Scientific Research, Books, Articles, Columns, Lectures and Photographs
About Forrest M. Mims III
By writer, editor and publisher Harry L. Helms*
Forrest Mims is the most widely read electronics author in the world. His sixty books have sold over 7.5 million copies and have twice been honored for excellence by the Computer Press Association. His "Engineer’s Notebook" series of books for RadioShack are entirely hand-lettered and hand-illustrated to re-create the look of Forrest’s own laboratory notebooks.
His work has appeared in some 70 magazines and science journals, including Nature, Scientific American, Science, Popular Photography, NewScientist, Sky & Telescope, Popular Mechanics, Physics Today, Electronics, PCMagazine, and IEEE Spectrum.
Forrest’s consulting clients have included the National Geographic Society, the National Science Teachers Association, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Forrest also teaches experimental Earth science once or twice a year at the University of the Nations at their campuses in Kona, Hawaii, and Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1993, he was named a Laureate in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise competition for his efforts in establishing a global ozone measuring network that used instruments of his own design.
In 1975, Forrest wrote The Altair 8800 Operator’s Manual, the manual for the world’s first personal computer. While he was writing the Altair manual, a couple of young programmers named Bill Gates and Paul Allen were creating a version of BASIC for the Altair. (That was the start of a company called Microsoft.) Thus, Forrest holds the honor of having written the very first book about personal computers.
Today, Forrest simultaneously carries out a variety of scientific and technical projects. He recently worked with the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin to compare measurements of atmospheric water vapor made from satellites and the surface. From 2000-2006 he was a co-principal investigator for GLOBE, a network of 8000 schools in 83 countries that involves students in scientific research projects.
I have known Forrest since July, 1979, and he has been one of my closest, and most wise, friends since then.
I first met Forrest when I was a technical writer and editor in Radio Shack's technical publications group at their Fort Worth, Texas headquarters. Forrest was bringing in the "manuscript" for his book Engineer's Notebook. The manuscript was actually a set of mylar transparencies on which Forrest had carefully hand-drawn each figure and word, much like an actual engineering notebook. Forrest and I spent a hot July afternoon spraying clear lacquer on each transparency to protect the lettering, and in that three hours or so a lasting friendship was forged. And Engineer's Notebook went on to sell over 750,000 copies, each a tribute to Forrest special genius when it comes to explaining electronics technology clearly and simply.
Since then I have served as Forrest's editor at various publishers, including HighText/LLH, and have shared all manner of experiences and ideas with Forrest. Forrest's mind is encyclopedic and far-ranging; he is a disciplined, focused thinker whose work has appeared in such publicatons as Nature and Scientific American in addition to his books. It is a shame that many of Forrest's readers are unaware of his sharp sense of humor!
During my cancer, he has always been there for me with supportive words and a sympathetic ear.
Forrest is a loyal and true friend, and I am grateful for his friendship over the years!
*Harry Helms was a close friend and advisor since we first met in 1979, when he was hired by David Gunzel to become a writer and technical editor at Radio Shack. Harry, who wrote many books and articles about electronics and amateur radio, left Radio Shack to become an editor at McGraw-Hill. He later worked at Prentice-Hall and Academic Press before partnering with Jack and Carol Lewis to start LLH Technology Publishing (formerly HighText Publications), which was acquired by Elsevier in 2001. Harry looked much like Steve Martin but was much funnier; he could have easily become a stand up comic. Harry was a wonderful photographer and enjoyed exploring ghost towns out West and hiking in the mountains. Harry strongly defended me from critics who attacked my Christian faith, a story I will include in a future memoir. Harry died from cancer on 15 November 2009.
Forrest Mims on Mauna Loa by Yuji Kanazawa of Japan Documentary.
Featured in "Space Ship Earth," Asahi TV, Japan, May 2003. Click for preview.
Rolex Award and TOPS ozone instrument
Harry Helms (right) and me during a March 2009 visit at Harry's home in Corpus Christi, Texas. Photo by Minnie Mims.
Forrest Mims' workbench (1969 to 1976, Albuquerque, New Mexico) where projects were developed that led to founding of MITS, Inc. by Ed Roberts, Forrest Mims, Stan Cagle and Bob Zaller. Rocket (1969) carried the light flasher (on bench) on one of some 17 flights. The light flasher became MITS's first product in 1970. Photo by Mark Langford (2005).
MITS founders Ed Roberts (seated) and (left to right) Forrest Mims and Bob Zaller and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at the opening of the STARTUP Gallery at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (16 Nov 2006). In January 2011 the STARTUP Gallery was dedicated to the memory of Ed Roberts, who died in April 2010. Photograph by Minnie Chavez Mims.
Co-founded MITS, Inc. in 1969. The workbench in the photo above is where the circuits that led to the first MITS products were developed (including model rocket light flasher and telemetry transmitter and the Popular Electronics Opticom infrared communicator and infrared laser system). A larger photo is at www.sunandsky.org.
The Altair story: Early days at MITS. The Altair 8800 was designed by H. Edward Roberts and introduced by MITS in 1975. Please see article below.
