[This is the introduction to the 1978 book Personal Computing
by David Bunnell.]
The scene is the beautiful but dusty little city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A small electronics company, unnoticed by most people except for the handful of creditors who haven't receive a check for several months, is quietly working on a project that will have an impact on society literally as revolutionary as the printing press or the steam engine or the automobile. It is the fall of 1974, and unless the project is completed soon, the little company will simply disappear and no one will hear about its dream. The company president, Ed Roberts, has mortgaged his house and stands to lose everything. He's been working day and night, drinking too much coffee and smoking too many cigarettes. His smoker's hack is so bad that he frequently has to cover the mouthpiece on his telephone when receiving calls.
The little company, which only a few months earlier consisted of 85 employees including engineers, production workers, technicians, technical writers, bookkeepers, etc., is now down to fewer than 20 people, most of whom are working for reduced salaries and looking around for something else in cast this project, a kit computer, known internally as "Robert's folly," doesn't get out the door before the bank closes the door permanently.
Roberts schedules a plane trip to New York where he will meet with the editors of Popular Electronics magazine to try to convince them to put the computer on the cover of their January 1975 issue. A prototype of the computer, which as yet does not even have a name, is shipped ahead of time via air freight. It should be there when Roberts arrives.
Roberts arrives in New York and, as Murphy's Law would dictate, the computer has been lost by the air freight company. He nervously places a call to his chief engineer and longtime friend, Bill Yates, who frantically begins building a second prototype. Armed with schematic diagrams, desperation, and a lot of guts, Roberts heads for the offices of Popular Electronics where he will try to show the editors what his computer could do if they only had one.
Fortunately for Roberts and for the revolution, one of the editors, Les Solomon, takes a personal interest in the computer, even going so far as to come up with a name for it, Altair. Solomon has worked with Roberts in the past on calculator projects, and he knows that Ed is a man of his word even if he is working with limited resources. He actually believes that a prototype exists and that Roberts will have another one delivered to Popular Electronics in a couple of weeks if the lost version is not recovered. Even more incredible is the fact that Solomon believes the computer will really work.
In January 1975 the revolution begins. The Altair, which sells as a kit for under $400 and has the same computing capabilities of $20,000- to $50,000-computers, is featured on the cover of Popular Electronics. Expecting to sell 400 computers the first year (enough to pay off the bank debt), the little company is overwhelmed by more than 1500 orders, cash in advance, by the end of February. Roberts, who knows no limits to his entrepreneurial ambitions, takes out a full-page ad in Scientific American and begins talking about the demise of IBM.
The little company starts down the harried road to becoming a bigger company, runs into a huge roadblock called cash flow, and sells out to a big computer company in California, but not before Business Week refers to it as the "IBM of the microcomputer industry." And not before it has developed a whole new market for computers.
At first, there were the computer hobbyists (sometimes referred to as computer freaks). They were experimenters who liked building computers from kits, testing them with their own oscilloscopes, carefully examining each and every part, in many cases developing better computer equipment of their own, and inventing new and marvelous ways to use this amazing tool. Then there were forward-looking people who wanted to use computers in their business and professional lives. There were pharmacists who found they could use computers to speed the time required to fill prescriptions by letting the computer handle the bookwork and print the labels. Small retailers found they could keep both better track of their inventories and more accurate, up-to-date books. Teachers discovered that they could use the computer as an instruction aid and as a method of cutting down the time needed for grading papers and keeping records. People started using computers in their homes, first as a source of entertainment, with complicated computer games, then as recipe files, and as record-keeping, check balancing, and budgeting aids. They began to hook up their computers to other devices, such as their lighting and heating systems, their stereos and alarm clocks. They began to communicate with other home computer users through telehpone hookups and with large computer information libraries. And this was only the beginning.
The little company that started it all was named MITS, and I was one of its 20 employees, in charge of technical writing and advertising. I've grown with this revolution and tried to help it along wherever I could. It has been my role to attempt to explain to outsiders what the hell is going on.
At the time of this writing there were about 100,000 individuals using computers in the United States. In the short time since the idea caught on, over 1000 computer retail stores have sprung up across the country. Personal computing shows held in most major cities have drawn over 250,000 stupified attendants. And personal computers are being produced by 50 different companies, including Radio Shack, Heath, Montgomery Ward, APF, and Commodore.
The reason for the fantastic growth of this industry in just three years is simple: The personal computer represents increased personal power. It gives us the ability to fight back, to cope with the complications of our increasing bureaucratic, paper-ridden society. It is an equalizer in the new world of technology.
For as little as $400 you can buy a computer today and put it to use realizing your own intellectual, aesthetic, and economic potentials. "Power to the people" is perhaps a more fitting slogan when applied to today's personal computer than it was when it was applied to the social movements of the 1960s. Think how potent a weapon the computer can be for the middle-class citizen fed up with soaring taxes, dishonest politicians, inadequate schools, government interference, utility companies, oil companies, mass congestion, and runaway inflation.
After reading this book you will, hopefully, understand computers and how to get started with them; and I hope you will see the vision. The full impact of the personal computer will become more apparent as the technology becomes more refined and as more people discover it. Still, momentous breakthroughs have been achieved, and like it or not, the age of the personal computer is upon us.
 Solomon received this suggestion from his 16-year-old daughter who had been watching "Star Trek." The Enterprise was going to visit a planet in the Altair system. Altair is one of the brighter stars in the heavens as seen from Earth.
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Last updated March 5, 2005