Altair 8800


The Altair 8800 is a microcomputer designed in 1974 by MITS and based on the Intel 8080 CPU. Interest grew quickly after it was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue (published in late November 1974) of Popular Electronics, and was sold by mail order through advertisements there, in Radio-Electronics, and in other hobbyist magazines. The designers hoped to sell a few hundred build-it-yourself kits to hobbyists, and were surprised when they sold thousands in the first month. The Altair also appealed to individuals and businesses that just wanted a computer and purchased the assembled version. The Altair is widely recognized as the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution as the first commercially successful personal computer. The computer bus designed for the Altair was to become a de facto standard in the form of the S-100 bus, and the first programming language for the machine was Microsoft's founding product, Altair BASIC.
One explanation of the Altair name, which editor Les Solomon later told the audience at the first Altair Computer Convention (March 1976), is that the name was inspired by Les's 12-year-old daughter, Lauren. "She said why don't you call it Altair that's where the Enterprise is going tonight." The Star Trek episode is probably Amok Time, as this is the only one from The Original Series which takes the Enterprise crew to Altair (Six).
Intel made the Intellec-8 Microprocessor Development System that typically sold for a very profitable $10,000. It was functionally similar to the Altair 8800 but it was a commercial grade system with a wide selection of peripherals and development software. Customers would ask Intel why their Intellec-8 was so expensive when that Altair was only $400. Some salesmen said that MITS was getting cosmetic rejects or otherwise inferior chips. In July 1975, Intel sent a letter to its sales force stating that the MITS Altair 8800 computer used standard Intel 8080 parts. The sales force should sell the Intellec system based on its merits and that no one should make derogatory comments about valued customers like MITS. The letter was reprinted in the August 1975 issue of MITS Computer Notes. The "cosmetic defect" rumor has appeared in many accounts over the years although both MITS and Intel issued written denials in 1975.
A consulting company in San Leandro, California, IMS Associates Inc., wanted to purchase several Altair computers but the long delivery time convinced them that they should build their own computers. In the October 1975 Popular Electronics, a small advertisement announced the IMSAI 8080 computer. The ad noted that all boards were "plug compatible" with the Altair 8800. The computer cost $439 for a kit. The first 50 IMSAI computers shipped in December 1975. The IMSAI 8080 computer improved on the original Altair design in several areas. It was easier to assemble: The Altair required 60 wire connections between the front panel and the mother board (backplane.) The IMSAI motherboard had 18 slots. The MITS motherboard consisted of 4 slots segments that had to be connected together with 100 wires. The IMSAI also had a larger power supply to handle the increasing number of expansion boards used in typical systems. The IMSAI advantage was short lived because MITS had recognized these shortcomings and developed the Altair 8800B which was introduced in June 1976.
Programming the Altair via the front panel could be a tedious and time consuming process. Programming required the toggling of the switches to positions corresponding to the desired 8080 microprocessor instruction or opcode in binary, then used the 'DEPOSIT NEXT' switch to load that instruction into the next address of the machine's memory. This step was repeated until all the opcodes of a presumably complete and correct program were in place. The only output from the programs was the patterns of lights on the panel. Nevertheless, many were sold in this form. Development was already underway on additional cards, including a paper tape reader for storage, additional RAM cards, and an RS-232 interface to connect to a proper Teletype terminal.