MAKE Magazine, "Country Scientist" column (2009 to present)
Your comments, suggestions and error notices are welcome. My e-mail address (corrected) is forrest.mims[at]ieee[dot]org Important: Use a non-spam subject line so that your e-mail will not be automatically deleted. While time does not always permit a reply, your e-mail will be appreciated and will be read. If you require information or a photo for your web site or for publication, I will try to answer your request.
Bachelor of Arts, Texas A&M University (major in government with minors in English and history).
United States Air Force air intelligence officer (Vietnam) and development engineer (Laser Division, Phillips Laboratory).
Appointed by Guadalupe County, Texas, Commissioner's Court as Air Quality Advisor and to represent the court on the AIR Technical Advisory and the AIR Advisory Committees of theAlamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) (2002 to present). Contracted by NOAA to write the definitive history of Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory (2006-2010). Site Manager for USDA UV-B monitoring site (TX21, TX22, TX31) from March 2004 to present. Assigned by NASA to speak on "Doing Earth Science on a Shoe String Budget at Goddard Space Flight Laboratory and to monitor environmental parameters during the burning season in Brazil (1995 and 1997) and a seven forest fires in Western States (1996). Developed sun photometer for and became a co-principal investigator at the GLOBE program (1998-2002). NSF sponsored instrument calibrations. Represented US Environmental Protection Agency and gave invited paper at the Second Pan Pacific Cooperative Symposium on Impact of Increased UV-B Exposure on Human Health and Ecosystem, Kitakyushu, Japan, October 1993. Provided NASA and NOAA with detailed information about problems involving ozone, aerosol optical depth and total water vapor retrievals from various satellite instruments (Nimbus-7 TOMS, Meteor TOMS, Aura OMI, GOES AVHRR and Terra MODIS). Served as NSF peer reviewer. Assist with tours and minor maintenence while staying at the Mauna Loa Observatory each year to calibrate instruments.
2012: Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) Choice 2012-History award for the best book of the year in the fields of meteorology / climatology / atmospheric sciences (for ”Hawai'i's Mauna Loa Observatory," University of Hawaii Press, 2012)
2008: Discover Magazine "50 Best Brains in Science"
2005: Benjamin Franklin Citizen Scientist Award 1993: Rolex Award for Enterprise, Laureate (for a Global Network to Measure Ozone) 1993: Design 93 Engineering Achievement Award, Second Place (for a Miniature Instrument That Measures the Ozone Layer) 1987: Rolex Award for Enterprise, Honorable Mention (for Eyeglass-Mounted Electronic Travel Aid for the Blind) 1986: Best General Nonfiction Book, Computer Press Association, runner-up (for "Forrest Mims’ Computer Projects,"Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 1985) 1985: Best General Nonfiction Book, Computer Press Association, runner-up (for "Siliconnections," McGraw-Hill, 1985) 1972: Industrial Research 100 (IR 100) Award for Developnment of One of the 100 Most Significant New Technical Products of the Year (for Hand-Held Infrared Travel Aid for the Blind)
WRITING AND EDITORIAL ASSIGNMENTS
Jul 1970-present: Independent scientist, consultant and free-lance writer and photographer
Oct 1998-present: Science columnist for Seguin Gazette
Dec 2003-Jul 2010: Editor and columnist for Society for Amateur Scientists The Citizen Scientist
Dec 2008-present: "Country Scientist" Columnist for Make Magazine Nov 2006-present: Science columnist for San Antonio Express-News
1998: Contributor to Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 1998, World Meteorological Organization Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project - Report No. 44 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration,World Meterological Organization, European Commission and United Nations Environment Programme).
Oct 1998-present: Science columnist for Seguin Gazette-Enterprise
Nov 1994-1997: Contributing science writer for World magazine
Nov 1990-Jan 1993: Editor and columnist for Science Probe!
Apr 1991-Mar 1992: Columnist for Computercraft
Oct 1984-Mar 1991: Columnist for Modern Electronics
Jun 1990-Oct 1990: Columnist for Scientific American
Mar 1984-Mar 1985: Columnist for Computers & Electronics
Oct 1975-Feb 1984: Columnist for Popular Electronics
Sep 1969-Nov 1970: Columnist for Model Rocketry
1980-present: Review various textbooks published by McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall and many papers for various scientific journals.
2011-2012: Expert Reviewer for First and Second Order Drafts of Assessment Report 5 (2013) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
SELECTED CONSULTING ASSIGNMENTS
1980: National Geographic Society (proposed and assisted in development of exhibit in Explorer’s Hall recognizing invention of light-wave communications by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880)
1992-1998: Consultant, TERC, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts (develop high school educational curricula)
1995-2000: Consultant, Concord Consortium, Concord, Massachusetts (develop high school educational curricula)
1995-2001: Consultant, National Science Teachers Association (Finalist judge Duracell Competition and present teacher’s workshops on using atmospheric monitoring instruments)
1996-present: Consultant, Solar Light Company (technical advice; calibrate instruments which measure ozone and aerosols)
Aug 1995-Dec 1995: Consultant, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA (measured smoke effects from widespread burning in Brazil)
Oct 1996-Dec 1996: Consultant, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA (measured smoke effects from forest fires in Western USA)
Aug 1997-Dec 1997: Consultant, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA (measured smoke effects from widespread burning in Brazil)
May 1998-2008: Co-Principal Investigator, GLOBE (international network of 8,000 schools in 83 countries)
October 2000-2001: Consultant for comparison of atmospheric water vapor measurements from satellites and the surface, Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin
March 2004-present: Site operator for USDA UV-B and visible wavelength shadowband radiometers installed at Texas Lutheran University by Colorado State University
2007: Reviewer, Atlas of Scientific Literacy, Vol. 2, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project 2061
2009: Refine, test and calibrate a new method for measuring total column water vapor and write formal paper under NASA LaRC contract.
