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MITS Life
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MITS was not an Apple. It was not a Compaq, nor was it a Dell. MITS was never a darling of Wall Street. It arrived at the revolution early and had to set up the tables and put out the chips. For a while, though, it was their party.

Those who worked at MITS between 1975 and 1977 remember the excitement, the sense of doing something new and different. The workforce was mostly young. They knew each other, socialized, worked frenetically to keep ahead of a rising stack of orders, and were energized by the frenzy. Weekly, even daily, they were surprised at the growing interest in home computers. They created a newsletter to keep eager hobbyists abreast of the latest MITS happenings. They sent out an RV called the MITS Mobile to spread the word about the amazing Altair. Computer stores were set up across the country to sell Altairs exclusively. These were firsts; the personal computer revolution had no history before MITS started making it.

The rumbling force behind all this was Ed Roberts, head of MITS, creator of the Altair. At 33 he was the old man, the father figure. Women remember his kindness; men his gruffness and his size. Six foot four and well over 200 pounds, with strong opinions and a serious work ethic, Roberts could be intimidating. He was of a different generation, a man who had spent the ’60s in the Air Force and emerged with the idea that a commanding officer doesn’t fraternize with the enlisted men. Those close to him remember his sense of humor, but not at work. There, it wasn’t unusual for people to refer to him as “sir.” Not that he demanded it, it just came out that way.

In early 1976 MITS hosted the World Altair Computer Convention at a local hotel. It was another first for the company: first personal computer convention. WACC was intended to be all Altair, but good ideas have a tendency to attract other good ideas. A competitor, Processor Technology, crashed the event, renting a room to demonstrate their own products. Somebody from MITS ran around tearing up Processor Technology’s signs, but there was no way to stop what was happening: first competition.

After that the field broke wide open. Soon the Altair was simply one computer among many. Others improved on the design or undercut the price. At MITS, Roberts preferred to work on new ideas rather than think about business matters—or deal with old problems. He liked to say he painted in broad strokes and left the details to others, but the others couldn’t keep up with him, and products went out poorly designed and full of bugs. Even in their catalogs you would see memory boards that looked like prototypes, with wire jumpers strung from one part of the board to another.

MITS was a small company, set up to serve electronics hobbyists and a few professionals looking for a cheap alternative to minicomputers. The kind of company where your call to customer support might be fielded by the head of software development. Within two years, however, they were competing with large corporations such as Commodore and Radio Shack, as well as Apple. The competition had changed in a fundamental way. It’s not clear whether Roberts realized this or was simply tired, but he sold the company.

The new managers were everything Roberts was not: slick, professional, and uncaring. MITS ceased to be a family the day Roberts packed up his office and left. Within a few years it ceased entirely.

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Related Links

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

The Virtual Altair Museum
An extensive look at the Altair.

1975: Ancient History
Article by Robert Marsh in Creative Computing, from 1984.

The Altair story; early days at MITS
Article by Forrest M. Mims III, in Creative Computing, 1984.

Ed Roberts Interview
1996 interview with Historically Brewed magazine.