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“We have a BASIC” is a story from the It Happened in Albuquerque section of the STARTUP Gallery. Click on the map to explore any section of the gallery.
“We have a BASIC”

It was winter, 1974, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where winters can be cold. A bearded, long-haired college dropout named Paul Allen was trudging across Harvard Square, absorbed in his thoughts. His main preoccupation those days was how to get his friend Bill Gates to quit school and go into business with him.

The two had already gone through a number of business ventures together, beginning at Lakeside School in Seattle, where they were paid in free computer time to test a PDP-10 computer at a local timesharing company. The most recent plan had been to quit school and form a software company. Allen had left Washington State University, but at the last minute Gates decided to stick with Harvard.

That day crossing Harvard Square, Allen spotted the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, with the earth-stopping headline, “World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” Beneath the headline was a picture of a small box adorned with lights and switches. It was called the MITS Altair 8800, and Allen knew this was what he had been looking for.

Days of discussion followed. Allen and Gates understood the significance of the Altair. They had talked often about microprocessors and were waiting to see what would be done with them. Now there was a “minicomputer kit” on the cover of Popular Electronics. It apparently had no software—yet. They imagined a nation of programmers descending on MITS, and so they called Ed Roberts, the head of the company, claiming to have a version of the BASIC programming language almost ready for the Altair. They didn’t, and Roberts must have known they didn’t. He was getting ten calls a day from people who had a BASIC “almost ready,” and his stock response was, “The first person who shows up with a working BASIC gets the contract.”

Gates and Allen had never seen an Altair; they had never even seen the Intel 8080 microprocessor at the heart of the Altair. But a couple of years earlier Allen had written a program on a mainframe computer that emulated the operation of a previous Intel microprocessor, and this time around they would do the same thing.

With an Intel 8080 manual at his side, Allen sat down at a Harvard PDP-10 computer and wrote the emulator and software tools necessary to do the programming. Meanwhile Gates stopped going to classes and devoted himself to designing the BASIC, using every trick he knew to get the size down below four kilobytes.

Out in Albuquerque, Ed Roberts got a call from Gates asking for details about how the Altair handled specific routines. No one had ever asked that before, and Roberts began to get interested.

With the development tools and the design ready, Gates and Allen wrote the code on the PDP-10, enlisting another Harvard student, Monte Davidoff, to write math routines. After a final night of programming, Allen got on a plane to deliver their BASIC to MITS. He spent the plane ride out worrying, and back in Cambridge, Gates was worrying. They had tested their BASIC and it had worked—on the emulator. But what if the emulator was wrong?

As the plane approached Albuquerque Allen realized that their BASIC, now neatly contained on a small roll of punched paper tape, would be useless without a separate program called a loader that would tell the Altair how to read the paper tape being fed into the Teletype machine. He took out his notebook and quickly scribbled down a loader program in assembly language, then manually translated that into the ones and zeros the Altair would understand.

Allen was expecting a clean little high-tech company run by men in business suits, so he was surprised when Roberts met him at the airport looking like a ranch hand. Roberts was also surprised. When he dropped the “Harvard programmer” at an expensive hotel, Allen had to confess that he couldn’t afford the room.

MITS itself was located in a dusty strip mall. Inside, on a cluttered workbench, was an Altair loaded up with five kilobytes of memory and connected by a cable to a Teletype machine. Roberts and chief engineer Bill Yates waited expectantly as Allen toggled his loader program into the Altair. The Teletype began chugging as it pulled the paper tape through the tape reader. It took perhaps fifteen minutes to load the program, then the Teletype abruptly printed a memory prompt, then a ready prompt, and Allen began typing a few test commands. To everyone’s amazement, the software worked. There were bugs, of course, but the main thing was it worked.

Later, on their way to a three-dollar lunch at Poncho’s, a wasp flew in the window of the pick-up truck and stung Allen on the arm, but at that point nothing could spoil the mood. The Altair now had its BASIC, the first commercial software for a home computer, made by “Paul Allen and Bill Gates, doing business as Micro-Soft.”

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Related Artifacts & People

image of Altair 8800

Altair 8800

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image of Paul Allen (b. 1953)

Paul Allen (b. 1953)

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image of Bill Gates (b. 1955)

Bill Gates (b. 1955)

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Related Links

Altair Software
A listing of Altair software from The Virtual Altair Museum/

Popular Electronics
Scans of the January 1975 issue, cover and Altair article.

Solomon’s Memory
Les Solomon remembers the early days of personal computing.

Bill Gates Interview
Transcript of 1993 video oral history from the Smithsonian Institution.

The Accidental Zillionaire
Wired profile of Paul Allen.