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1980s Computers Explanation of terms

The Altair 8800

MITS Altair 8800
Several different front panel designs were used, e.g.:
MITS Altair 8800b


Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems [MITS] (US)


Altair 8800
(The name 'Altair' was chosen because it was mentioned in an episode of Star Trek, 'Amok Time'. The planet Altair IV was also the setting for the 1956 film 'Forbidden Planet'.)

Date Launched

January 1975


$439 as a kit
$621 ready assembled
Does not seem to have been sold in the UK.

Microprocessor type

Intel 8080 @ 2 MHz
(A forerunner of the Z80)

ROM size

ROM was optional, typically 1 kilobyte.

Standard RAM

256 bytes minimum

Maximum RAM

64 kilobytes theoretically
This amount of RAM would have been prohibitively expensive in 1975.

Keyboard type

No keyboard
Had toggle switches on the front panel to enter instructions in binary.

Supplied language

Optional Microsoft BASIC (required a 4 kilobyte RAM expansion card).

Text resolution

No video display
Used a row of LEDs on the front panel for output.

Graphics resolution

Not applicable

Colours available

Not applicable



Cassette load speed

Not known
Could use cassette tape, paper tape or disc drives for storage, all as optional extras.

Dimensions (mm)
Weight (grams)

420 x 430 x 172
Not known

Special features

Had sixteen internal expansion slots for such things as serial and parallel interfaces, disc drive controllers, teletype adaptor...

Good points

Was sold as a complete kit containing all the necessary parts.

Bad points

By modern standards would be considered unusable without a keyboard or display.

How successful?

About 5000 were sold.


MITS had previously sold kits for desktop and handheld electronic calculators but this market had largely disappeared and the company was in financial difficulties until the Altair was launched.

The MITS Altair was the first 'Personal Computer' to sell in significant numbers.
It appeared at a time when the only other way to gain access to computers was via time-sharing systems on company and university mainframes.
BASIC for the Altair was written by Bill Gates and Paul Allen (plus Monte Davidoff), before they formed Microsoft.

Peripherals (like a keyboard interface) which had been promised by MITS were slow to appear and it wasn't long before more capable personal computers became available. A lower-cost version of the Altair, the 680, which used a Motorola 6800 microprocessor, was launched in late 1975 but did not sell well and MITS closed in 1977.

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