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The Altair 8800 is a computer kit based on the Intel 8080 CPU, designed by Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), which was headed by H. Edward Roberts, in 1974. It became the first-ever commercially successful personal computer, especially compared to the first microprocessor-based personal computer – Micral. Because of its success, the Altair 8800 initiated the personal computer age. Also because of its success, its computer bus became the de facto standard called the S-100 bus (IEEE-696). The first programming language for the machine was Altair BASIC, Microsoft’s founding product.
The Altair 8800, based on the Intel 8080 processor, was aimed at hobbyists but it became the first commercially successful personal computer because it hit the sweet spot of performance and price. It was sold at $439 per kit in a time where other commercial personal computers were in the thousands range. The kit provided the minimum configuration of circuits that could be legitimately called a computer. However, programming the said machine was tedious. The user had to toggle switches to positions corresponding to 8080 microprocessor instruction or opcode in binary.
A kit cost $439 and two types of memory boards were available: a 1024-word memory board ($176) and a 4096-word memory board ($264). Later Roberts offered also a parallel interface board ($92), two types of serial interface boards, an audio cassette interface board and Teletype. Altair 8800’s expansion bus allowed MITS to sell additional memory and interface boards. The RAM provided was only 256 bytes and users had to purchase its memory board separately.
Altair BASIC was announced in July 1975 and it required one or two 4096-word memory boards and an interface board, so it added to the cost. Altair DOS was announced in late 1975 and MITS started shipping it on August 1977. As a fun historical fact, an Altair 8800 article in January 1975 published by Popular Electronics inspired the creation of a group called Homebrew Computer Club. From the said group emerged twenty-three computer companies, including Apple Computer.
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