I remember the Altair and it changed the world

I remember the Altair and it changed the world

Summary: Without Ed Roberts, we might not have had Microsoft.

TOPICS: Microsoft, CXO, Hardware

Please forgive this not-entirely-government post, but when Jason Perlow wrote about Ed Roberts passing today, I had to chime in.

The Altair was either the first or second computer I actually owned (I can't recall if it came before or after the Timex Sinclair), but I remember the Altair vividly.

I remember soldering in all the connections on the S-100 bus and wiring in all the connections to the front panel.

I remember my friends wondering what that thing was in my dorm room, because I had the mobo sitting out on a slab of plywood, wires streaming everywhere.

I remember searching the Trenton Computer Festival, horse-trading for parts, because back then I was a starving college student, there was no eBay, there was no Weird Stuff Warehouse. Scoring a few 2102 memory chips was a major win that day.

I remember meeting members of the Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey, who back then founded some of the earliest personal computer companies, almost all S-100 suppliers. They took in a very annoying kid and I learned more from them at late-night diner runs than I did in some full semester CS classes.

I remember spending weeks toggling in the boot loader on the Altair's front panel, bit-by-bit -- literally bit by actual bit (I had a lot more free time back then). I also remember the day my Dad decided to switch off the circuit breaker powering my room to install an extra plug for my Mom. And I remember having to toggle in the boot loader, bit-by-bit, all over again.

I remember Microsoft as "that BASIC company" and then later learning that Ed Roberts became a doctor.

But most of all, I remember the Altair as the computer that taught me that whether or not I worked for a big company, computers were something you could hold, touch, build, tweak, and make your own -- in a day when the big computers had rooms of their own.

And I thank Ed Roberts for giving Bill and Paul a chance. For without Ed, we might not have had Microsoft.

Say what you will about Microsoft, it's changed the world and with Bill Gates' philanthropy, he's also healing the world.

So, in a sense, Ed Roberts became a healer twice over -- both a doctor himself, and giving an early chance to a man who'd invest billions to heal others.

Rest in peace, Ed Roberts.

Topics: Microsoft, CXO, Hardware


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Nice

    Was it an Altair that Matt Broderick had in his bedroom in the movie War Games?

    EDIT: Never mind. I was an IMSAI. (Thank you IMDB).
  • RE: I remember the Altair and it changed the world

    I think Broderick had an IMSAI which was an Altair clone.

    • Did it have USB Ports, Flash or multi-tasking?

      Just kidding. I had to use one in a class many many many years (dare I
      say decades) ago.
      • re: Did it have USB Ports, Flash or multi-tasking?

        Oh, it flashed all right, all those lights on the front panel. Once you got it to run, and if you knew the binary (which you kind of had to at that point), you could almost watch the steps of the program as it ran -- and you debugged via single-stepping using the LEDs, with each new instruction or memory location represented by the string of lights.

        Now, here's the contrast. That was 15 or so years after Star Trek TOS came out and 30 years or so before the iPad. Today, the geekiest of us look at the iPad and see the TNG flat handhelds but back in the Altair's day, we wouldn't have even recognized the iPad as having anything to do with the Trek we knew back then.
        David Gewirtz
        • Didn't Star Trek TOS have tablets that were stylus based?

          They were a bit thinker but the Yeoman would be seen with them from
          time to times to have horndog... I mean Captian Tiberius Kirk approve.
  • Nice eulogy; Ed Roberts' family has all of our sympathies.

    And you Sir David Gewirtz are a scholar and gentleman. I really enjoyed reading your article even though it is sad news. It brought back nostalgic memories for me too. Apparently I see things the way you do, concerning Ed Roberts and Bill Gates.

