The MITS Altair 8800 was a computer sold in 1975 through popular hobbyist magazines like Radio-Electronics, and Popular Electronics. MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) had hoped to sell a couple of hundred to hobbyists and enthusiasts and were shocked when their niche hobby computer sold thousands in the very first month. The Altair 8800 was originally marketed towards hobbyists who enjoyed putting together their own electronics, and the computer was sold as DIY kit with parts and circuit boards buyers could put together themselves. The extra orders that pushed the sales over initial projections were from people and businesses who wanted a computer already assembled. The DIY kit originally sold for $439, but MITS also sold assembled Altair 8800s for $621.
The MITS company was founded by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims, two friends who had worked at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, in 1969. They worked out of Roberts’ garage and initially worked on and sold transmitters, model rockets, and calculators. The company soon began taking off when it released its MITS Altair 8800 in 1975. The sales of their Altair 8800 were so beyond their initial expectations that they had to hire more than quadruple their starting staff to maintain orders. Their company went from 20 employees to 90 in less than a year to keep up with demand.
The processor was the Intel 8080 or 8080a. Initial speed for the Altair 8800 was 2 MHz. RAM was 256 bytes to 64K. ROM was optional, and the most common one ordered for it was the Intel 1702 EPROMS at 256 Bytes. The Altair 8800 did not come with an operating system in ROM and required the user to start it up by using front panel switches turned on in a specific order. Several storage options were offered including paper tape, cassette tape, and both 5.25″ and 8″ disks. Expansion was unique, with the original kit offering 4 slot motherboards with room for 4 in the case for a total of 16 total slots. Later models were made available with 18 slots. It used the S-100 Bus and offered an optional I/O, either serial or parallel. OS options included MITS DOS, CP/M, or Altair Disk BASIC.
The Altair 8800 is considered by most to be the first commercially successful personal computer. It was the first computer to not only cater to hobbyists and electronic enthusiasts, but to also reach out and become accepted by businesses and regular people who wanted to own their very own computer, without knowing the ins and outs of them. Many consider the Altair 8800 with launching a new era of microcomputers and several small computer systems for both individuals and businesses soon followed from different computer companies.
The Altair 8800 would help to launch Microsoft as well, who would go on to redefine modern personal computers. A young Bill Gates and Paul Allen designed Altair BASIC and sold it to MITS, and would go on to form Microsoft soon after.