Part of the Personal computing glossary:

The Altair was the world's first personal computer ( PC ) to attract a substantial number of users. When it appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics , the Altair 8800 ignited the (still accelerating) personal computer boom. A company called MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) in Albuquerque developed the Altair and sold it for $395 as a kit or $495 assembled. In the first three months after its debut, MITS received 4000 orders for the new computer, which it referred to as a "minicomputer."

The first Altairs shipped without an operating system with an Intel 8080 processor (the first 8-bit chip ) on the CPU card , 256 bytes of memory , and toggle and switch LED panels on the front. In general, the buyer didn't know how the computer might be used or what it might be able to do (simple games and mathematical problems, as it turned out). There was no keyboard or application software: data was input by manipulating switches on the front for each bit . The units were thought of as hobby kits, somewhat like the ones sold to ham radio enthusiasts. Because the computer kits relied on the skill of the person assembling them as well as the integrity of the parts, most of the early machines didn't work. However, this is where the "hobby" aspect came into play: people tinkered with their kits and eventually got their systems to (more or less) work, a situation that is still familiar to many computer component purchasers today.

Among the many whose imaginations were piqued by the appearance of the Altair 8800 were the young Paul Allen and Bill Gates. They adapted BASIC , a mainframe programming language, for use with the Altair. Allen immediately went to work for MITS and Gates followed soon after. The pair left in 1976 to devote more time to their burgeoning software company, Microsoft . In the meantime, other microcomputer manufacturers were bringing products to market, many of which were more functional than the Altair. MITS soon foundered. Among the factors cited in the company's downfall were: problems with quality control, too many projects being rushed to market, and an ill-advised refusal to let retailers that sold Altair sell any other brand.

This was last updated in September 2005
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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