THROWBACK THURSDAY: Altair 8800 PC

If it weren’t for the Altair 8800, I might be writing this blog on a typewriter. It doesn’t look like much but the Altair 8800 was the first successful personal computer. It came in a kit that cost about $1,500 for all you’d need (about half the price of an economy car) and required soldering and plenty of assembly to make it work.

Once you spent all the time putting it together, you couldn’t do much. It needed to be programmed letter by letter, word by word, and it was very limited in what it could do. Write a letter? Not really. Play a game? Maybe 20 questions, but nothing more complicated than that. Pictures? Sound? Color? Internet? These were all just dreams.

It would be another decade before anything even remotely resembling today’s PCs started appearing on desks, but back in 1975 the allure of this device to geeks was undeniable, especially since it was named for a planet on “Star Trek.” Back then, computers were a new and powerful idea, and having one of your very own, even one that did little more than flash its lights at you was a thrill. Before the Altair, computers were something that big companies or governments had. The closest thing today would be if somehow you had your own spaceship.

Big things sprung from the Altair’s humble precedents, though. Bill Gates wrote software for it, and because it used a disk and keyboard, so did every computer until the iPad. Even the way its boards came together turned into a standard used by computers until the mid 1980s.

If you have a stout heart and a comprehensive knowledge of 8080 assembly language, you can program a virtual Altair all for yourself using this simulator. Just five minutes with it and you will really get a true appreciation of the computer pioneers of old.