Actually, the 8800 used the Intel 8080
processor, not the 8008
. The Altair was the first commercially available microcomputer
, however it was preceded by the Scelbi 8-H
(based on the Intel
8008) and the Mark 8
(also based on the 8080) so it was not technically the first microcomputer created. MITS
owner Ed Roberts
was approached by Popular Electronics
magazine to create an affordable kit computer for under $500. At the time, MITS mainly sold calculators and was struggling to keep alive with cheap Texas Instruments
calculators flooding the market. In order to sell the kits cheap, he had a deal with Intel to purchase cosmetically blemished
CPU's for $75 rather than the standard $360. The selling price varies depending on who you ask, the most widely quoted price seems to be $397 for the kit
, although I've also seen a couple of references to $439. It was produced from roughly April of 1975
to June of 1978
The Altair featured a whopping 256 bytes of memory with no keyboard, monitor, or storage means. However, it did have a rather smart design with the capabilities to expand it with more memory and devices. But the base unit got you a single box with a front panel full of switches and lights. What could you do with it? Not much. You programmed it in binary using the toggle switches on the front to write either 0 or 1 to a memory address. Then you ran your program, which could "output" by lighting up the lights in sequence on the front panel. Eventually Ed came out with more accessories including memory boards, serial and parallel interfaces, and a cassette for storage.
Shortly after it's release, MITS was approached by two young college students by the name of Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who had a version of Basic for the Intel 8080 to sell Ed. According to Frank Delaney, who was an active member of the personal computer scene at the time, they had no such thing. They set up a meeting with Ed in 30 days time, and went to work writing Basic. They used a DEC minicomputer at Harvard to write an emulator for the Intel 8080 so that they could write their Basic program, which was based on other versions of Basic that had been released into the public domain. At their meeting, with their program being run on an Intel 8080 for the first time, it worked perfectly.
In the year following, these two students dropped out of College and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to work with MITS. They retained the rights to Basic, and formed their own company to sell it for other platforms (note that they are selling a program developed on Harvard owned machines from public domain code...). Ed tried to sue for the rights to Altair Basic, but lost. Ed gave up on the business, sold MITS, and became a doctor in Goergia. And thus ended the Altair.