Sep 11, 2019
The rise of the MITS Altair 8800, and it's connection to Microsoft, has one key event: the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. This article was the first real press for the computer, which created a huge buzz around it's release. It was also how Bill Gates and Paul Allen were first introduced to the Altair, an event that would lead to the founding of Microsoft and the creation of MS BASIC. So what was in the article that launched both the Altair 8800 and inspired Microsoft? Turns out that it was full of a lot of imagination and some not-so-true statements. Essentially, the "article" was just a six page long advertisement.
This starts at the cover page. The pictured Altair 8800 looks pretty different from the release models. This could be explained away as the photo using a prototype, but that's not the case. The cover photo is actually of a mostly empty cardboard box. MITS had sent a review model of the Altair to Popular Electronics to be photographed, but somewhere along the way the computer was damaged. So a rough model was made using a cardboard box. The only part of the computer pictured is the lights and switches of the front panel, albeit mounted in a cardboard plate.
The actual article isn't much more factual than the cover. The title line boasts "The most powerful minicomputer project ever presented -- can be build for under $400". And, well, even for the time that's just not true. If you want to be nit-picky, the base model of the Altair 8800 sold for $439. Outside of the pedantic, there is a bigger issue in this title. The "under $400" Altair came with 256 bytes of RAM. That's barely enough for a usable program. The article admits the small RAM side, but goes on to say that the Altair "can be economically expanded for 65,000 words". Honestly, I can't understand why they would use "economical" to describe that. A 4k RAM expansion board from MITS cost $264. So to get to 64k(for simplicity) of RAM you need 16 expansion boards. That's $4224 just for the extra RAM, just under ten times as much as the base computer. Adding in the cost of that base computer and adjusting for inflation we get a roughly $22,000 computer.
The rest of the article explains the basics about the computer kit: parts lists, functional block diagram, a short primer on what a computer is, and a description of how an Altair 8800 is assembled. Hiding in that is one of my favorite infoboxes I've ever read: "Some Applications for the Altair 8800". Like it says in the title, this is a list of ideas for what to do with your new Altair computer. What I find interesting and charming about this list is the sharp discrepancy of complexity. Some of the highlights include...
"Programmable scientific calculator"
"Digital Signal Generator"
Those all seem pretty sane, and definitely possible with a base 256 byte Altair. Then you have…
"Time-sharing Computer" -- In the 70s mainframes were only starting to be able to do this.
"Patter-Recognition Device" -- That's in the realm of MIT AI Lab research at this time.
"Smart Computer Terminal" -- The Altair doesn't have any way to interface with a screen or keyboard out of the box.
"Brain for a Robot" -- ...what?
If you want to read the article in full, there is a scan available here(http://www.swtpc.com/mholley/PopularElectronics/Jan1975/PE_Jan1975.htm).
And if you want to hear more about the story of the Altair 8800 and Microsoft's first product, you can find my podcast on the matter below.