1970 to present: Guest lectures and seminars at Texas A&M University, University of Montana, University of Wisconsin, University of Houston, Texas Lutheran University, Colorado Christian College, University of the Nations and many primary and secondary public and private schools.
1993-2010: Taught annual short courses on experimental science (electronics, climate, data analysis, etc.) at University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii, and/or Lausanne, Switzerland.
Wikipedia lists two controversies in its Mims biography. Because I have no control over what appears in Wikipedia, both controversies are addressed here.
The Scientific American Affair Details and key supporting documents are here or click on the Scientific American tab at the top of this page. Media and researchers: Contact me at forrest[dot]mims[@]ieee[dot]org if you have questions.
Eric Pianka's Death Lecture My published report in The Citizen Scientist about Dr. Eric Pianka's lecture before the 2006 meeting of the Texas Academy of Science sparked a major controversy, especially after Pianka denied that he essentially advocated that 90 percent of the earth's population should die from Ebola. During this part of the lecture, he showed a slide of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the Ebola virus, and a human skull with flashing red eyes. Dr. Kenneth Summy also attended the lecture, and he endorsed my published report in two letters to the Texas Academy of Science (see below).
Others who were present also affirmed what I reported, including a student who created a second controversy when she posted her agreement with Pianka on her blog and who verified her support of Pianka's views when I interviewed her at her university. During a subsequent luncheon at her university that I was invited to attend (for nonrelated reasons), the president of her university thanked me for writing the Pianka article.
A year before the 2006 lecture, a student of Dr. Pianka described in the student evaluation section of Pianka's web site the same death wish that Pianka so vividly described in his 2006 lecture. Since this statement disappeared from Pianka's web site for a time after the controversy erupted, a recent screen shot of the same statement is below Dr. Summy's letters that follow. (The red underscore is added. The site was last accessed on 23 May 2011 at http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/bio357/357evaluations.html.)
Subj:Petition Date:4/10/2006 1:49:37 PM Central Standard Time To: [President and Board of Directors of the Texas Academy of Science]
Attached is a response I sent to Dr. Kathryn Perez regarding the allegation that Forrest Mims misrepresented the content of the keynote address at the recent TAS meeting. A lot of the cc’s listed in Dr. Perez’s original message failed to get through, so I am resending.
Forrest Mims did not misrepresent anything regarding the contents of the keynote address, and should be commended for openly expressing his concerns -- many of us out here feel exactly the same way.
I attended the presentation given by Dr. Eric Pianka at the recent TAS meeting in Beaumont. While academic freedom is fine, distinguished scientists delivering keynote addresses at scientific meetings have a responsibility to their audience (and the society they are representing) to do so in a manner that is not unduly offensive to anyone present. My overall impression of Dr. Pianka’s presentation was a “doomsday” message that life on earth is about to end, and the sooner the human population crashes the better. I hope he was joking or being sarcastic when he stated that a pandemic of ebola virus would be great for the earth – no sane person would really believe that. Also, at least two statements made during the presentation essentially constituted a direct attack on a major religious leader (the Pope), which was completely uncalled for. Dr. Pianka chose to deliver an inflammatory message in his keynote address, so he should not be surprised to be the recipient of a lot of criticism from TAS membership.
Forrest Mims did not misrepresent anything regarding the presentation. I heard these statements myself, and would be willing to bet that most of the audience attending the presentation got the same impression that I did. In my opinion, the message contained in the keynote address detracted from what was otherwise an excellent meeting.
Thanks for your time.
Dr. Kenneth R. Summy Department of Biology University of Texas – Pan American
Student evaluation of course taught by Prof. Eric Pianka. (Red underscore added.) Accessed on 23 May 2011 at http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/bio357/357evaluations.html
More information about the Pianka death lecture and in support of my article about the lecture will be added when time permits. Meanwhile, a much more pleasant topic follows.
Altair on Popular Electronics
The Altair Story: Early Days at MITS
Forrest M. Mims III
Creative Computing Vol. 10, November 1984.
As one of the co-founders of MITS, Inc., the company whose Altair 8800 pioneered the personal computer industry, I have been both amused and concerned by the proliferation of articles and books containing inaccurate accounts of the early days at MITS. Since MITS has now earned an important place in microcomputer history, I hope this account will lay to rest at least some of the myths and misconceptions that have appeared in print over the past decade.
For this article I have relied upon personal records and my collection of early MITS documents, correspondence, manuals, products, and memorabilia. Furthermore, I have discussed by telephone most of the key points of the story with many of the people involved. I very much enjoyed putting this account together and hope it proves both useful and interesting.
Though MITS was officially founded by four partners, H. Edward Roberts was the company's driving force and its real founder. I first met Ed in the summer of 1968 when he was assigned to the Effects Branch of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM.
