Chapter 11 

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution


Altair BASIC was an interpreter that translated instructions from the BASIC programming language into assembly instructions that the Altair 8800 could understand. It was developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Micro-soft, specifically for the Altair 8800 and it would fit in 4K of memory.

Unlike previous hackers and against the Hacker Ethic, Microsoft and MITS felt that people should pay for BASIC just like they paid for any add-on card. Many hackers had in fact put in orders for BASIC, but still had to wait for the order to be shipped. During a show put up by MITS, someone got hold of and copied a paper tape containing Altair BASIC. The tapes were duplicated and passed around freely before the commercial product was even shipped to customers.

Gates and Allen did not appreciate this turn of events since they were actually paid commission for each copy of BASIC that MITS sold. Gates responded by writing an open letter titled “Open Letter to Hobbyists” that considered the sharing of software to be theft. Tiny BASIC was a similar interpreter that would fit in only 2K of memory because it did not support all the functionality of BASIC. It was developed by Dick Whipple and John Arnold in Tyler, Texas and distributed freely in PCC magazine.

Many more people sent in improvements and programs developed in Tiny BASIC to be published. This eventually led to the creation of Dr. Dobb's Journal edited by Jim Warren that distributed free or very inexpensive software in response to Gates' claims of theft. Tom Pittman was someone else who did not take kindly to Gates' words. He wrote a version of Tiny BASIC for the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. Although he sold it to AMI for $3,500, he retained the rights to sell it to others and decided to charge only $5 for it. He received many orders and even money from people who had already gotten a copy and simply wanted to pay him for his efforts.

Pittman also wrote the essay “Deus Ex Machina” on the AI and hardware hackers and what tied them together. Lee Felsenstein and Bob Marsh banded together to create a fully contained computer for an issue of Popular Electronics that they called Sol that sold for under a thousand dollars.