During a visit to the DigiBarn Computer Museum in Boulder Creek, Calif., CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman gets a look at what may be the world's first complete microcomputer system, as well as the oldest assembled mint-condition Altair 8080.<br>
The first microcomputer front panel
In 1972, researchers at California State University, Sacramento put together a microcomputer using Intel's 8008 microprocessor. In a project led by Bill Pentz, the machine they built had all the trappings of a complete computer: a processor, an operating system, an assembly language, a hard disk drive, a color display, and a printer output.
Because the parts were very expensive, the machine--which was used at the university for compiling medical records--never went anywhere. But its promise was huge: had the parts not been so expensive, and had the project been done privately instead of at a university, there's a real chance that it could have become the microcomputer hobbyists first went crazy over, rather than the MITS Altair 8080.
Here, we see the front panel of the "Sacramento State '08" computer at the DigiBarn Computer Museum in Boulder Creek, Calif. The components of the machine were recently uncovered after being presumed lost since the 1970s.
What made the Sacramento State computer both so unique--and so expensive--was the programmable read-only memory on its motherboard. The PROMs contained a disk operating system, allowing this machine to have all the components of a full microcomputer. It may well have been the world's first complete microcomputer.
The boards for the Sacramento State '08 computer were put together and donated to the university by Tektronix. This image shows that the board was built in 1972, well before MITS built its famous Altair 8800.
A view of all the components of the microcomputer built at Sacramento State in the early 1970s using Intel's 8008 microprocessor. The parts were recently uncovered in the garage of one of the computer scientists who worked on the project.
An artist's 3D rendering of what the Sacramento State computer would have looked like in its fully set-up state in the early 1970s. This kind of setup would have likely made it the world's first complete microcomputer.
Photo by:Ryan Norkus, Bruce Damer, DigiBarn Computer Museum / Caption by:
Earliest mint condition Altair
Another recently discovered vintage computer gem is this Altair 8800, from MITS.
Long known as the machine that jump-started the microcomputer revolution--largely because it made it possible for hobbyists, for the first time, to get their hands on a machine of that kind--the Altair is famous for having inspired Bill Gates and Paul Allen to create a BASIC language at their start-up, Microsoft.
This specific Altair may well be the earliest mint-condition model still in existence. According to its serial number, it was just the 47th assembled Altair. The computers were sold either assembled or as kits.
DigiBarn founder Bruce Damer shows off the two Altairs in his collection. On the left is a model that was signed by a number of the earliest members of the Homebrew Computer Club, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, PC pioneer Lee Felsenstein, famous hacker Captain Crunch and others. On the right is the 47th assembled Altair, likely the earliest remaining mint-condition Altair in the world.
Moments after the Altair on the right had its case opened for the very first time since its assembly in 1975, it is set up for a photograph alongside another Altair.
The difference between the two machines is obvious: the one on the left, a kit Altair, has had a number of components added to it. The one on the right was sold assembled, and has no additional components.
The case of the DigiBarn's older Altair, which was signed by several vintage computing luminaries and the earliest members of the famous Homebrew Computer Club, including Apple founder Steve Wozniak, PC pioneer Lee Felsenstein, and well-known hacker Captain Crunch.