Though Ed was a brand-new second lieutenant when he arrived at the lab, he wasn't new to the Air Force. He had been an enlisted man for several years and had been commissioned after the Air Force sent him to Oklahoma State University where he received a degree in electrical engineering.
I remember well one of Ed's first assignments, to purchase for our branch Hewlett-Packard's new, state-of-the-art 9100 desktop computer. Ed was attracted to that machine like a magnet. Within a few days of its arrival he devised a program for calculating the parameters of transistor amplifiers. Even today, Ed recalls clearly the impact the desktop 9100 made on him.
As for computers, both Ed and I had prior experience as do-it-yourself computer hobbyists in the early 1960's. While a high school student, I had built a series of analog computers. My most advanced machine, which included a programmable analog memory array, could translate 20 words of Russian into English. Ed, too, had built analog computers. He had also built digital machines that used relay logic.
Ed's Air Force career had not kept him from dabbling in free enterprise. While stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, for example, he was the sole proprietor of two one-man companies, Reliance Engineering and Reliable Radio and TV. One of Reliance Engineering's biggest jobs was the assembly of the electronics that controlled the movements of the animated Christmas characters in the windows of the Joske's store across from the Alamo.
From the time I first met him, Ed often talked of placing Reliance Engineering back in operation. He was utterly confident his entrepreneurial gifts would allow him to fulfill his ambitions of earning a million dollars, learning to fly, owning his own airplane, living on a farm, and completing medical school.
Once he teamed with Glen Doughty, a captain in our branch, to design and build an infrared intrusion alarm for his uncle's fish farm in Florida. A few months later, he and Stan Cagle, a civilian electrical engineer whom Ed had known when they were both college students, worked together to design and build a regulated power supply they intended to sell. That project, which was never completed, soon led to the formation of MITS.
By 1969 the Effects Branch of the Weapons Lab had become part of the Lab's well-funded, highly classified Laser Division. Though I was working with state-of-the-art laser technology and super secret projects, I still found off-duty time to pursue my favorite hobby, model rocketry.
Several times I had mentioned to Ed the high level of interest among model rocketry enthusiasts for miniature light flashers for night launched rockets and economical telemetry transmitters. In the summer of 1969, we decided to meet with Stan and discuss the possibility of forming a company to design and sell telemetry gear for model rockets.
This first meeting took place in the kitchen of Ed's home in northeast Albuquerque. Besides Stan, Ed, and myself, Bob Zaller, another officer from the Weapons Lab, was present.
We spent most of the meeting discussing a proposed line of telemetry products. In retrospect, however, our most important action that night was to elect Ed president of our infant venture,
Our second meeting, like most others over the course of the next 18 months, was held in a spare front bedroom in Ed's home. A principle item on the agenda was what to call our company. Ed preferred Reliance Engineering, but I objected. Because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the center of model rocketry research, I suggested we form an acronym around the letters MIT. Perhaps, I suggested, we could call the company MIT Systems.
Stan and I then tossed out ideas for the acronym. I suggested micro for the M and telemetry for the T. Within a minute or so, Stan responded with Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems.
Though I liked the MIT connection, Ed was unsure about the name. Wouldn't we be referred to as mits? I insisted people would refer to us as M-I-T-S, just as MIT is referred to as M-I-T.
Ed's second point was more valid. Reliance Engineering, he argued, was an existing company with an established credit rating. I offered a compromise: Why not designate MITS as a subsidiary of Ed's original company? This approach was acceptable to everyone.
Incidentally, my premise about the enunciation of our company name proved wishful thinking. Later, we even capitalized upon the name by labeling as MITS KITS some kits we sold.
Years later, Ed joked with me about the "hundreds" of times he had to explain how MITS got its name. In retrospect, he probably should have renamed the company after he introduced the Altair 8800, but that's getting ahead of the story.
Though MITS's affair with model rocketry was to last but one year, it set the stage for the chain of events that led eventually to the Altair. Therefore the story is worth telling.
As resident model rocket fanatic and MITS marketing director, one of my responsibilities was to specify the various modules for our product line. My first magazine article, "A Transistorized Tracking Light for Night Launched Model Rockets," had been published in the September 1969 issue of Model Rocketry magazine, and I recommended the flasher as one of our first products.
In their capacity as MITS design engineers, Ed and Bob refined my design in Ed's garage workshop while Stan, our production engineer, laid out and made the etched circuit boards in his apartment. The TLF-1 light flasher soon followed.
Within a month, Ed, Stan, and Bob had completed work on two transmitters plus a variety of modules. In the meantime, I was hard at work writing "The Booklet of Model Rocketry Telemetry."
By October the circuit designs for the product line were finalized, and I wrote a press release and mailed it to Model Rocketry. It was published in the December 1969 issue.
While waiting for the release to appear, Ed, Stan, and Bob assembled hundreds of modules while I wrote operating instructions, designed an order form, and mimeographed big stacks of our self-published booklet. I also launched a series of rockets equipped with MITS transmitters and modules, all the time hoping for a photogenic crash that would demolish a rocket payload section while leaving the instrumentation unharmed.
