Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Case study #2 from the Media Archaeology Lab: The Altair 8800b from 1976

This still-functioning Altair 8800b from 1976 is housed in the Media
Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder


#MALcasestudies is a weekly blog series featuring treasures that exist in the University of Colorado at Boulder's Media Archaeology Lab. The series launched last week.


In last week's blog post I wrote that the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) gives me direct, hands-on access to the variantology of early computing—to a way in which I can uncover the new in the old and discover genuine alternatives to the nearly complete hegemony of today's standardized devices. Quite in opposition to an ideology of computing that touts devices whose interfaces are "natural," "seamless," "invisible" and only get better and better because they "just work," machines in the MAL are unsettling, sometimes even alarming, disruptions to this story we're told over and over again. Digital computers are getting better and better only if our defining criteria is speed—but what of the myriad other criteria for a useful device such as whether it is open, extensible, modular, etc.?

The MAL's Altair 8800b from 1976 computer is precisely such a disruption to our sense of what could have been and even of what could still be in computing—a world in which we understand and have access to our machines from the level of on and off, 1s and 0s.

Brad Feld, a local tech investor who is also one of the lab's most dedicated supporters, donated this computer, complete with manual in the original white binder, to the lab in October 2013. As far as I know, only 1,000 or so Altairs were ever sold, so this computer is quite a rarity—which brings me to the wonderful personal anecdotes that accompany the donations that find their way to the MAL. I decided to email Brad to find out what his connection to the Altair was:

When I was in junior high school, I discovered computers and girls at about the same time. I liked a girl named Suzanne who lived up the block from my house. We were both honors students so we hung out some, in that big-group thing that 7th graders do. I was probably a confused 7th grader—I liked Suzanne, but I also liked a girl named Karen and another girl named Whitney. But I also had an Apple II, which I got when I was 13, and liked it a lot also. 
Suzanne's dad was an engineer. I can't remember with whom, but he had an Altair in his garage that he played with a lot. Once when I was over at her house—before I had an Apple II—I went into the garage and watched over his shoulder as he toggled switches. He explained to me what he was doing and I vaguely remember a HiLo game playing out on the red LEDs on the front of the Altair. 
Karen's dad was also an engineer—he worked for National Semiconductor. He had an early Fairchild VES, which we played with all the time. It was more interesting than the Altair, but the Altair stuck in my mind. 
A few years ago, I decided I wanted an Altair. So I went on eBay and bought one. And now it's yours.

These wonderful anecdotes that donors carry around with them are almost always about the particularities of the social life surrounding their machine. Can we say the same thing about our contemporary laptops or e-readers? Will we one day be reminded of how we used our MacBook Pro to impress girls? Or used our Dell desktop to compete with our siblings? Or how our computers were stationed in the kitchen or the family room like a television set or a stereo—as a device around which we gather, share, and learn?

The community the Altair appealed to in 1975 and 1976 was the tinkerer, the hobbyist who might have started out building shortwave radios from a kit of transistors or vacuum tubes and now, for the first time, could build a powerful minicomputer from a kit. Not surprisingly, then, as I found in the early pages of the Altair manual, there was such a thing as an Altair User's Club, which had a newsletter and was used to share programs with other members of the Altair community.

An advertisement for a software contest appears
in the three-ring binder for the Altair 8800 manual.
Note how users are encouraged to write and submit
programs that can be easily distributed to others.

One of about fifty blank pages provided in the
Altair manual to encourage users to write, and
then, ideally, share, their own programs.

In fact, the significance of the Altair is almost always attributed to the fact that Bill Gates' and Paul Allen's first Microsoft product was Altair BASIC, which was such a hit with hobbyists whose culture was one of open sharing that Gates became one of the first to accuse the hobbyists of theft.

An image of Altair Basic on tape that was distributed among
hobbyists, and that provoked Bill Gates to accuse the hobbyists
of theft.

However, the Altair was perhaps more important for how it was a catalyst for the "personal computer revolution" that began in the late 1970s as the machine appealed to more than just hobbyists. MITS founder Ed Roberts (MITS is the company that manufactured Altairs) recalls: "there was a dentist in Chicago who was one of our very first customers. He wanted to use the Altair to control a massive model railroad. And that was a real eye opener to us that people were coming up with applications and ideas that we had never even imagined ... [Also] the guy who did some of the special effects for Star Wars, or I believe Star Wars, came out to MITS and bought some equipment. I can't remember his name. Lets see, we also sold stuff to the Secret Service, the FBI and the CIA. They were bought up by all kinds of people."

Charmingly and not particularly profit-motivated, MITS offered a "kit-a-month plan" that allowed consumers to purchase an Altair computer in monthly installments whereby they received components in exchange for their payments. "There are no financial charges because we have made each monthly shipment a kit in itself. This will give you time to read up on computers and/or gain knowledge from friends." The point of the Altair seemed to have been only marginally for profit—it was instead a means by which to draw people into the small but growing community of hobbyists.

Now, some details about the machine itself: the Altair 8800 was introduced as a kind of portable mainframe computer—more precisely, it was the first affordable minicomputer—in 1975 for as little as $395, and it has since been widely heralded as the catalyst for later personal computers. Produced in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a year later in 1976 as a kit for $840 and assembled for $1,100 (this would be roughly $3,488 and $4,568 in 2014), the Altair 8800b was remarkably affordable, considering that it came with a staggering 64K for addressable memory and an eighteen-slot motherboard.

Users interact with the Altair via a set of eight switches that correspond to eight different data lines that transfer data to the CPU; up is 1, down is 0. Given that it did not come with a keyboard or monitor (you could, however, buy these as peripherals for the 8800b, a slightly later model), the output is a set of eight red LED lights that correpond to the switches. What beautiful simplicity. The contrast with our contemporary, slick, closed devices couldn't be more stark as here, we finally have some basic experience of the fundamental operations of a computer. As Ed Roberts puts it, their goal was to create "a real, fully operational computer that was fully expandable and at least in principal could do anything that a general purpose minicomputer of the time could do."

The Altair may not be fast, but it certainly is a fascinating reminder of what computing once was, and perhaps even could be again.


Lori Emerson is author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, soon forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press. She is assistant professor of English, as well as the founder and director of the Media Archaeology Lab, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"This is the first book to bridge the fields of media archaeology and literary studies, specifically poetry and poetics. It offers new readings—and sometimes a first reading—of important texts, it performs historical spadework that adds to the existing narratives of how the personal computer has evolved, and it contributes to current critical conversations by making the category of interface central to its explorations of textual materiality."—Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

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