It's Not Too Late - Your Own Altair 8800
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Sunday, 18 March 2018

Without the Altair 8800 where would we be today? Ed Robert's minicomputer kit was a vital catalyst to today's technology, inspiring Bill Gates and Paul Allen to found Microsoft in order to write a BASIC interpreter for it. If you missed the original you now have another chance to discover its interface of lights and switches with the Altair-Duino kit



The Altair 8800 was the computer that brought computing into homes and small businesses. Created by Ed Roberts in 1974, it was the first PC (Personal Computer), the forerunner of the Apple, the IBM PC and all that would follow. 

At the time Intel really didn't have much idea what to do with the all-new "microprocessor". It was too underpowered to be a computer and too expensive to be a toy. Ed Roberts, whose Albuquerque-based company MITS had been forced out of the calculator market by Texas Instruments, didn't see things that way and after getting Intel to lower the price as part of a special deal, he put together a machine that looked like everyone's dream of a computer. It had banks of switches and flashing lights that just looked impressive enough for customers to want one, even if it wasn't clear what they could do with it.



The success of the computer kit, which sold for $439, was due both to its design and to its marketing. Les Solomon, the editor of Popular Electronics magazine had been on the lookout for a computer project for some time and flew to Albuquerque to talk to Roberts and arranged for it to feature in the January issue - as long as the design was completed in time. About the only thing he didn't like about the project was its name.

Back in New York he spent hours trying to think up a good name and then he asked his 12 year old daughter. She was watching Star Trek at the time - then a new series - and so she suggested Altair, the star system that the Enterprise was heading for. As Roberts was a sci-fi fan he liked the name because it was also the planet in the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet (the one with Robbie the Robot in it!) That settled it - the new machine was christened the Altair 8800. Ironically the front cover photo was in fact an empty metal case as, although the prototype had been completed in time, it was lost in transit.

Fast forward over 50 years and original Altair 8800s change hands for thousands of dollars. There are both replicas and software simulations and now there is the Altair-Duino kit from Chris Davies for just $149.95, plus a fully assembled and tested version available for $249.95.

The Altair-Duino is based on an Altair 8800 emulator project published on by David Hansel using the Arduino Due and Arduino Mega 2560, which you can, of course, replicate from scratch.

The advantage of the Altair-Duino is that it includes all the components and a custom printed circuit board. It is a beginner to intermediate kit for people with experience soldering that can be built in approximately 4-5 hours. The supplied case is bamboo, which keeps down both its weight and its price. Commenting on the use of bamboo Chris Davis states:

I know this does not have the accurate "look" of the original Altair, that's because I had two goals in making this kit: 

    1. Be an accurate recreation of the functionality of the original Altair 8800.
    2. Be affordable.

The size of the front panel is within a few centimeters of the original Altair, and you are welcome to put it in a genuine Optima case if you can find one!


Once you've built it you can experience what programming was like at the start of the PC era. According to a hands-on review by on IEEE Spectrum, the Altair-Duino comes loaded with a lot of software.
Stephen Cass writes:

You can call up some programs purely by flipping various front panel switches, such as Kill the Bit, a game that hacked the Altair’s memory-address indicator lights to act as a 1-dimensional display. Other programs are called up with a combination of switch throws and terminal commands. You can quickly fire up Microsoft’s very first 4-kilobyte Basic (which gives you the option, on startup, to disable its sine, random number, and square root functions to save a little memory), or its more advanced 16-KB Basic. The latter has a number of programs you can load from the Altairduino’s memory, including early computer game classics such as Lunar LanderStar Trek, and Hunt the Wumpus.

Like the original Altair 8800, demand has outstripped supply. Davies notes that some of the parts are sourced in China so the Chinese New Year holiday had led to a temporary out-of-stock situation.


More Information


Arduino Altair 8800 Simulator on Hackster

Related Articles

Altair - The First PC


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Last Updated ( Sunday, 18 March 2018 )