In late 1969 we decided to incorporate. Each of us was given 950 shares of stock with the remaining 200 shares going to our attorney.
Each of us also made a contribution of cash and equipment to MITS. My $100 check was dated January 16, 1970. Ed had insisted that none of us become "silent partners," and, beside providing needed capital, the cash donations gave each of us a vested interest in the future of MITS.
In March 1970 the first MITS advertisement appeared in Model Rocketry.
The April issue of Model Rocketry included a second MITS news release. Also included was an attractive photograph showing one of our transmitters surrounded by six modules.
In spite of our countless hours of work, by May we had sold only a hundred or so transmitters and modules. As marketing director, I suggested we might increase sales greatly by cutting prices. How? By converting our line of preassembled modules into kits.
We decided to test this new approach by converting the TLF-1 light flasher into two kits, one with a dual flash rate and the other with an adjustable flash rate. The first ad for these MITS KITS appeared in the July 1970 Model Rocketry.
Popular Electronics Magazine
Big changes took place at MITS in the summer of 1970. As early as May we had recognized that our fortunes would never be made by selling model rocketry telemetry instruments to precocious teenagers and university professors. About this time, Bob Zaller, who was soon to be married, decided to leave MITS. (He later returned after the Altair was introduced.)
I also made a big change. In late 1969 I had decided to leave the Air Force upon completion of four years of service to become a freelance writer while continuing to work with MITS. I left the service on June 11, 1970 and immediately began work as the night attendant at the parking lot of Albuquerque's airport, the Sunport.
I took this night job thinking it would provide plenty of time for writing, and it did. The salary, however, was only a fourth what I had earned as an Air Force captain. Worse, I had to live with the pitiful looks on the faces of my former commanders and co-workers each time they drove out of the parking lot after returning from their frequent trips. They thought I was crazy to trade a position in state-of-the-art laser research and development for the parking lot.
In March, I sold my first article to Popular Electronics magazine, a feature about light emitting diodes. At one of our midnight meetings I suggested that we emulate Southwest Technical Products and develop a project article for Popular Electronics. The article would give us free advertising for the kit version of the project, and the magazine would even pay us for the privilege of printing it!
Ed had received a big bag of integrated operational amplifiers and comparators from a friend, so several times we seriously discussed using these chips to develop a kit analog computer. Since junior high school days I had been an abacus user, so we also discussed the possibility of making a solid state abacus, using red LEDs for the beads. Finally, I suggested we design an infrared voice communicator.
We decided upon the infrared communicator, so I contacted the magazine, and they agreed to consider the article. They also decided to hold my feature about LEDs and published the two articles as a pair. That summer, while we continued to fill model rocketry orders, Ed began designing what I called the Opticom.
In late July, before the Opticom was ready, I received a call from Leslie Solomon, technical editor of Popular Electronics. Les was coming to Albuquerque with his wife and daughter. Could he stop by for a visit?
I was elated. By then I was writing a monthly column for Model Rocketry, but this would be a chance to meet an editor from a magazine with considerably more clout. Furthermore, this would provide the opportunity to introduce Les to Ed and Stan and discuss our kit ideas.
The Solomon family arrived at my mobile home on Monday, August 3, 1970. Les and I retired to my tiny electronics workshop while our wives spent the afternoon visiting. That evening, we met Ed and Joan for dinner at the Beef and Bourbon, a steakhouse on North San Mateo Street several blocks from Ed's house. Stan had to work that evening and couldn't join us.
A summer thunderstorm brought welcome relief from the afternoon heat. While it thundered outside, Les poked fun at the restaurant's decor while Ed and I silently wondered how we would ever manage to pay the bill. After the meal, our wives visited and the children fidgeted while Les, Ed, and I spent a couple of hours discussing MITS and our proposed Opticom project. Les seemed enthusiastic about the project and encouraged us to get it completed as soon as possible.
We discussed other matters as well. Like how many kits could we expect to sell. (Who knows? Maybe a few hundred, maybe a thousand.) We also talked about writing as a profession. Detecting my optimism about becoming a full time freelancer, Les volunteered that it was next to impossible to make a living from writing outside New York.
Les Solomon's visit provided all the motivation we needed to finalize the Opticom. When the first transmitter and receiver pair were completed, I field tested the units and wrote the construction article. Since the design was Ed's, I bylined the article with both our names. Popular Electronics soon paid for the piece with a check for $400 which I deposited in the meager MITS checking account.
In the meantime, Ed arranged to finance the Opticom kits by borrowing a few thousand dollars from an Air Force friend. We also decided to move our Opticom kit production line into a building.
Since I worked nights, I was assigned the daylight task of renting a building. I began looking on September 30 and by October 9 narrowed the search to a former snack bar called The Enchanted Sandwich Shop. I rented the small brick building for about $100 a month.
My LED feature and the Opticom article were featured on the cover of the November 1970 issue of Popular Electronics. When the magazine appeared in late October, we began receiving as many as a dozen orders a day. But within a few weeks, the surge slowed to a trickle. We eventually shipped a little over a hundred Opticoms--far fewer than we had hoped.
Shortly before the Opticom article appeared, Ed and Stan had begun work on a desktop digital calculator. As Stan recalls it, Ed was so intrigued over the prospect of building a calculator he was willing to use TTL logic chips. Fortunately, Stan happened to see in Electronics magazine an ad for a calculator chip set manufactured by Electronic Arrays, Inc.
