Hardware

Geek Trivia: Personal success

What was the original primary function of the Intel 8080 microprocessor?


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Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is busy standing watch over the TechRepublic birthday prize closet this week, so we've pulled this Classic Geek, which originally ran April 21, 2004, from our archives to tide you over until next week. Look for a fresh batch of Geek Trivia on May 11, 2005.


There are several viable candidates for the title of "world's first personal computer," and—as usual—it all comes down to how you define the term. The Kenbak-1 has a pretty fair claim to the throne, appearing on the market in 1971 as a $750 piece of mail-order equipment available through Scientific American magazine.

Of course, even early personal computer hobbyists may not have heard of a Kenbak-1, let alone actually have seen one in action. The manufacturer sold a whopping 40 units between the Kenbak-1's debut and the company's shutdown in 1973, relegating the device to a footnote in computing history. The fact that the Kenbak-1 was expensive and had an input-output system comprised of only switches and blinking lights goes a long way toward explaining its market failure.

Another contender for this title is the Micral, the first fully assembled personal computer based on a microprocessor, the Intel 8008. (Kit computers predated the Micral.) Appearing first in 1973 and priced at $1,750, the Micral never took off in the United States and remained largely unsuccessful overall.

Another 8008-based personal computer did manage to surface in the United States in 1974—the Scelbi 8H. Available both as a kit and as a fully assembled product, the Scelbi 8H and later 8B were so competitively priced that these PCs were totally unprofitable, dooming the company from the start.

Perhaps a better title to award is the world's first commercially successful personal computer. The winner is almost certainly the MITS Altair 8800, which first appeared in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.

Based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor (the successor to the Intel 8008), the Altair sold as a kit for roughly $400, and it ran a licensed version of Bill Gates' and Paul Allen's BASIC programming language. The key to profitability, however, was a discount on the PC's Intel 8080s, which MITS managed to obtain by purchasing bulk quantities of cosmetically flawed but fully functional processors.

Of course, it's ironic that cosmetic damage would create a markdown for the 8080s, considering that Intel didn't intend them for use in personal computer kits. In fact, these processors were most widely employed in definitely nonconsumer devices.

WHAT WAS THE ORIGINAL PRIMARY FUNCTION OF THE INTEL 8080 MICROPROCESSOR?

What was the original primary function of the Intel 8080 microprocessor, which wound up becoming the heart of the first commercially successful personal computer, the MITS Altair 8800?

By design, the Intel 8080 was a multipurpose microprocessor, but it first found widespread adoption in control systems for traffic lights. Given that this is hardly a consumer-centric function, it's rather ironic that the Altair's manufacturer, MITS, was able to obtain heavily discounted microprocessors by purchasing bulk quantities of cosmetically damaged 8080s.

Normally retailing for about $300 apiece, MITS founder Ed Roberts was able to purchase the chips for roughly $75 each, thanks to these blemishes. That placed the company's point of profitability for the $400 computer kits at 200 units sold.

Roberts banked that Altair's now famous appearance on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine would help MITS reach its sales goal. The accompanying headline, "World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models," sealed the Altair's successful fate.

Estimates vary, but the Altair 8800 sold well over 200 units—possibly thousands. Almost overnight, MITS catapulted into the limelight as a leading electronics developer. MITS briefly employed Paul Allen and Bill Gates, their BASIC license in tow, to help with software development.

In a striking omen of things to come, MITS tried bundling the BASIC software with its Altair memory boards as a method of driving sales. The gambit failed, as many Altair kit builders simply used a generic memory board rather than the BASIC-bundled version and then tracked down a pirated copy of BASIC separately. Some PC traditions, it seems, were born early.

MITS was ultimately unable to capitalize on its early success, and it sold out to Pertec in 1977, which subsequently ceased production of Altair computers in 1978. The product that launched the commercial personal computer revolution died less than four years after its introduction, but the name Altair—ostensibly chosen from a Star Trek episode—will live forever in the annals of computer history and Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

Today is TechRepublic's sixth birthday, so we'll have no quibbles this week. Instead, we're throwing a little party during the month of May to celebrate.

I'd invite you all, but I've got a quibble of my own with the readers of Geek Trivia. Many of you have never filled out your TechRepublic profile! Here's mine, stoked to the gills with data about my interests and technological proclivities.

Now, let's check yours. Looking a little empty by comparison, eh? Well, I'm tired of dispensing trivia to the anonymous masses—I want to know who I'm quibbling with!

Still, I'm willing to overlook this obfuscation, provided you correct the situation. In fact, I'll even make it worth your while. Any member who completes or updates a TechRepublic profile during the month of May is eligible to win one of six free iPod minis. Many other lucky profilers will receive a coveted TechRepublic Smug Mug.

Want more details? Head to this page. Quibble with that, invisible Trivia-philes!

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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