wozniak, helped launch a computer club called the Homebrew Computer Club. Many started designing add-on products for the Altair; most importantly, they kept the momentum going.
WHY THE EXCITEMENT? In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine so much excitement about the Altair: It was a kit. A metal box with a power supply bolted next to a circuit board and 256 bytes of memory with a front-panel board to control the lights and switches. It had to be manually connected. It had no permanent storage device. Still, thousands of orders came in.
Roberts succeeded in making his product a standard, of sorts. The machine had a system bus, which is the key to compatibility. Roberts tried to call it the Altair bus, but dozens of others began using it, and it was tagged the S-100. The new name continued to irritate Roberts for years afterward.
MITS also established promotional devices. There was the MITSmobile, an RV tour show starring Gates and others, who encouraged people to start computer clubs. And the company started what was one of the first computer magazines, Computer Notes. In March 1976, there was the first product-specific computer show–the First World Altair Computer Conference.
MITS also inspired competition. Ed Roberts had enough trouble getting his own machines and memory boards to work. With many development projects underway, Roberts’ planning “consisted of where things would be on Friday.” In a short time, the company was losing its edge. Rivals were earning a better reputation and Roberts was losing interest.
In May 1977, he decided to sell MITS to Pertec for an estimated $6 million. Talk about getting out early. The sale resulted in a controversy with Gates and Allen over ownership of the BASIC software. An arbitrator ruled against Roberts, a decision he would never forget, and Gates was in business. Pertec, meanwhile, brought out a weird looking keyboard with a computer built into it. They soon completely dropped the Altair brand and eventually left the microcomputer business altogether.
The importance of the MITS Altair and Ed Roberts can hardly be exaggerated. Roberts started the firm when computers were not affordable or popular. He launched an industry and, with it, computer shows, retailing, magazines, user groups, and a concept of standards.
Gates and Allen moved to their native Washington and launched Microsoft, which has become a juggernaut. Roberts left the industry to complete medical school and never returned. He avoids interviews and is believed to be practicing medicine in Georgia. That was as of 1992.