Ed wanted to move directly from the Opticom to a calculator kit before bigger companies became involved, but Stan and I held back. Stan wanted to use up our remaining Opticom parts and lenses by continuing our plan to develop an infrared intrusion alarm kit, which was nearly ready, and a solid state laser. Remembering the competition we faced soon after introducing the telemetry line, I felt the calculator venture was very risky.
The difference in opinion over which path to take led directly to a permanent split. One night in early November, Stan visited the parking lot and suggested he and I offer to buy Ed's stock. But on my salary, I could barely put food on the table.
Though we disagreed with Ed's timing of the calculator idea, Stan and I realized Ed would go ahead with the calculator project with or without us. As things developed, Ed offered to buy our stock.
Stan, Ed, and I held our final meeting as MITS partners on November 10, 1970 in the parking attendant's booth at the Sunport. With help from his Air Force friend, Ed offered to buy our stock for $300 cash, $300 by the following March, and $350 in equipment. I took my equipment in the form of unsold model rocket telemetry gear.
Stan and I had both agonized over our decision to leave MITS. Even though we had never paid ourselves a salary or a bonus (there simply wasn't the money to do so), for me the decision to leave MITS was harder than resigning from the Air Force.
On the other hand, the excitement of seeing my first two articles featured as cover stories in Popular Electronics was still fresh in my mind. Leaving MITS would provide much more time to develop my budding writing career.
MITS Enters the Calculator Business
Ed's uncanny ability to recruit engineers, technicians and financial backers has always served him well. By the time Stan and I signed the papers transferring our stock to Ed, he had teamed up with Bill Yates, a young second lieutenant from the Laser Division at the Weapons Lab. He also secured additional financial help from another officer.
Ed moved the MITS assembly line from The Enchanted Sandwich Shop back to his garage for the next several months. He then moved MITS to a rented house at 2016 San Mateo, N.E. In the meantime, he had acquired a chip set from Electronic arrays and began work in earnest on the calculator project. The first crude prototype, however, failed to work. The expensive chips had been installed in their sockets backwards!
In August 1971 I left the parking lot to become a full time freelancer. I had just sold a pair of articles about semiconductor lasers to Popular Electronics, one of which described a solid state laser transmitter and receiver.
The laser project had been on the agenda before Stan and I left MITS, and Ed agreed to sell a kit to use up unused Opticom parts and lenses. In return for a royalty from MITS, I agreed to write assembly manuals for the transmitter and receiver plus a manual of kit assembly hints. Consequently, I spent a good deal of time at MITS during the final stages of the development of the 816.
Since we had both built Heathkits, I told Ed the laser manuals would meet Heath's standards. He must have liked them, for after the manuals were completed Ed asked me to write the assembly manual for the calculator project. In return, he would give me a calculator.
To borrow a phrase from Ed's lexicon, the calculator project wasn't trivial. Indeed, it is fair to say that in many ways it was more complex than the Altair.
In the last few days before the 816 calculator appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics, the MITS operation at 2016 San Mateo was a beehive of activity. I spent two very busy weeks writing the 64-page assembly manual. The laser project had been published in the October 1971 Popular Electronics, but the hundred or so orders that came in caused only a small ripple in the onrushing press to complete the calculator.
Ed's article about the MITS 816 calculator was featured on the cover of the November 1971 issue of Popular Electronics. An accompanying editor's note described the 816 as "an exciting new breakthrough construction project--a modern, high-speed 16-digit calculator."
MITS offered a kit version of the 816 for $179 and an assembled machine for $275. Subsections of the machine and the circuit boards could also be purchased. For only $2, ambitious do-it-yourselfers could purchase complete mechanicals, circuits diagrams, and foil patterns.
The 816 calculator was a major success, and, for the first time, MITS earned a profit. Moreover, the 816 article marked an important turning point in hobby electronics, for it was a portent of the eventual arrival of low cost personal computing.
Consider this: Even before the 816 design was completed, Ed had designed a 32-step programming unit that would transform the machine into a programmable calculator. Complete interfacing terminals for the programmer, which was scheduled for introduction in April 1972, were included on the original 816 CPU circuit board.
Besides being too small for the burgeoning company, the house MITS occupied on San Mateo was scheduled for demolition so the street could be widened. Therefore, in 1972 Ed moved MITS to a larger building at 5404 Coal Avenue S.E. Eventually, MITS settled into a series of adjacent storefronts at 6328 Linn Avenue S.E., just a few blocks from my mobile home. There a wave soldering machine and an efficient assembly line were set up.
At the Linn Avenue operation Ed added a technical writing staff and even a receptionist. Though I wasn't needed for manual production, he and I collaborated on a series of magazine articles about digital logic and one of the first published calculator books.
MITS eventually introduced a line of compact calculators with LED displays. While MITS was selling many thousands of calculators, the big companies began their move into the field. Eventually, MITS was forced out of the market, and by 1974 the company was some $200,000 in debt. Discouraged but not down, Ed decided to leapfrog the calculator industry by developing an even more powerful product.
