A Revolution Begins

Altair 8800

Altair 8800

Bill Bennett renewed my memory recently, when he wrote “A Revolution Begins” in his daily newsletter.  “Few people realized it at the time, but the issue of Popular Electronics magazine that hit the newsstands in late December 1974 marked the beginning of a modern revolution. On the cover, beneath the headline “World’s First Minicomputer Kit,” sat a photo of a plain-looking box covered with rows of switches and lights. The machine was the Altair 8800, and for about $400, anyone could buy the kit and assemble it themselves. It was the first truly personal computer to come to market, and thousands of hobbyists rushed to place orders.”

For the rest of Bill’s post, click here.

In the summer of 1975 or 1976, with the approval of Ab Snell, department chair, I bought one of these microcomputers for Clemson University so that my Agricultural Engineering sophomore computer class could learn BASIC, the first microcomputer programming language.

Far from being a personal computer, as Radio Shack and Apple later developed, the Altair 8800 contained no ROM (Read Only Memory).  Therefore, students had to first toggle a 19-step bootstrap loader into RAM (Random Access Memory) by setting the toggle switches to the appropriate binary instruction, then closing a momentary switch to load the instruction, and sequentially moving on to the next step until the 19 binary instructions were loaded into RAM.  Then the BASIC interpreter was read into the Altair RAM via paper tape from an ASR33 Teletype machine.  Now, students could type into the Altair and run their program.  Data were again typed in via the ASR33 keyboard, and program results were printed out on the roll paper of the ASR33.

Students and I all enjoyed tremendously learning to program the Altair to do computations that were significantly advanced over our slide rules.  We used it each fall semester until the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I became available in 1978, when I bought 5 of them for class use.  Now we were really uptown, because we had the BASIC interpreter in ROM, ready to run upon power up, and output to a CRT (cathode ray tube) screen.  We even had 4K (that is 4,096) bytes of RAM to program into.  Later as we upgraded to 16K, I remember well telling my student Christine Grewcock that we would never need more memory than that 16K.  LOL while I type this post on a 4 GB (that is 4,294,967,294 bytes) laptop computer.

The rest of my TRS-80 story awaits another evening.

For more on the Altair 8800, your favorite search engine will reveal plenty.

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