Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Albuquerque Computer History 101

By Kyle Silfer

July 14, 1997:  If you happened to be perusing the geek section of your local newsstand in early 1975, you might have noticed that the January issue of Popular Electronics featured a strange, clunky-looking box on the cover. And if that image alone was sufficient to pique your interest, you might have cracked the magazine open and read the story--tagged "Project Breakthrough!"--about a guy from Albuquerque named Ed Roberts, his little company called MITS (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems) and their thrilling new do-it-yourself kit known as the Altair 8800.

The Altair (named after a star on an arbitrary episode of "Star Trek") was a $395 mail-order job that, when fully assembled, produced a working home computer--the very first home computer ever, in fact. Roberts had hoped to sell 200 kits to keep his little business afloat, but in the wake of the Popular Electronics story, thousands of orders poured in and ultimately over 10,000 Altairs were sold.

David Bunnell, Roberts' business partner (and, later, founder of PC Magazine and MacWorld), says MITS was on a mission from God. In Paul Mungo and Bryan Glough's 1992 book Approaching Zero, Bunnell claims that he and Roberts were paranoid that Congress might soon pass a law requiring anyone who operated a computer to obtain a federal license: "We figured we had to have several hundred machines in people's hands before this dangerous idea emerged from committee," he said. "Otherwise, 1984 would really have been 1984."

Yet the Altair really didn't do much all by itself. There were switches you could flip and lights that blinked in response, but to make it a practical computing device it needed software. Fortunately, after spotting that fateful issue of Popular Electronics, a couple of college kids from Boston were lured down to Albuquerque to provide exactly that. Bill Gates, age 19, and his high school buddy Paul Allen, camped out in the Sundowner Motel on Central Avenue--across the street from the MITS offices--and successfully hacked out a version of the BASIC computer language for the Altair. The software company they founded here was called Microsoft--you may have heard of it--and in 1979 they pulled up stakes and moved to Seattle.

If you want to see an Altair, you can visit the Albuquerque Children's Museum where they have a vintage model on display. And if you want to see Microsoft's software, you can drop by any office building on the planet and catch the receptionist playing Windows Solitaire.

--Kyle Silfer

Visit the Virtual Altair Museum at http://exo.com/~wts/wts10005.HTM.

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