The Altair 8800
The defunct MITS calculator line had evolved from a mail order magazine project for electronics hobbyists into a bonafide consumer business. For his new product, Ed was to return to the marketing strategy that had served MITS best.
The new product was his most ambitious yet, an affordable microcomputer designed around Intel's new 8080 8-bit microprocessor. The project would fulfill Ed's lifelong ambition to design a working digital computer. And, if successful, it would save his company from bankruptcy.
Though he was fully prepared to sell the computer he planned by means of ads in electronics magazines, the method he had used to sell calculators, the Popular Electronics connection intervened. It so happened that Arthur Salsberg, the magazine's editorial director, had been actively searching for a computer project since early 1974.
Art's interest had been stimulated by an ASCII keyboard and encoder project designed by Don Lancaster of TV typewriter fame. Don's project, which was available as a kit from Southwest Technical Products, was the cover story of the April 1974 issue of Popular Electronics.
Art discussed the possibility of a computer project with Les Solomon. They eventually located a microcomputer trainer project by Jerry Ogdin. Art scheduled the trainer for the December 1974 issue of Popular Electronics.
In those days there was a healthy rivalry between Art's magazine and Radio-Electronics. As Art recently wrote in a letter recalling that early period, Jonathan Titus's Mark-8 8008-based computer in the July 1974 issue of Radio-Electronics caused Ogdin's microcomputer trainer project to be placed on hold. "I felt as if the rug was pulled out from under me," Art wrote. He very much wanted to "top their article."
Art asked Les if the knew of a more advanced computer project, particularly one using Intel's new 8080 microprocessor. Les was aware of Ed's project, so Art asked him to call MITS to see if Ed could deliver an article in time for a winter issue. "Tell him that he's got to have an attractive cabinet in order for it to be a cover story," Art recalls telling Les.
Soon Les raced into Art's office to tell him Ed could deliver a computer project in time for the January issue. "January is always the best-selling newsstand issue we've got," Art observed.
A few weeks later Ed called Art to inform him the computer would be housed in an attractive, multi-colored Optima cabinet with a shadow box design. Art postponed Ogdin's project, slating it for use as a backup in the event MITS didn't come through.
In the meantime, Ed, Bill Yates and a few others left over from the post-calculator bust were hard to work preparing the prototype computer. Ed designed the interface logic for the 8080, a 256-byte RAM memory, a 2MHz clock, and the front panel logic for the 25 control/input switches and 36 indicator LEDs on the machine. Bill Yates laid out the foil patterns for the circuit boards.
Ed also made what was to prove a momentous decision: He included provisions for an open bus so additional memory and peripheral cards could be added later. The oversize Optima cabinet could accommodate up to 16 additional cards. Therefore, Ed designed a hefty 8-ampere power supply for the machine, having no idea that even this much power would later prove inadequate for the dedicated computer fanatics who stuffed their blue and gray cabinets with peripheral cards.
Ed shipped the completed prototype via REA to Popular Electronics and then flew to New York to demonstrate it for the editorial staff. Alas, the machine never arrived. It was apparently lost or stolen at Kennedy Airport.
Nevertheless, Ed spread out the circuit diagrams and explained the operation of the machine. He then accompanied some of the editorial staff to dinner at an Italian restaurant before leaving for Albuquerque.
Ed recently recalled how troubled he was during the flight home. He had managed to borrow an additional $65,000 to float the computer project, but in spite of the magazine's assurances he had no firm agreement they would publish the project. "What really bothered me," he later told me, "was that Les Solomon said 'I think we're casting our pearls before swine on this one.'"
Art needed a computer right away for front cover photography, so Bill Yates put together a non-functional mock-up and shipped it to New York. Later, they also built a second prototype and shipped it to the magazine.
Then, there was the matter of giving the machine a name. David Bunnell, vice president of marketing and advertising manager for MITS, the jobs I once held, came up with three pages of suggested names. among his favorites was Little Brother.
Ed eventually called the computer the PE-8, but Les Solomon felt that was a rather dull name for such a powerful and momentous product. Les discussed the matter with associate editor Alexander Burawa and assistant technical editor John McVeigh. Al later remembered saying. "It's a stellar event, so let's name it after a star." Within a few minutes, John McVeigh said "Altair."
Les called Ed to try out the new name, but Ed's concerns were elsewhere. He told Les he didn't care what they called the computer so long as MITS could break even by selling 200 of them.
The Altair was featured on the front cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics as a "Project Breakthrough! World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models." The magazine appeared on newsstands a week before Christmas of 1974.
In the accompanying article by Ed Roberts and Bill Yates, MITS offered a complete kit version of the machine for an incredible $397. A fully assembled version was available for $498.
Art Salsberg titled his editorial "The Home Computer is Here!" He wrote, "we were determined not to present a digital computer demonstrator with blinking LEDs that would simply be fun to build and watch, but suffer from limited usefulness... What we wanted for our readers was a state-of-the-art minicomputer whose capabilities would match those of currently available units at a mere fraction of the cost."
Art ended this momentous editorial by promising "There'll be more coverage on the subject in future issues. Meanwhile, the home computer age is here--finally."
