Popular Electronics magazine, January 1975: Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects No.92

The Altair 8800 had no keyboard and no display

Rhodri Marsden
Friday 18 December 2015 18:48
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The new editor of Popular Electronics, Art Salsberg, was worried. The magazine's arch rival, Radio-Electronics, was gaining readers, and he needed to head off the challenge. He consulted Les Solomon, his tech editor, who had an idea for a cover story for the January 1975 issue: MITS, a company based in Albuquerque, was apparently producing a cheap, powerful mini-computer in kit form.

Ed Roberts, the founder of MITS, had produced a number of kit calculators over the years, but this was stepping things up a gear. The parts list was long and complex, with disc capacitors, resistors, LEDs, switches and a new 2MHz Intel chip. Roberts built a prototype and sent it to Solomon – but it got lost in the post, so the article was written with reference to pictures and diagrams and the cover illustrated using an empty box with flashing lights.

The computer still didn't have a name. “Why don't you call it Altair?” suggested Solomon's 12 year-old daughter, Lauren, who was watching Star Trek. “That's where the Enterprise is going tonight.”

The issue hit the stands today in 1974. “For many years,” read the editorial, “we've been reading and hearing about how computers will one day be a household item … What we're presenting to you, dear reader, is a mini-computer that with grow with your needs.”

The Altair 8800 had no keyboard and no display; programming instructions were entered via switches on the front panel, with the results then displayed via LED lights.

Roberts was expecting 800 orders at most, but he was overwhelmed; by August he had shipped 5,000 kits and hired dozens of new staff. “The number of customers has increased more rapidly than our ability to train,” he wrote in October. Salsberg's editorial had boldly announced that “the home computer is here. Finally.” He was right.

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