Posts Tagged: ‘MITS Altair’

My Altair 8800 at Antiques Roadshow

June 9, 2014 Posted by Yard Guy

June 7, 2014 I had a chance to attend the Antiques Roadshow tour at the Santa Clara Convention Center. I took along my Altair 8800 computer, hoping to find out if it being from the first batch of 100 of the first commercially-available personal computer in the world would spike it’s potential resale value. With Apple I’s running in the six figures, who knows what the market holds for this pivotal artifact of the personal computer age.

This Altair of mine is MITS serial no. 220044k which seems to fit the first batch story. All of the early Altairs I’ve seen online start with 22 at the beginning of the six digit number. The “K” after the 44 means it was a kit, rather than pre-assembled. Only a small number of these early machines have been identified online.

As the story goes (as posted on numerous websites on the Internet), MITS, the developers of the Altair 8800, hoped to sell a few hundred units when Popular Electronics┬áprofiled the computer on the cover of the January 1975 edition. MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) had been founded in 1969 by Ed Roberts and Forrest M. Mims III to build hobbyist kits for model rockets, and Ed Roberts and Bill Yates had designed and built this first hundred batch of general purpose computers in late 1974, which went on sale just before Christmas. By February 1975 they had orders for a thousand (or so), and by the end of May, MITS claimed they had shipped 2,500 units – and 5,000 by August 1975.

The Altair 8800 is widely recognized as the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution. Prior to that time, you had to work for a big company or university to get access to a computer. With the Altair kit, it became possible for just any geek (with some cash) to explore the world of programming from the corner of their bedroom.

In what would become Silicon Valley, I understand no. 8 of this batch ended up at an early meeting of the Home Brew Club in early 1975 (Archives & Architecture, LLC did a quick history last year of the Oasis restaurant in Menlo Park where the club used to retire to after meetings). A little more than a year later, Steve Wozniak had developed his own system board called the Apple I, and when he and Steve Jobs began selling their computer in summer of 1976, the rest is history. On a few hundred were built, but when the Apple II was introduced in April 1997 (over 2 years after the Altair), the personal computer revolution really took off.

As for myself, I first took a class in the FORTRAN programming language in the 1960s, and in Fall of 1975 took a class in machine language programming at San Jose State University. If I had the money, I probably would of bought one of the Altair kits in 1975, but my career went in a different direction. The one I own today came to me about 10 years ago through other means.

Back to Antiques Roadshow – my collectibles appraiser was a bit distracted when I showed my item, as the guy before me had worked at Apple in the day, and had a sketchbook of his designs for early Apple machines, which, (looking over his shoulder) looked like the Apple II. This was actually one of the guys who contributed to the revolution in computing standing in line with me (for 5 hours!). In addition to the technology coming forth, Apple had designed a product that attracted buyers beyond the geeky computer professional, and this was one of the Apple guys (or the guy). I think they led him away for a video interview, and we will probably see him on television sometime in 2015 along with local historian April Halberstadt, who was interviewed for some jewelry she brought in.

The appraiser did a quick online auction search for me, and indicated that some Altairs had been reaching $5,000 in value, and that in Germany they were going for twice that amount. I mentioned mine was from the first batch of 100, but I don’t know that the concept registered with him, as there were probably no comps to compare to. At that point I was about to faint, as the 5 hours in line was having its affect, so I quickly bagged my treasure and headed out.

I did stop by the feedback booth, held my Altair up for the exit interview, but won’t know for a while if I made the cut for the show. Antiques Roadshow mentioned in their literature that they welcomed YouTube videos about our experiences at the Roadshow, so I might do a selfie with my camera phone to show the world my prized possession. Check back on this blog later for that.

The front panel of the Altair 8800

The front panel of the Altair 8800

The Altair 8800 cards

The Altair 8800 cards

Altair 8800 view from rear

Altair 8800 view from rear

Altair 8800 view from above

Altair 8800 view from above

Backpane serial no. 2200044k

Backpane serial no. 220044k