Well, maybe. While tens of thousands of readers eagerly read every letter and comma in the Altair article, Art was questioned about the wisdom of the piece by one of his superiors. How could he justify the Altair project when no computer companies advertised in the magazine? This concern was not neutralized when MITS bought a full page ad in the February issue. The ad ran across from the second installment of the Altair article.
Meanwhile, back in Albuquerque, orders came flooding in. The response was overwhelming. Already backlogged with orders, Ed didn't even have an operator's manual for the Altair. He called in early January and said, "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse."
I bicycled over to Ed's office where he offered me an assembled Altair in return for a quick job on the operator's manual. He was right, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
The World Altair Computer Convention (WACC)
The flood of Altair orders soon had Ed hiring more people and looking for bigger quarters. MITS organized an Altair user's group, and in April 1975 several Mits marketing people drove the MITS mobile, a motor home equipped with Altair equipment, on a tour through Texas. The MITS mobile team was eventually to visit many cities across the country, giving seminars, staging slide shows, and distributing literature, catalogs, and door prizes.
By June 1975, David Bunnell was editing a monthly tabloid called Computer Notes, a Publication of the Altair Users Group. In the November/December issue of Computer Notes, Bunnell announced in a banner headline ALTAIR CONVENTION.
The meeting, which was Bunnell's brainchild, was officially called the MITS 1st World Altair Computer Convention. It was scheduled for March 26-28, 1976 to coincide with the completion of the move to the new MITS headquarters in a brand new building adjacent to the Albuquerque Sunport.
The WACC deserves credit as the first major microcomputer convention. But the WACC was responsible for an even more momentous development, the formal arrival of competition. The lobby of the Airport Marina hotel where the WACC was headquartered buzzed with rumors about some people from Processor Technology who had rented an upstairs suite.
I made my way through the crowd and peered over the heads of the curious onlookers and saw the future: memory boards priced cheaper than those sold by MITS. The Altair's open bus had paved the way for the arrival of a microcomputer industry.
The Legacy of the Altair
An era ended in 1977 when MITS was sold to Pertec Computer Corporation. Ed stayed with MITS for a while, but eventually moved to a 900-acre farm in Georgia. He is now in his third year of medical school at Mercer University. He also heads a new company called Georgia Medical Electronics.
Today, comparatively few users of personal computers have ever heard of MITS and the Altair 8800, much less Ed Roberts. This is unfortunate, for Ed did for computing what George Eastman did for photography.
No, Ed did not invent the microcomputer. That credit belongs to the brilliant engineers who designed the early microprocessor and calculator chips.
Nor was the Altair a perfect machine. Ed himself admits the infamous 4K memory board was a major mistake. MITS made other mistakes as well, some of which it candidly admitted in Computer Notes (which was subsequently acquired by Creative Computing).
As for those who criticized the limited capacity of the 8-ampere power supply, how was Ed to know an industry would spring up almost overnight with the sole purpose of supplying peripheral boards for his Altair? Some of these boards, like the Godbout Electronics 4K static RAM, consumed nearly two amperes!
Sure, there were problems, but consider what MITS accomplished! The first computer stores anywhere were set up to sell Altairs. The open Altair bus paved the way for a microcomputer revolution. And everyone who uses Microsoft Basic can thank Ed Roberts for the decision to select the version of Basic developed by Paul Allen and Bill Gates for the Altair over the other languages he considered.
In the final analysis, MITS pioneered nearly every aspect of today's microcomputer industry. Computer shows, users' groups, newsletters, seminars, software exchanges, peripherals, software products, quality documentation, and cheap computers, all commonplace today, were first pioneered for the personal computer market by MITS.
Recently Ed and I lamented the fact so many of today's computer users think Apple, Radio Shack, or even IBM invented personal computing. We also wondered about the distorted versions of the early days at MITS written by some of today's computer journalists.
I'll have much more to say about the early days at MITS and the Altair in a forthcoming book [Siliconnections, McGraw-Hill, 1986] . In the meantime, I hope this preliminary account has helped set the record straight.
Much of the science presented on this web site was inspired by many professional scientists who are experts in their fields. Some of them wrote papers that contributed to the design of the ozone instruments that led to the Rolex Award. Others provided suggestions, advice or unanswered questions about solar ultraviolet, microbiology, atmospheric aerosols, volcanism, botany, climate, fungi, and many other topics. Some of the many scientists who have provided this mentoring include (in alphabetical order and with no responsibility for any of what passes for science on this site):
Stanley Anderson, Westmont College
John Barnes, Mauna Loa Observatory
P.K. Bhartia, Goddard Space Flight Center
Derek Chignell, University of the Nations
Gordon Labow, Goddard Space Flight Center
John deLuisi, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Tom Eck, Goddard Space Flight Center
William Grant, Langley Research Center
Brent Holbin, Goddard Space Flight Center
Yoram Kaufman, Goddard Space Flight Center
Arlin Krueger, Goddard Space Flioght Center
Jay Herman, Goddard Spaceflight Center
Ed Lickey, University of Tennessee
Howard Malmstadt, University of the Nations
Richard McPeters, Goddard Spaceflight Center
Elaine Prins, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Robert Roosen, retired
James R. Slusser, Colorado State University
Forrest Mims and his 1970 model rocket with a MITS tracking transmitter. Photo by Mark Langford (2005).