Maybe it’s just that I’m paying more attention these days, but it seems to me that the interest in retro-computers is building and — as a result — more people are building retro-computers. Do you remember my column, Speaking in [Archaic] Tongues (BASIC)? At that time, I was toying with the idea of purchasing a newly minted Commodore 64 clone called THEC64. Well, as I discussed in A Retro-Computing Christmas, which also introduced a ZX Spectrum clone called the ZX Spectrum Next, I did take the plunge and ordered THEC64, which now proudly presents itself on my kitchen table at home. My chum Vince Mazur is the founder of Mazur Instruments, which designs, develops, and manufactures handheld survey meters used by consumers, professionals, and organizations across the globe to detect, measure, and monitor nuclear radiation. In fact, I have one of Vince’s PRM-9000 Radiation Monitors quietly clicking away in the background here in my office (if it ever starts chattering furiously, I’ll know there’s a good chance things have gone pear-shaped at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which is about 30 miles from my office). The reason I mention Vince here is that he is the proud owner of an original Altair 8800 computer, just the thought of which causes me to drool in a very unprofessional manner. As I’m sure you know, the Altair is widely recognized as being the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution as the first commercially successful personal computer. It also played a key part in the history of Microsoft, which was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen after they created the BASIC interpreter for the Altair. The brainchild of Ed Roberts, the original Altair 8800 DIY kit was advertised in Popular Electronics magazine in January 1975 for the then unheard-of price of $439. Since it was based on the 8-bit Intel 8080 microprocessor, I have no idea where the 8800 portion of the Altair’s moniker came from, but I do know the origin of the “Altair” name itself. When Roberts first contacted the folks at Popular Electronics and persuaded them to do a cover story on his machine, they not surprisingly asked him what they should call the little scamp. This somewhat stumped him, so he asked his daughter for her advice as to a name that sounded sufficiently “high-tech.” She suggested “Altair,” which was the name of a star system in one of the Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) episodes, and thus was a legend born. For the more pedantic amongst us, this was Star Trek Episode #34 entitled Amok Time, which first aired on the 15 September 1967. The writer of this episode was Theodore Sturgeon; the director was Joseph Pevney; and the guest stars were Arlene Martel as T’Pring, Celia Lovsky as T’Pau, Lawrence Montaigne as Stonn, and Byron Morrow as Komack.
The Cambridge-1 4-bit-breadboard CPU (Image source: Richard Grafton)
And, before you start emailing me, I am aware that Altair was also the scene of the action in the classic Sci-Fi film Forbidden Planet (1956), which has been described as “Shakespeare and Freud collide under the green skies of Altair IV.” As I wrote in Meet the 4-Bit Cambridge-1 CPU, my friend Richard Grafton in the UK has built a very tasty 4-bit computer on breadboards. Also, as I wrote in my Cool Beans column in the January 2020 issue of Practical Electronics, the UK’s premier hobby electronics, computing, and maker magazine, my chum Nick Bild created a jolly interesting 6502-based breadboard computer with an associated virtual reality (VR) system.
A 6502-based breadboard computer (left) and associated VR system (right) (Image source: Nick Bild)
All of the meandering musings above were sparked by an email from my friend Jay Dowling, who just pointed me at an eye-catching column on TomsHardware.com: DIY Kit Lets You Build Your Own Apple I, No Soldering Required. This article introduces us to a forthcoming breadboard-based computer called the SmartyKit, which is an Apple 1-compatible construction kit that includes the same 8-bit 6502 processor used in the original Apple I, along with a ROM chip that holds a copy of the Apple 1’s original monitor operating system, which was created by Steve Wozniak. As an aside, if you haven’t already done so, I totally recommend that you read the biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak. Perusing and pondering all four of these allows you to see how their life stories interacted and how the technologies they created were conceived and evolved. Also, while you’re at it, I also strongly recommend Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company, but we digress…
Steve Wozniak and yours truly (I’m the one in the Hawaiian shirt) (Image source: Max Maxfield)
The Apple 1 was an incredible creation for its time, and the story of its conception and construction is absolutely riveting. I hadn’t realized just how much was involved until I read I Woz by The Woz (a.k.a. The Wonderful Wizard of Woz). I once met The Woz, or he once met me (it’s hard to remember the nitty-gritty details). I do know that I stuck to my rule of not handing out autographed photographs (he covered his disappointment well and forced a brave smile). I need another hobby project like I need a hole in the head, but I must admit that I’m tempted to invest in a SmartyKit, which is the closest I’ll ever get to owning a real Apple 1 (one sold for almost $500,000 at an auction in 2019). How about you? Could you be tempted to splash the cash for one of these little beauties?