The first microcomputer, the Altair 8800, was like a French bulldog. That is, it was ugly, expensive, and not all that bright, but people loved it. The Altair didn’t even have a display, just LED’s that lit up. Most significantly, it served as the inspiration for a small number of future computer entrepreneurs.
The cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics featured the Altair 8800, the “World’s First Microcomputer,” created by Ed Roberts and his company, MITS. Roberts, an engineer, founded MITS to sell rockets. As the space race fizzled, so too did interest in rocketry and he pivoted to a hot commodity, calculators. Eventually, a price war broke out in calculators so he used the general-purpose Intel 8080 chip, that powered many calculators, to create a first general-purpose home computer.
College students Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC programming language for the popular machine. Gates hacked it out on paper tape. On their way to visit Roberts, they need a company name. Microcomputer Software? Too long. Microsoft. Roberts was happy to sell the program, though he may have been happy to sell anything that ran on his clunky invention.
Lifelong California friends Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hung out at the Homebrew Computer Club, for do-it-yourself computer enthusiasts. Jobs worked at Atari and Wozniak at HP. Everybody there noticed the MITS. The two friends were eventually inspired to build their own computer company, Apple.
Roberts eventually sold MITS for $6 million and used the funds to buy a farm then attend medical school. The man called “the father of the personal computer” never again took an interest in computers.