Reviving a 70's computer for modern life

The Altairduino lets people relive the era of early computing.
The Altair 8800 was one of the first comercially successful home computers. (Smithsonian Institution)

The Altair 8800 was one of the first commercially successfully home computers when it was released in 1975. It was even the first computer the Microsoft wrote software for. The computer's only built in interface is a series of 25 switches and 36 LEDs, which allow you to write programs in binary code.

In the more than 40 years since the Altair was released, computers have obviously come a long way. But there are people who still find value in the basic design.

Chris Davis is a software developer in Minnesota. He created the Altairduino; an emulator that replicates the original computer using an Arduino mini computer. It uses the same switches and lights as an interface and does everything the Altair could do, including the classic game, Kill the Bit.

Davis created his first kit as a project to do with his kids. "My goal was to recreate the wonder I felt," he said. "It was like I was transported back to my early teen years."

He found a program created by David Hansel that allowed an Arduino to replicate the Altair, had a few circuit boards printed and built the box and controls. When he was done, he offered up his left-over parts online. "Well everybody wanted them," Davis said. "That's when I realized, 'maybe I can make this into a kit.'"

The Altairduino emulates the origianl Altair 8800 using an Arduino micro computer. (Chris Davis)

Even though the Altair is a pretty limited computer by today's standards, Davis thinks that understanding it gives you insight into computers today. "This is such a simple computer by today's standards, but it is really low level. You gain such an understanding of how the screen actually interacts with the processor inside. I write in really high-level languages at work. It's amazing to me that the high-level language I write is translated  down to just these ones and zeros that the processor understands. And this kit gives you a little better understanding of that."

Davis said that the best thing about having his Altairduino is that when people see it on his desk and ask about it, he gets to give them the history of the Altair.