05/12/2021

042 – First successful PC kit – 1974

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Its a stellar event, so lets name it after a star.  Popular Electronics editorial team

The first PC product to take off came from Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, MITS, founded to market hobbyist electronic rocket kits.

Ed Roberts went through college on a US Air Force scheme and was posted to the laser division of the Albuquerque Weapons Laboratory. 

Roberts met Forrest M Mims III and they decided to use their skills commercially.

Their rocket kits proved a damp squib but Forest Mims did develop useful relationships with hobbyist magazines.  He wrote pieces for Model Rocketry and Popular Electronics.  Keen to become a full-time writer, he went on to sell 7 million copies of a series of hobbyist books through Radio Shack.

1970 Lee Solomon, editor of Popular Electronics, visited MITS and subsequently promoted its Opticom LED Communicator – voice transmission via an LED light beam.

Lee Solomon/Don Lancaster

Roberts bought out his colleagues and moved into calculators.  The MITS 816 four-function calculator featured in Popular Electronics in late 1971 and by March 1973 revenues were $100,000 per month.

MITS promoted his MITS 1440 advanced calculator in Popular Electronics.  Low-cost pocket calculators drove the operation $300,000 into the red – and he sought a new product.

Radio Electronics had offered circuit diagrams of the Mark-8 computer kit and the SwTPC TV Typewriter.  Lee Solomon wanted to compete and agreed to feature Ed Roberts’s planned 8080-based computer as the cover article for Popular Electronics.  Roberts borrowed a further $65,000 from the bank.

Originally codenamed PE-8, for Popular Electronics 8-bit, it was renamed Altair.  One version says Solomon’s 12-year-old daughter was watching Star Trek and the USS Enterprise visited Altair in that evening’s episode.

The prototype for the magazine to review and photograph was lost by Railway Express on its way to New York.  An empty box was mocked-up for the front cover of the January 1974 edition of Popular Electronics.  The headline said:

PROJECT BREAKTHROUGH!
World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models…
“ALTAIR 8800.” SAVE OVER $1000.

Roberts needed to sell two hundred Altairs to break even; he promised his bank manager it would sell four times as many in the first year.  So he was pleasantly surprised to receive over one thousand orders in the first month!  This did make its 60-day delivery impractical.  However enthusiastic customers were prepared to wait while MITS got its act together.  It managed to build and deliver 5,000 Altairs by August 1975.

Priced from $375 it was only just breaking even but Roberts hoped for profits from on-sales of add-on boards thanks to its S-100 bus.  However many of the promoted add-ons failed to materialise and there were technical difficulties with the most popular Dynamic RAM board. 

The Altair was an unedifying piece of kit, programmed by flicking switches on its panel, one byte at a time.  The processor would cycle through each byte, invariably finding a glitch; if it should run, then feedback was via lights displayed on a bland panel. The 8080 gave the Altair its real potential and this was the first product to achieve sales volume; the Altair opened the floodgates to a huge pent up demand.

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