Altair 8800 Featured in Popular Electronics

November 29, 1974

The January Issue of Popular Electronics is published, featuring the MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer kit on its cover. The magazine would begin arriving on newsstands and to subscribers in the first part of December. The Altair 8800 itself would begin shipping on December 19th. The visibility that the Altair received helped make it an extremely popular computer for its time, as MITS forecasted selling 800 computers over the course of one year and ended up selling 5,000 units by August. As the magazine started reaching readers, MITS was flooded with inquires and orders for the Altair to the point where they had to hire more people just to answer their phones. The success of the Altair helped popularize the concept of the microcomputer, which then inspired early technology innovators such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who created the Apple I personal computer, as well as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen who wrote software for the Altair and other early micro and personal computers.

The story behind the collaboration of MITS and Popular Electronics for this particular issue is interesting. The recently hired editor of the magazine wanted more computer projects to be featured yet knew that existing microcomputer projects of the time were somewhat daunting for hobbyists to complete. They were looking for something that was a complete kit in a professional-looking enclosure. Another editor knew that MITS was working on a project that could fit their need and collaborated with them to have the kit ready for the January issue publication. While the first prototype was ready in October and was shipped to Popular Electronics, it never reached them due to either a strike by the shipping company or simply being lost or stolen (the story varies depending on the source). The article was actually written using pictures of an empty mock-up of the Altair and a prototype circuit board layout that was different than the finished product. Additionally, MITS left the naming of the microcomputer kit to the magazine. One of the editors claims that the inspiration for the name came from this 12-year old daughter who suggested calling it Altair after the location where the Star Trek Enterprise would be traveling in that night’s episode. However, other sources claim it was a technical editor of the magazine who came up with Altair when it was suggested the computer be named after a star. Whatever the truth is, the Altair 8800 was one of the most important computers in technology history and we all owe a great deal to this particular magazine issue for publicizing it.