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Let's refresh: (1) the personal computer was invented by Id Apple; (2) the personal computer was invented by IBM; (3) the personal computer was invented by Bill Gates. Now let's get this straight: These are myths propagated by the respective companies or through industry ignorance. There's an old saying: When you forget history, you are doomed to have it repeat itself.

The first PC was actually a French machine called the Micral (from R2E in 1973), which was never really a player in the market, especially not in the United States. The Altair computer, from a small New Mexico-based company called Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS), fueled the PC industry. This machine dominated the industry from 1975, when the system first appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics (then a ZiffDavis publication), to 1978. More important, the Altair and MITS set the stage for everything from giant trade shows to faster processors to bloated code to the magazine you're reading. It also gave Gates the business model he needed to become the world's richest man.

The classic MITS Altair history credits Les Solomon, the technical editor of Popular Electronics, with challenging his friend Ed Roberts, owner of MITS, to build a small computer kit, because he'd been seeing a lot of plans for such devices in 1974. The Intel 8008 processor had excited a lot of engineers, and many knew that it was the core of a computer waiting to happen.

Roberts started off selling radio transmitters for model airplanes and began selling calculator kits for electronics hobbyists, but the latter business was destroyed by Texas Instruments' inexpensive calculator, introduced in 1972. By 1974, Roberts' idea of upgrading the calculator kit to a computer kit met with Solomon's encouragement, and the Altair (the name a reference to "Star Trek") was born.


The machine was designed after a minicomputer, with a bus with 18 slots, a motherboardF and a front panel. The bus was called the Altair bus, which later became the S-100 bus, and which even later became the IEEE bus still in use today. The components were sacked, and the whole computer sold for $397 in kit form. Two computer-store chains cropped up within a year. Computer Kits sold the Altair exclusively, and its competition, the Byte Shop, sold everything it could.

The original Altair used the Intel 8080 chip released in 1974, but it was misnamed the Altair 8800. It had a meager Z56 bytes of main memory and a front panel consisting of toggle switches and LEDs There was no onerating svstem, programming language, or terminal. People had to toggle in machine instnuctions to get the computer to do anything. This, of course, assumed the machine worked in the first place—users had to handsolder the thing together But thousands flocked to buy the kits.

Immediately, Paul Allen and Gates, fnends who were both in the Boston area at the time, came up with the idea of putting a programming language together and selling it to Roberts. Apparently, Roberts was getting a lot of proposals and was skeptical as he demanded to see nunning code. Gates and Allen flew to Albuquerque to show off a BASIC interpreter they "threw together" as fast as they could. Accounts vary as to what this first iteration of BASIC actually did, but it's assumed that it didn't do much more than run a greeting message. Allen was immediately given the title of director of software development for the company. Gates went back to Harvard but soon returned to New Mexico to write code for the Altair.


When the little BASIC compiler was finished, it required 4,096 bytes of memory, but the machine had only 256 bytes the first code bloat in PC history. So Allen, along with some of the MITS engineers, set out to design a memory card for the Altair, the famous 4K card. Allen was a software designer, and therefore the result was a disaster. This card, now a collector's item, never worked. But it allowed other companies to enter the business with cards that did work. The third-party vendor movement was the result.

BASIC was the rage among Altair users who managed to get enough memory into the machine. Within two years of the introduction of the Altair, computer clubs became a rampant phenomenon. Much of the credit for the ancillary aspects of this computer revolution belongs to MITS employee David Bunnell, who is seldom acknowl edged for his seminal role as a marketeer. He essentially invented the computer show and the computer magazine, and might even tied to computer stores and computer clubs. He went on to found PC Magazine years later as the industry begain to repeat itself.

Meanwhile, because the 4K boards did not work and Roberts had only sold BASIC with the 4K boards, hobbyists were copying BASIC to run on other 4K cards, namely ones from Processor Technology. This was the era when Gates showed up at the Homebrew Computer Club to complain about bootlegging. While most hobbyists freely swapped programs and code, Gates would have none of it. There was money to be made, and he was giving nothing away. I'm convinced that Microsoft's recent giveaway of Internet Explorer pains him.

The code that Gates conplained about was on Paper tape, and paper-tape readers were used for a short period to move BASIC on and off the computer later, casette decks would be used, but something faster and more reliable was needed. IBM had already iritroduced the 5 inch floppy disk, and the engineers at MITS decided these disks would be ideal for their computers. Soon the 8-inch floppy was incorporated into MITS machines, and the trend toward application bbat could begin.

MITS started having quake control problems as well as management difficulties, as Roberls was not cut out for this much action. To further complicate things, Allen and Gates were starting Microsoft on the side. They both left in 1976. By May 1977, there was port d real competition from all sides. IMSAI was selling a direct clone ofthe Altair, and many people preferred it. It was also made in Silicon Valley, where the hobbyists lived, not in New Mexico. The SOL computer appeared, as well as RadioShack and Commodore machines. The Apple II also made its debuted.

Roberts sold his company to Pertec for $12 million and gave up on the business. He moved to Georgia where he became a country doctor, something he had really wanted to do from the beginning. Pertec expected to get all the rights to BASIC for its troubles and found itself in court with Allen and Gates, who were given their rights to the code. Gates learned a lesson and made sure he had all the rights to DOS later when he sold it to IBM on a nonexclusive basis.

When you look deep into the story of the Altair, you see the entire history of desktop computing. Everything that happens today is reflected in there somewhere. Within two years after selling the Altair brand name to Pertec, the company - dropped it, and it is now forgotten, as is Pertec itself another example of how being first does not necessarily ensure long-term success.



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