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The Magazine That Changed the World

Making the cover of Popular Electronics was the big time for electronics hobbyists in 1975. The magazine was like Rolling Stone for the tinkering set. It guaranteed exposure of your kit or construction plans, and if the world was fair, sales would follow.

The world had been very fair a few years earlier when a Popular Electronics cover article on the MITS 816 calculator kit turned Ed Roberts’s company from a hobbyist enterprise into a full-scale business. After a good couple of years, however, the MITS calculator business foundered, and in the summer of 1974 Roberts tried again.

His timing was fortuitous. A rival magazine had just published an article by Jonathan Titus on building the Mark-8, a computer based on the Intel 8008 chip, and Popular Electronics began looking for a computer article to top it. Roberts’s project that summer happened to be a kit computer based on the more advanced Intel 8080 microprocessor, and Popular Electronics grabbed it for the cover article of the January 1975 issue.

In the fall of 1974 Roberts shipped the prototype of his computer to New York to be photographed and flew there himself to demonstrate it to the magazine’s editors. The computer never showed up, and Roberts had to convince the skeptical staff that it was real. The schematics he had brought along may have convinced them—but the schematics raised another problem: the kit computer was much more complex than anything the magazine had ever published. The technical editor, Les Solomon, worried that they may be “casting pearls before swine” with such a sophisticated project, but the editorial director, Art Salsberg, wanted to go forward.

Having worked with Roberts before, they trusted him and decided to go forward. Roberts had MITS engineer Bill Yates make a quick mock-up of the computer, which is what appeared on the magazine’s cover, an empty box with lights and switches.

The name “Altair” was given to it by the magazine. The popular story goes that Les Solomon’s daughter was watching Star Trek the evening Solomon asked her if she had any suggestions for a name. She liked “Altair,” the name of the star the Enterprise was visiting that night. A less romantic, though more reliable, version is that the name was chosen in a meeting of editors of the magazine.

After the MITS Altair 8800 appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics, thousands of orders poured in, straining the small company’s production facilities to the breaking point. The success was ultimately too much for Roberts. After two hectic years he sold the company and moved to Georgia, where he became a doctor.

Although it was a big success for the magazine, the Altair issue signaled a turning point in the field of consumer electronics that would soon render the traditional do-it-yourself projects obsolete. Computers quickly became more sophisticated, and everything from watches to radios became computerized. By 1980 circuit boards had advanced beyond the abilities of human hands and soldering irons, and computer enthusiasts no longer looked for the latest issue of Popular Electronics but for new magazines such as Creative Computing, BYTE, Personal Computing, and Dr. Dobb’s Journal. In five years the computer had gone from hobby project to commodity.

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Related Links

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