The MITS Altair 8800: The Microcomputer That Launched the PC Revolution

Have you ever pondered the first steps of the defining computing revolution that‘s transformed modern life? It all traces back to an unassuming box of lights and switches made by a small New Mexico company that kickstarted mainstream interest in personal computing over four decades ago.

As a technology analyst who‘s studied computing‘s formative years, I can confidently say the release of the MITS Altair 8800 in 1975 marked a watershed moment as the pioneering device that ignited the frenzy of innovation leading to today‘s ubiquitous PC landscape. Let‘s dive into the riveting backstory behind the Altair 8800!

The MITS Vision: Bringing Computers to the Masses

The Altair‘s roots originate with MITS founder Ed Roberts, an Air Force vet and model rocketry enthusiast with a bold entrepreneurial vision – making computers affordable and accessible for mainstream hobbyists by selling interactive component kits for hands-on experimentation.

Roberts founded MITS in 1969 alongside friends from his Air Force days including rocket scientist Forrest Mims, passionate about merging model rocket telemetry systems with interactive electronics to empower hobbyists. Throughout MITS‘ early years, Roberts drove the technical team to constantly explore new self-guided learning products like LED audio transmitters and calculator kids culminating in 1974‘s microcomputer trainer kit with a then-massive 1024 bytes of memory.

By late 1974, the computing hobbyist movement was taking off in parallel thanks to advances in microprocessor technology from Intel. Roberts took note and pushed for MITS‘ biggest risk yet – combining their interactive DIY kit expertise with the latest microcomponents to create a fully-customizable personal computer system at a consumer-friendly price point. And so the Altair 8800 project was born…

Launching the Altair Revolution

When Popular Electronics‘ January 1975 cover featured the Altair 8800, it captured Roberts‘ dream to "turn on the hobbyist" to computing potential through hands-on creation. The construction article pitched the Altair as an affordable interactive component set enabling hobbyists to craft custom programs and devices limited only by imagination. Priced starting at $439, it included:

Intel 8080 8-bit CPU256 bytes memory
Switches/indicator lights I/OOpen card slots for expansion

The Altair‘s UI was dauntingly low-level vs modern GUI computing – users toggled machine code bit patterns through the front panel switches to program the barebones base unit. But it was an intentional blank slate to tinker with – catering directly to the enthusiastic hobbyist market Roberts understood so well.

Orders for kits and assembled units poured in rapidly as the Altair caught fire with an emerging community ready to hack computers for fun rather than just business productivity. As a longtime computing history buff, I can confidently say the Altair‘s launch significance is hard to overstate…but its impact stretched far beyond just MITS.

Sparking a Software Revolution: Gates, Allen & the Deal that Built Microsoft

A pivotal software side-story played out thanks to MITS‘ runaway hit. 19-year old Harvard student Bill Gates first caught wind of the MITS Altair in early 1975 and immediately called Roberts, convinced software would be key in making hobbyist computers truly usable for the mainstream.

Gates and childhood friend Paul Allen claimed to have a BASIC language interpreter ready to demo – a vital tool allowing hobbyists to program the Altair in a familiar English-like environment vs arcane machine code. The savvy teens bluffed their way into a licensing deal and then pulling multiple all-nighters at Harvard‘s lab to build an Altair simulator to run their software on.

When Allen successfully demoed it in Albuquerque to Roberts weeks later, their newly minted company Microsoft was signed on to supply Altair BASIC. Soon Microsoft set up operations closeby to further support MITS. Sales of 4K and 8K BASIC interpreter add-ons skyrocketed as they enabled Altair owners to easily develop their own programs. And thus, the now legendary software giant rapidly took form directly thanks to the Altair‘s hobbyist appeal sparking their ambitious visions of enabling mainstream users through intuitive software tools.

Lasting Legacy: Kindling the Computing Age

By 1977, the Altair faced stiffer completion from newer integrated PC designs as hobbyists expected more complete out-of-the-box systems rather than solely assemble-it-yourself kits. Though commercial sales declined in just several years, the Altair thoroughly succeeded in its original mission – engaging mainstream interest and demonstrating a microcomputer‘s versatility to the growing PC demographic.

In retrospect, the Altair‘s significance as the spark igniting the PC revolution of the late 70s/early 80s shaping life today simply cannot be understated. It oriented computers firmly toward average consumers for the first time by empowering hands-on hobbyists with an interactive, customizable and relatively affordable toolkit to unlock their creativity.

The "maker" spirit at the heart of MITS‘ breakthrough microcomputer endures stronger than ever today through platforms like Raspberry Pi and Arduino. And software‘s ascent enabling more accessible computing for the everyperson pushes on as perhaps the Altair‘s most profound long-term contribution thanks to a gutsy deal made by two starry-eyed Microsoft founders that changed the world. When pondering today‘s tech landscape spanning smartphones to cloud computing, never forget it all traces back to 1975 box of switches built to harness a growing hobby for the history books.

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