But the Altair was difficult to assemble: It required complicated instructions, and hundreds of tiny pieces had to fit together. The finished product was a clunky blue-and-gray metal box with dozens of toggle switches. It had no storage capability and no monitor. But for those who had been expectantly waiting for this breakthrough, it was the answer to their dreams.
Allen and Gates had found their future — and the future of the personal computer. Gates left Harvard and moved to Albuquerque, where he and Allen formed their partnership, Micro-Soft (the hyphen didn’t last long), in the shadows of the beautiful Sandia Mountains. Even from their youthful days in the Land of Enchantment, the business-savvy pair insisted on retaining ownership of their programs, which they could then sell to other companies and which eventually led to their unimaginable success.
In 1977, Pertec, one of MITS’ suppliers, purchased the company. Gary Runyan, an early MITS employee, says that Pertec fired MITS’ marketing department, not realizing the importance of the working relationships they had made. “Their second-biggest mistake,” Runyan says, “was developing a new design rather than holding onto the existing market.” By now, Roberts had bailed out, as had others. In a short time, companies such as IMSAI, IBM and Apple introduced their own personal computers, and the Altair disappeared.
In Albuquerque, where the journey of the personal computer began, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science showcases a dynamic and award-winning exhibit called “STARTUP: Albuquerque and the Personal Computer Revolution,” providing a look back at these historic achievements and a peek at an original Altair, perennially revolving atop a tall cylindrical case.
Largely funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, STARTUP, created in 2006, offers a fascinating walk through technological history, even for nontechies.
The exhibit is dedicated to the late Ed Roberts and his vision for a personal computer that would one day change technology, communication and our lives forever.
Freelance writer KAY GRANT loves living in the Land of Enchantment. She wrote about a one-hole golf tournament in the March 1, 2011, issue of American Way.