Saturday 17 March 2018

How Ed Roberts' Altair 8800 revolutionised home computing

The Altair 8800 kick-started the home computing revolution. Photo: Bloomberg News
The Altair 8800 kick-started the home computing revolution. Photo: Bloomberg News

Ian Douglas

Ed Roberts, co-founder of Micro Information and Telemetry Systems (MITS) and designer of the Altair 8800, has died at the age of 68.

The Altair 8800 was, for a lot of early home computer users, the machine that started it all.

It was an 8800 that the Homebrew Computer Club taught to sing "Daisy, Daisy" at their first meeting, sparking a movement that would involve every one of the big names in home computing for decades.

It was the 8800 that got Paul Allen and Bill Gates together to develop their version of Basic for the Altair, founding Micro-Soft (as it was then spelt) in the process.

Building kit computers including the 8800 inspired Steve Wozniak to produce the Apple I, kicking off the career one of the world's largest hardware manufacturing companies.

MITS, the company founded by Roberts and Forrest Mims in 1969 that produced the Altair 8800 kit, only existed as an independent entity for eight years before it was bought by Pertec Computers and absorbed into the operations of the larger company.

They started with sensors for rockets, moved into electronic calculators, then brought home computing within the reach of more people than any company had done before.

The Data General Nove, a similar machine from a few years before, had been regarded as a triumph of economy and miniaturisation at $3,995, so the Altair's starting price of $439 looked more like a miracle.

Later models were overtaken in functionality and ease of use by the efforts of Apple, Tandy and even cheaper, more reliable clones of the unpatented machine made by other companies, so MITS was never going to be the most commercially successful company the technology sector has ever known, but there's little doubt that it was one of the most influential.

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