Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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Introduction to an Altair 8800 restoration

by Erik Klein

The Altair 8800 was a very significant machine in the early history of personal computing. It's supposedly the machine for which the term "personal computer" was first used. This computer brought the idea of computing to the masses and also ushered in the brief but significant era of the S-100 bus and CP/M, as well as the reign of Microsoft.

As a significant historical artifact, the Altair is coveted by many collectors and museums. The aforementioned qualities are important in attracting vintage computer collectors to this little blue box, while its originality and functionality seal the deal.

The Altair that I own is a machine that went neglected for a while as a partially built kit. In the 1980s it was acquired by a teacher who finished the build and used the machine as a student demonstration for several years before finally passing it along. To the educator, using more modern parts was a natural way to complete the construction. To the collector, the addition of multi-colored ribbon cable, one-piece motherboards, and aftermarket card guides would lessen its value.

See the "before" photographs here:

As the new owner, I recognized that the system was basically sound with a nearly perfect case, a pristine front panel, a working power supply, and a functional processor and RAM cards. In spite of this I wanted to rectify the non-standard aspects of its construction to create what I consider to be a true museum-quality piece.

To start, I gathered a variety of resources including the original Altair assembly manual, a variety of old magazine articles from the mid-1970s and, of course, the requisite parts and tools including the dreaded soldering iron.

See the "preperation" photographs here:

The goal was to disassemble the machine, remove the non-standard motherboard and bus wiring, and to replace these with original MITS parts. For most in the hobby this is a fairly straightforward project. Since I hardly know which end of a soldering iron to hold, this effort should be considered a bit more ambitious.

Over the new few months, I will present (on my web site and through the Computer Collector Newsletter) the disassembly and preparation of the machine, the reassembly and basic testing of the machine, and finally a project wrap-up. Since the machine worked prior to my efforts I am hoping to be lucky enough to have it still work when I'm done with it.

Time will tell.