The MITS Altair 8800 was built by Ed Roberts, who founded MITS in the early 1970s. Originally producing lights for electronic hobbyists, they were heavily in debt by 1974. Roberts had a new idea, a computer affordable for the average person, and managed to make a deal with Intel to buy their processors for $75 a piece. Intel saw no market in the microcomputer game, but sold the chips to Roberts anyway.
With chip in hand, Roberts and colleague Bob Yates set about designing a “microcomputer” around it. Naming it after an episode of Star Trek, it was called the Altair. Roberts arranged a story in Popular Electronics magazine about the project, and readers discovered the first personal computer on the cover in January 1975. Computer hobbyists flooded MITS with orders, and the flabbergasted company scrambled to satisfy the demand. And despite the fact you couldn’t really do anything with it, techies all over enjoyed having a real computer to tinker with at home.
The Altair came with no monitor, keyboard or disk drive and in fact had no way to input/output information. It’s significance is that it spawned the microcomputer revolution as others began writing software and creating hardware to work with it. Microsoft was formed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen after writing the operating software for the Altair, which was a form of BASIC.
In 1974, Railway Express Railroad Co. lost Roberts’ only prototype on a trip to New York for review and photos with Popular Electronics.