Mass Market Microcomputer with Display

The Apple II is the first real mass-market microcomputer. It did anything it was programmed to do, and people programmed it to do all sorts of things. Spreadsheets, invented on the Apple II, drove enormous sales to the business market. The computer also featured several word processors and a sizable game library.

Jobs & Woz

Lifelong friends Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak liked to hang out together a the Homebrew Computer Club, a California club for do-it-yourself computer enthusiasts. Among other things, the group liked to hack the telephone system to make free long-distance phone calls.

With the release of the MITS Altair computer in January 1975, they realized the potential for a personal microcomputer. The Altair was a terrible machine: the only output was a series of LED lights. However, it sold well; people wanted their own personal computers.

Jobs convinced Wozniak they could build and sell their own personal computer. Wozniak preferred the idea of helping people at the club build computers as a sort of community service. No, Jobs said, this should be a business.

Wozniak worked at Hewitt Packard at the time and needed a release to make a computer. A personal computer, they laughed. Go build your toy. They set up shop in Jobs’ parents garage.

Their first computer, the Apple I, sold a few units. The second computer, the Apple II, was a smash-success that jump-started the personal computer market.

Hippies Storm the Valley

Besides making computers affordable, Apple also introduced a new type of personality into the computer business field. Jobs was an unrepentant hippie. He’d worked at Atari but had no interest in traditional computer science. A college dropout who toured India he didn’t look or act like most of the buttoned-down engineers. Unix developers Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson didn’t look the part of engineers but, with their Ivy-League degrees, they had the right background. Jobs was something entirely different.

For years, there was tension in Silicon Valley between Jobs-style software people and traditional engineers. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore was especially annoyed with the impression that anybody could show up and start a computer company. Stories about amateurs successfully hacking operating systems annoyed the Ph.D. engineers. That especially stung because a Ph.D. engineer was the programmer of the first operating system CP/M. Still, there is no denying the creative an artistic flair Jobs and his type brought to the market changed it forever in a positive direction.


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.