Mits Altair History

This material was in my collection of Altair Notes as a text file. I didn't write it, and I don't know who did, however I'll be happy to assign credit if anyone can identify the source.

In January 1975, Popular Electronics magazine's cover featured a picture of the Altair 8800 computer - the world's first microcomputer which used the new Intel 8080 processor - sold mail order by a tiny company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This company's name was MITS - which stood for Model Instrumentation Telemetry Systems - and its owner was a fellow named Ed Roberts who had previously written some articles for the magazine.

Ed Roberts company built electronic equipment, but his company had fallen onto hard times and was a 1/4 million dollars in debt to his bank. His company had sold electronics kits, calculators and the like, but he realized that the new Intel chip could have the capability to be used in an actual computer. Faced with looming financial ruin, Roberts decided he would make a last ditch attempt to save his business by selling a complete computer in kit form, based on the new Intel 8080. He contacted Popular Electronics magazine, and they agreed to do the cover story on it. Roberts didn't even have a name for his computer. He asked his daughter what would be a good high-tech sounding name, and she suggested Altair - which was the name of a star in the popular tv series Star Trek.

Through shrewd negotiations, he was able to offer the kit for $ 397. Intel agreed to sell him cosmetically blemished chips for $75 each, instead of the going price of $360. This price was somewhat of an-house joke at Intel, because they decided to price their new microprocessors at $360 to poke fun at the IBM 360 Mainframe computers, which cost millions of dollars. Roberts estimated if he got lucky he would sell enough computer kits to keep his business afloat while he looked for other revenue sources, possibly 200 kits in a year. Like many things which have happened in the microcomputer industry since, he had absolutely no idea what impact his computer kit would have on the future of the world. Once the article appeared, the phones started ringing, and Ed Roberts and the rest of the world was soon amazed at how many people wanted to have their own computer.

Things never settled down - in one day they sold 200 computers over the phone. People sent checks in sight unseen - completely on the faith they Ed Roberts realized that his Altair 8800 computer needed software - a computer language - to make it really useful. Only hackers would tolerate programming in zeros and ones. An easier language was needed. The problem was - there was no Basic language available anywhere for the newly invented Intel 8080. But one day Ed Roberts got a letter from a company which said they had already created a version of Basic. He immediately called the company but reached a private home in Seattle - where nobody knew anything about the letter.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates had written and sent the letter using letterhead they had created for their high school computer company - Traf-o-Data.

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