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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Personal computer industry is launched

In 1974, calculators were the hot item in consumer electronics. A little calculator company in Albuquerque was stuggling to compete, but a price war threatened to bankrupt it. Its owner, research engineer Ed Roberts, determined to make it all or nothing. He decided to build a small computer based on the recently developed, inexpensive microprocessors from Intel, and sell it to electronics hobbyists at the amazingly low price of about $500.

Roberts called his computer the Altair 8800 and offered it as a kit. It got a good press splash, featured on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in January of 1975. The day the magazine came out, five people called Roberts about the computer; at the end of the week he was getting 30 calls a day. After a couple of weeks, his bank account had fattened and it didn't look like he'd go out of business after all. He'd taken out a loan to develop the Altair and had told the skeptical loan officer he expected to sell about 800 machines a year.

The Altair didn't actually do much as a computer. It didn't have a screen or a keyboard or any software. But it filled a hole. It was the very first personal computer to be produced in fairly high quantity. The larger computer companies were busy developing mainframes and improving computer systems for industry, and couldn't really see why anyone would want a home computer. They also failed to see the implications of the new microprocessors that were small and cheap.

Users had to program Altair in machine code using toggle switches. A Harvard student and his friend, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, realized Altair would be a lot better if users could program it in BASIC, a popular, easy-to-use computer language, instead of machine code. The enterprising pair called Roberts and offered to develop a BASIC interpreter for the Altair. He agreed and within six weeks bought the program from Gates and Allen. He hired Allen as software developer. Allen and Gates later established Microsoft Corporation.

Altair sparked an entire industry, as new personal computer companies popped up in its wake. One of these companies was the creation of a hobbyist who couldn't afford an Altair kit, so he created his own from scratch. Stephen Wozniak polished up his creation in 1976. With his friend Steve Jobs, he began to sell it and then improve it. In 1977, they introduced Apple II and made Apple Computer Company the fastest growing business in American history.

In 1977 Ed Roberts sold his company. Two years later, like many others entering the volatile market, it had folded. In 1981, IBM entered the fray with its own personal computer, the PC, which became Apple's biggest competitor. From a do-or-die business venture in the mid 1970s, the personal computer evolved from a sophisticated toy for electronics enthusiasts to an even more sophisticated -- but easier to use -- household and workplace commodity.

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