Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,
By a show of hands, how many of your have heard of The Butterfly Effect? This is the theory that small changes in one part of the world can have significant and unexpected effects elsewhere. The example usually cited in that a butterfly flapping its wings in China, may eventually cause the formation of a storm somewhere else in the world. This speech is an example of The Butterfly Effect. I’m going to show you something that seems inconsequential, and then connect the dots and show you how it changed the world and transformed our lives.
Last month I attended the World of Commodore show. Among the many computers on display was an Altair 8800, from the early 1970s.
To the uninitiated, this looks like a very primitive and unimpressive machine, and certainly one that is easy to overlook. However it has an impressive history and pedigree. In fact, one could argue that this machine was the one that launched the personal computer revolution, and by extension, changed our world completely.
The Altair 8800 was created by a company called Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) and was introduced to the public in January 1975. It was available as a kit for $395 or fully-assembled for $650. Only 2,000 of these machines were produced. The initial version of this machine had a whopping 256 bytes of memory, and no monitor or keyboard. Its display was a series of front panel LEDs, and it was programmed using the switches below the LEDs. Some time later, MITS did offer memory expansion cards in three sizes: 1K, 2K and 3K. If you bought all three, then your Altair would have a total memory of 7K.
To program the Altair, you first set your program’s starting memory location, which is typically zero. The eight LEDs circled above represent the eight bits of that memory location, or byte. Then you move these eight switches below them up or down to set each of the eight bits for that byte. When all eight switches have been set, their combined value is saved to the memory location by pressing one of the switches on the bottom row. Then you repeat the process for the next memory location. I’m sure that you can imagine how much fun programming was back in the mid-1970s.
The founder and CEO of MITS was a man named Ed Roberts, and he developed the Altair 8800 computer, which was sold to consumers as a kit. Interest in the machine really took off when it was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.
Two people who happened to read this issue were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the future co-founders of Microsoft. They wrote a letter to Ed Roberts and said that they were working on a computer language called BASIC, for the 8080 processor – the same processor that the Altair used – and asked if he would like to see a demonstration. Ed Roberts was interested, so Gates and Allen flew to the MITS office in New Mexico to meet him. The meeting went well, and Roberts hired both Allen and Gates to develop a BASIC language interpreter for the Altair.
The Altair soon became popular with hobbyists and computer clubs, including the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. The Homebrew Computer Club held their first meetings in a Menlo Park garage, and later, as the club grew larger, at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center auditorium.
The members would attend these meetings to demonstrate the various computer and electronic projects they were working on.
One of Homebrew’s members was a young man named Steve Wozniak, and Wozniak was quite impressed with the Altair. In fact, he was so taken with this machine, that he was inspired to begin working on a new project. Here is a short, edited excerpt from his autobiography, iWoz (pg. 153-156), in which he describes the excitement that he felt during the Homebrew Computer Club meeting in March, 1975:
“About thirty people showed up for this first meeting in that garage in Menlo Park. They were talking about some microprocessor kit being up for sale, and they all seemed excited about it. Someone there was holding up the magazine Popular Electronics, which had a picture of a computer on the front of it. It was called the Altair… These people were really Altair enthusiasts. That night, I checked out the microprocessor data sheet, and then I realized what the Altair was… it was almost exactly like the Cream Soda Computer I’d designed five years before… it was as if my whole life has been leading up to this point. That night, this whole vision of a kind of personal computer just popped into my head. All at once, just like that“.
Wozniak immediately started work on his own computer design, which included a keyboard and a video screen, instead of LEDs and switches.
When it was completed, he demonstrated it to the other club members. Wozniak then showed it to his friend Steve Jobs, who saw it not merely as a hobbyist’s project, but as something that could be marketed to a much larger group of people. This computer eventually became the Apple I computer.
The Apple I soon evolved into the a more polished Apple II, which (arguably) launched the personal computer industry – and our lives haven’t been the same since.