Introduction (1)

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On the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics appears a picture of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800.[1]

Fig.1 January 1975, Popular Electronics, features the Altair 8800, the first personal computer.

The Altair hardly looks like today’s personal computer. Sold at $395, it had only a toggle-switched LED front panel, and did not come with a keyboard or a monitor.[2]Most consumers bought the Altair as mail order kits and assembled them chip by chip. The assembly was not a simple task even for electronics hobbyists, and some of them never successfully got their Altairs to function.[3]

Ed Roberts, the creator of the Altair, did not expect much either. Since the late 1960s, Roberts’ small electronics company, Micro Instrumentation Telemetry System (MITS), had manufactured several products, including a programmable calculator in a kit form.[4] However, none of these products succeeded, and some failed disastrously. At the margin of bankruptcy, Roberts thought his last chance might be the idea of a minicomputer with the newly available processor, Intel 8080, sold at $75 apiece.[5] Meanwhile, Leslie Solomon and Arthur Salsberg, editors of Popular Electronics, had been looking for a better machine than the one offered by their competitor, Radio Electronics, since July 1974. They saw the possibility of beating the Mark-8, which was priced around $1,000 (roughly equivalent to $3,360 in 2002 dollars) yet based on the relatively slower Intel 8008 processor. Through their personal network, Solomon and Salsberg contacted Roberts.[6] They managed to convince Roberts that if a new model were ready by the following January, they would be able to generate enough sales to keep MITS in business.

No one was aware of the history they were making. The Altair 8800 computer kit that Roberts produced became the first affordable personal computer and an overnight success. According to computer historian Frank Delaney:

Roberts estimated if he got lucky he would sell enough computer kits to keep his business afloat while he looked for other revenue sources, possibly 200 kits in a year. . . . in one day they sold 200 computers over the phone. People sent checks in sight unseen—completely on the faith they would some day receive their kit in the mail. . . . Some fanatics even drove to Albuquerque [the headquarter of MITS] and camped out in the parking lot to wait for their kits.[7]

With only 256 bytes of memory, the Altair was by no means functionally comparable to its contemporaries—the IBM time-sharing computers. Owning an Altair was more like having a new toy than gaining any substantial power of computing. Why, then, were these engineers, or hobbyists as they preferred be called, so eager to own personal computers?[8]

Words like “dream” and “imagining” repeatedly appeared in the advocacy of new ways of computing in the 1970s. For instance, idealist Theodor Nelson (known as Ted Nelson) published Computer Lib/Dream Machines in 1974, even before the personal computer came into existence. Pleading: “You can and must understand computers now,” Nelson demanded “new freedoms through computer screens.”[9] In his article entitled “The Impossible Dream” in the first issue of Byte, the editor of this popular computer magazine wrote: “Wouldn’t it be neat to have a computer all one’s own without being as rich as Croesus?”[10] In addition to the affordability that Byte’s editor dreamed about, the imagination of the People's Computer Company (PCC) went further. On the cover of PCC Newpaper, March 1975, it was not just a computer, but a comfortable computing environment integrated with a nice sofa and surrounding plants.

Fig.2 Cover of the People's Computer Company Newspaper, March 1975. The person in this advertisement is imagining a pleaassant home computer environment.

1. Gregg Williams and Mark Welch, “A Microcomputing Timeline,” Byte, September 1985.
2. LED is the abbreviation of light-emitting diode, an electronic device that lights up when electricity passing through. The Random House Personal Computer Dictionary (1991), s.v. “LED.” As for comparative dollar values, according to the online Dollar Conversion Calculator created by Professor Robert Sahr of the Oregon State University Political Science Department, one 1975 dollar is equivalent to $3.36 in 2002 dollars. Therefore, the price of Altair 8800 in 1975 was roughly the equivalent of $1,327 in 2002 dollars—not much different from that of today’s personal computers. See “CJR Dollar Conversion Calculator,” Columbia Journalism Review, 2002, <> (1 March 2003).
3. Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer (Berkeley, California: Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 1984), 31.
4. Ibid., 29.
5. Ibid., 31.
6. There were different versions of stories about who initiated the contact and how. The one adopted here is from Freiberger and Swaine, Fire in the Valley, 32-34
7. Frank Delaney, “The World’s First Commercially Available PC,” in History of the Microcomputer Revolution (Spokane, WA: KPBX, 1995).
8. Fred Moore, “It’s a Hobby,” Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter, 7 June 1975.
9. Theodor H. Nelson, Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computers Now (South Bend, Ind.: by the Author, 1974), cover.
10. CARL, “The Impossible Dream,” Byte, September 1975.