MITS History

MITS stood for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems.
MITS was based in a shopping precinct in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA and was run by Ed Roberts. The business had been founded in 1968 to make electronics for model rockets (1968 was of course early in the Apollo moon landing program) and at the beginning of the 1970s diversified into desktop and handheld calculators, including scientific and programmable models. They were available ready-built or as a kit, with a significant cost saving.

MITS 7440The MITS 7440 desktop calculator of 1974. It featured a 10 + 2 digit LED display, trig functions, logarithms, square roots and brackets. Price was $199.95 as a kit or $299.95 assembled.

However in 1974 the price of calculators plummeted as many companies entered the market, and the business needed a new source of income. Roberts decided that the recently-launched Intel 8080 microprocessor had the potential to form the basis of a home computer kit, and he was able to negotiate the price of the 8080 down to $75.

At the same time an American Magazine called Popular Electronics was looking for a (reasonably) low cost computer for its readers to make. Roberts met with the editor of Popular Electronics, Les Solomon, who promised Roberts that if he could produce a kit for under $500 it would be featured in the magazine.

By this time MITS was $300,000 in debt and desperate for income. Their engineering department (two people) drew plans for a microcomputer based around the Intel 8080 and it was named the Altair. One was hastily built and sent to the offices of Popular Electronics for evaluation but disastrously it was lost in transit.

With no time to build another Altair before the magazine went to the printers, MITS just put some flashing lights on an empty case and sent that to Popular Electronics. This was what appeared on the cover in January 1975. Luckily the readers were eager to buy an Altair and within weeks orders had been received for several thousand machines.

The unexpected popularity of the Altair allowed MITS to pay off its debts and make a substantial profit. Two young programmers named Paul Allen and Bill Gates moved to Albuquerque to write software for the Altair, before forming their own company, Micro Soft.

The problem though was that the Altair on its own could do little more than blink the lights on its front panel. To do anything useful required peripherals such as keyboards and tape drives, but MITS was too busy trying to fulfil orders for the basic computer to develop these peripherals quickly enough. By 1976 other companies began to produce computers which came with keyboards and visual displays, and sales of the Altair dropped off. In 1977 MITS closed for good. Ed Roberts later became a doctor.

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