Just before the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, was released in 1975, inventor H. Edward Roberts predicted that his New Mexico calculator company would sell 800 of the machines in the first year. During the first month, they recieved 250 orders a day. And while it could compute (it was a computer after all), it didn’t really do anything else. It had no monitor, no keyboard, no printer jacks. Engadget was not born yet, and the Apple II was still two years from release; no one complained about those missing features. In 1975, this machine generated a downright fervor in some very nerdy circles.
The Homebrew Computer Club was formed that year in celebration of – and in an attempt to suss out how to hack – the Altair, and a small army of Silicon Valley geeks began their campaign into a future of billion-dollar companies. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were early members of the Club, and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to travel to New Mexico and develop the Altair’s first operating system, Microsoft Basic, with Paul Allen. That OS would morph into the computer empire that would begin to fulfill the Altair’s promise – putting PCs in every home.
Roberts sold his company in the late 1970s, and as part of the deal agreed to stay out of computers for five years. Moving to Georgia to become a physician, he never returned to Silicon Valley. Though the relationship between Gates and Roberts soured since their days working together, the Microsoft founder came to Roberts’ death bed last year, just before the 68-year-old died from pneumonia, to pay homage to the man partly responsible for the machine on which you are reading this.
In a 1985 Playboy interview, Steve Jobs explained how his relationship with the Altair inspired the Apple I.
Wozniak and I were hanging out. He took me to some Homebrew Computer Club meetings, where computer hobbyists compared notes and stuff. I didn’t find them all that exciting, but some of them were fun. Wozniak went religiously.
PLAYBOY: What was the thinking about computers then? Why were you interested?
JOBS: The clubs were based around a computer kit called the Altair. It was so amazing to all of us that somebody had actually come up with a way to build a computer you could own yourself. That had never been possible. Remember, when we were in high school, neither of us had access to a computer mainframe. We had to drive somewhere and have some large company take a benevolent attitude toward us and let us use the computer. But now, for the first time, you could actually buy a computer. The Altair was a kit that came out around 1975 and sold for less than $400.
Even though it was relatively inexpensive, not everyone could afford one. That’s how the computer clubs started. People would band together and eventually become a club.
PLAYBOY: What would you do with your makeshift computers?
JOBS: At that time, there were no graphics. It was all alphanumerics, and I used to be fascinated with the programming, simple programming. On the very early versions of computer kits, you didn’t even type; you threw switches that signaled characters.
PLAYBOY: The Altair, then, presented the concept of a home computer.
JOBS: It was just sort of a computer that you could own. They really didn’t know what to do with it. The first thing that they did was to put languages on it, so you could write some programs. People didn’t start to apply them for practical things until a year or two later, and then it was simple things, like bookkeeping.
PLAYBOY: And you decided you could do the Altair one better.
JOBS: It sort of just happened. I was working a lot at Atari at night and I used to let Woz in. Atari put out a game called Gran Track, the first driving game with a steering wheel to drive it. Woz was a Gran Track addict. He would put great quantities of quarters into these games to play them, so I would just let him in at night and let him onto the production floor and he would play Gran Track all night long. When I came up against a stumbling block on a project, I would get Woz to take a break from his road rally for ten minutes and come and help me. He puttered around on some things, too. And at one point, he designed a computer terminal with video on it. At a later date, he ended up buying a microprocessor and hooking it up to the terminal and made what was to become the Apple I. Woz and I laid out the circuit board ourselves. That was basically it.
PLAYBOY: Again, the idea was just to do it?
JOBS: Yeah, sure. And to be able to show it off to your friends.