Earlier this week, blogging legend Jason Kottke linked to AmericanRadioHistory.com’s archive of Popular Electronics issues. The magazine, published by Ziff-Davis, ran from 1954 to 1982, and every issue is available for free downloading in PDF form. But when I heard the news, there was one particular issue I couldn’t wait to read: The January 1975 one.
After all, that was the issue with a cover story that–editorial director Arthur Salzburg declared in his editorial–ushered in the home computer age. He was being portentous. But history also happens to have proven him accurate.
The story in question (which the magazine billed as an “exclusive!”) concerned the Altair 8800, a device which the publication called a “minicomputer.” It would soon come to be known as a microcomputer–the first successful one.
Popular Electronics described its article as a project, and implied that you could go out, buy a bunch of loose components, and use its instructions (which continued in the February 1975 issue) to assemble the computer, which was powered by an Intel 8080 processor. But the far more likely scenario was that you would order the Altair 8800 in kit form for $397 from MITS, the Albuquerque, N.M. model-rocket company which invented it. (The article was by MITS’s President Ed Roberts and Altair codesigner William Yates.)
At the time, even people nerdy enough to be reading Popular Electronics didn’t necessarily know anything about computers. So the article explained what they were:
A computer is basically a piece of variable hardware. By changing the bit pattern stored in the memory, the hardware (electronic circuitry) can be altered from one type of device to another. When the bit pattern, and thus the hardware, is changed, we have what is referred to as “software.” Any type of variable instruction (programming)–such as Basic, Fortran, Cobol, Algol–is generally classified as software.
For electronics hobbyists, this was heady stuff. Among the readers who were transfixed was Paul Allen, who famously bought a copy of the magazine at the Out of Town News newsstand in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. to share with his friend, Harvard undergrad Bill Gates.
As Allen recounted in his autobiography, Idea Man (2011):
I slapped down seventy-five cents and trotted the half-dozen slushy blocks to Bill’s room in Harvard’s Currier House. I burst in on him cramming for finals; it was that time of year. “You remember what you told me?” I said, feeling vindicated and a little breathless. “To let you know when somebody came out with a machine based on the 8080?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Well, here it is,” I said, holding out the magazine with a flourish. “Check it out!”
“As Bill read the story, he began rocking back and forth in his chair, a sign that he was deep in concentration. I could tell he was impressed. “It’s expandable, just like a minicomputer,” he murmured. Priced at $397 in kit form, scarcely more than a retail 8080 chip alone, the base Altair came with only 256 bytes of memory, just enough to program its lights to blink.
Allen and Gates wrote a version of the BASIC programming language that could run on the Altair, then turned their collaboration into a company they called Micro-Soft. The rest–sans hyphen–is history.
Before that issue of Popular Electronics hit newsstands in December 1974, there was no PC industry. Within months of its appearance, there was–complete with computers packing Intel processors and running Microsoft software. Just as most of the PCs sold today still do.
Until I learned of the online availability of this issue–which you can download here–I’d seen its cover countless times, but never the insides in their entirety. Seeing the article in context–alongside reviews of CB radios, ads for mail-order TV-repair courses, and the like–is exciting. Maybe not as exciting as it was for guys like Paul Allen and Bill Gates in December 1974, but exciting nonetheless.