A computer board for the Altair 8800 microcomputer.
Not long after Intel introduced its 8080 microprocessor, a small firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, named MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) announced a computer kit called the Altair, which met the social as well as technical requirements for a small personal computer. MITS succeeded where other, more established firms had failed, and it was their machine that inaugurated the personal computer age. MITS got its start in computing in 1971, when it introduced an electronic calculator kit. Several thousand sold before 1974, when the sharp reduction in calculator prices drove the company out of that market.
H. Edward Roberts, the Florida-born former U.S. Air Force officer who headed MITS, decided to design a small, affordable computer around the Intel 8080. His daughter named the new machine after the star Altair. It was the first microcomputer to sell in large numbers. In January 1975, a photograph of the Altair appeared on the cover of the magazine Popular Electronics. The caption read “World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” According to the magazine, the machine sold as a kit for $395, and assembled for $498. Roberts had hoped to break even by selling 200 Altairs. Within three months he had a backlog of 4,000 orders.
Enthusiasm for the Altair and other personal computers spawned computer hobbyist clubs, computer stores, newsletters, magazines, and conventions. By 1977, a host of companies, large and small, were producing microcomputers for a mass market. This phenomenon was abetted by a design decision to make the Altair an "open" machine. In other words, it passed data along a channel called a bus, whose specifications were not kept a secret. That way both MITS and other companies could add memory cards, cards to control a printer or other devices as long as they adhered to the published standards.
This particular Altair was collected by the Smithsonian because it documents how hobbyists would outfit the machine with additional parts and components. The user added his own keyboard, monitor, disk drive, and 17 plug-in boards to expand the computer’s capability. Unfortunately, the original owner of the kit is unknown. The computer was donated to the Smithsonian by a second owner, Mark Sienkiewicz, who purchased it as a collectable item and never used it.
Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.