In January 1975, the magazine Popular Electronics trumpeted the beginnings of a revolution. “Project Breakthrough,” the cover said: “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” Inside, a six-page article described the Altair, an unassembled computer that could be ordered from MITS, a company in Albuquerque originally founded to sell radio transmitters for controlling model airplanes. To the uninitiated, it didn’t look like much of a revolution. For $397 plus shipping, a hobbyist or computer buff could get a power supply, a metal case with lights and switches on the front panel, and a set of integrated circuit chips and other components that had to be soldered into place. When everything was assembled, a user gave the computer instructions by flipping the panel’s seventeen switches one at a time in a carefully calculated order; loading a relatively simple program might involve thousands of flips. MITS had promised that the Altair could be hooked up to a Teletype machine for its input, but the circuit boards needed for the hookup wouldn’t be available for a number of months. To read the computer’s output, a user had to interpret the on/off pattern of flashing lights; it would be more than a year before MITS would offer an interface board to transform the output into text or figures on a television screen. And the computer had no software. A user had to write the programs himself in arcane computer code or else borrow the efforts of other enthusiasts. One observer of the early computer industry summed up the experience like this: “You buy the Altair, you have to build it, then you have to build other things to plug into it to make it work. You are a weird-type person. Because only weird-type people sit in kitchens and basements and places all hours of the night, soldering things to boards to make machines go flickety-flock.” But despite its shortcomings, several thousand weird-type people bought the Altair within a few months of its appearance. What inspired and intrigued them was the semiconductor chip at the heart of the computer.
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