On this day: Altair 8800, the first commercially successful personal computer is released

On this day: Altair 8800, the first commercially successful personal computer is released

The Altair 8800 was developed and sold by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, a company founded by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims, retired veterans of the United States Air Force.

It was sold as a kit since the conventional all-in-one computers which we know of today, hadn’t come into existence yet. The magazine advertisement for the Altair 8800 said “Building your own computer won’t be a piece of cake. (But we’ll make it a rewarding experience).”

The Altair 8800 kit was equipped with just about the minimum number of circuits which could qualify it as a computer. Aimed at hobbyists, it was sold as is for $395 (approx Rs 32,600 today), and fully assembled for $498 (approx Rs 41,100 today). It had negligible internal memory and absolutely no external memory. Moreover, it also lacked any input devices such as a printer, a keyboard, etc. Had it been fitted with those, its cost could have gone up to as much as $4,000 (approx Rs 3,30,400 today), almost equivalent to the PDP-8 minicomputer.

Altair 8800 features

The machine had only 256 bytes of RAM, and users had to purchase its memory board separately. Two types of memory boards were available in the Altair: a 1,024-word memory board and a 4,096-word memory board. Later, a parallel interface board, two types of serial interface boards, an audio cassette interface board and a Teletype began to be offered as well. The kit’s expansion bus allowed MITS to sell additional memory and interface boards.

Programming the Altair 8800 however, was a tough job. Users had to toggle switches to positions corresponding to the Intel 8080-microprocessor instruction or opcode in binary.

Altair BASIC was announced in July 1975, and it required one or two 4,096-word memory boards depending on whether one purchased the 4K BASIC or the 8K BASIC package, as well as an interface board, adding to the cost. Altair DOS, on the other hand, was announced in late 1975, and MITS started shipping it in August 1977.

Here’s a fun fact. An article published in January 1975 by Popular Electronics regarding the Altair 8800, inspired the creation of a group called Homebrew Computer Club. From this club, emerged 23 computer companies, including perhaps the most recognised electronics brand in the world today, known as Apple Computer.

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