    The only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.
    {Jewish Proverb}[/i]
    • Hear, Hear

      Our world needs more people who strive to leave the place better than they found it, and share their excess rather than sqander it. Those who manage well what they have rather than expect to be given what they do not work for! We should all strive for such a goal.
  • Bragging rights

    Hand's on to boot [thumb's up]. I came a bit later, by way of Tandy's TRaSh. Not nearly as cool, but fun and exasperating (in equal parts) as hell.
  • RE: I remember the Altair and it changed the world

    I still have one in my basement.
    full 64K (yes K) memory
    2 8 inch Altair floppy drives
    an Old ADM terminal. (still looks cool)

    Know anyone that would like to buy an antique??
  • Timex Sinclair

    The Timex Sinclair was WAY later. It was available as a full unit, not a kit. Per Wikipedia [i]"In July 1982, Timex Sinclair introduced the first computer touted to cost under $100 marketed in the U.S."[/i]

    • ZX81

      Thanks, Rick. I think it must have been the ZX81, because I bought it while still going to engineering school in Massachusetts. I bought it at a used computer store in Boston, which means it had to be sold before June of 1982, which is when I finished and went on to grad school in California.

      And it wasn't the ZX80, because that was a white machine and the machine I tinkered with was black. I never liked the Sinclair much, though, which is why I have such a poor memory of it (that, and we're talking 30 frak'n years ago!). By June or so of 1982, I'd long moved on to full CP/M-based machines with those 8" floppies and monitors.

      David Gewirtz
      • The Altair, Sinclair, TI-99/4A,

        the Trenton Computer Fest.

        I haven't thought back to those days in years, though they're still fresh in my mind when I do.

        It's surprising how far we've come in these many years since then, and we tend to forget those who gave us the ability to do what we did.

        Thanks for a very nice article remembering one of those who did.

        Well done!
  • No Love Lost For Bill Gates

    Not everyone, in fact masses of us do not, look upon Bill Gates with any degree of fondness.
    Admiration yes, even if begrudging, to his business acumen, comes from me.
    He did manage to kickstart the computer industry as we now know it. Granted! And in the process created a whole IT industry to boot, but I'm a bit ahead of myself here.
    But by foisting on the world only the illusion of a turn key, standardized, affordable computer OS.
    Which in fact was bloated, buggy, a patchwork code, and grossly over priced.
    That's how he became the richest man in the world, or so.
    As Christ said of the Pharisees of His day, 'You gave out of your largess...' In other words, what did it cost you to give, how much sweat was it off your brow, what element of sacrifice?
    As Willie Nelson opined, something to this extant, 'Just how many pairs of cowboy boots can I wear, how many meals...how many cars can I drive...?'
    You get the drift.
    If Windows OS's and software were reasonably priced, he wouldn't be out of opulence, dispensing beneficence, living the 'life of Riley' in the scheme of it.
    • Oh please, this isn't the place to

      try and turn this into a "I hate MS blog".

      There will be other times and places to pick apart your post for the inaccuracies in it, let this remain what the author wrote it to be.

      John Zern
      • @ John Zern

        I didn't say one word re the gentleman recently deceased. Others, who know something more than I, spoke well, if not eloquently. Condolences on my part.
        But for you to brand my post as a mere puny 'I hate MS' is a knee jerk reaction on your part, verging on arrogance, and a misread.
        I personally, for the record have only ever used many permutations of Windows OS's.
        Preferring 2000Pro, XP SP3, and would probably like/love 7.
        And I hold that's there's lots of room in this world for different and competing computer philosophies.
        There seems to be extremists in every camp. Are you one of them John? Usually you come across as reasonably erudite.
        If 'boo' is said about their chosen OS, they blow a gasket. And are ready to lynch willy nilly.
        This is still a blog in which comments made are fair game for response.
        You wasted no time to diss mine.
        Basically, I didn't let go by WinTard's expressed fondness for Gates or this article quote either. That's all.
        'Say what you will about Microsoft, it's changed the world and with Bill Gate's philanthropy, he's also healing the world.'
        Sorry if I offended your sensibilities. Peace.
  • RE: I remember the Altair and it changed the world

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