The Computermuseum's Altair Story

Altair 8800 computers are rare collectors items. Therefore they are expensive. They sell on average on the various Internet auctions like ebay for about US$2000, some pristine examples for even US$4000 or more. Considering the poor Canadian dollar this is a lot of money for a 1-person-privately founded museum. So the Altair 8800 was a dream far away from becoming true.

In 2000 - while browsing the Internet auctions - I was fortunate enough to acquire two mint in box Digi-Comp 1 binary plastic computers for a very good price. The two toy computers from 1963 where still in their original shrinkwrap and in incredible condition. Since I didn't want to devalue the two computers by opening the boxes, I thought I should better resell them since they were certainly nice artifacts from the time before the microcomputers, but they were not the kind of computer I really collect. So I decided to raise some money by selling them on ebay. The first one sold for a nice amount of money.
The second one I auctioned of about 4 month later.
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While writing up the text for the ad I wrote in the ad that I much rather trade the digi-comp for an early Microcomputer like the Processor Technology SOL20, any Ohio Scientific micro or an SWTPC computer. And in the end I added "of course an Altair 8800 computer in any shape". To be honest I hadn't much hope that anybody would consider trading. In the back of my head I had hoped, that maybe I could trade for a SOL20.

The auction for the digi-comp started surprisingly slow. There were not the normal "1000 questions" usually asked on ebay and after the third day I was very disappointed as the computer didn't seem to get even close to what the first one sold for.

A little later there seemed to be more interest and I got an email that I was hoping for:

"I have a spare SOL in my collection, available for trade. I already have a Digicomp I, but would trade for something else"

This was exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately the person looked for a Digi-comp II which I didn't have, so we couldn't figure out a deal.

On February 9th, 2000 right after my lunch-break I found this short email in my mailbox:
"I have a Altair 8080 chassis with some cards that I would trade for this Digi Comp"

I was stunned. But what does he mean by Altair 8080 chassis with some cards? And is it really an Altair since he wrote 8080?
So I replied:
"Hi there, I'm interested. Is it a Altair 8800a or b? Is the front panel there and the top? What cards do you have?"
I was prepared to trade the digi-comp for almost anything remotely close to an MITS Altair, but I didn't want to get too excited.

I waited and waited for a reply. Nothing! So two days later I wrote:
"Hi there, did you get my last email? Could you send a picture of your Altair? I'm very interested in it even if the cards are not original."
I was afraid that the guy changed his mind and wasn't interested anymore. Dream over?
Then on the 12th I got that email:
"Yes, I will try to send you pictures tonight. I have never tried to send pictures, but I have access to a low resolution digital camera. I am located on Long Island, NY You may call me at 631 *** **** tonight or 631 *** **** day This email address is at work so I did not get your email until Monday morning. I see that the unit did not meet the reserve."

Thank god! The guy was still interested. Meanwhile I ended the underway auction for the digi-comp early since I much much rather would trade it for the Altair. Even if there was a remote chance for a trade for an Altair I would go for it.
Two hours later another email followed:
These are not the best pictures, but they should give you an idea. I will try to take more when I get better lighting (daylight).
P.S. I also have an Osborn 1 portable computer and a Kaypro II. They both run CPM variants P.P.S. Besides the Digi Comp 1 I would also like a Digi Comp 2. are you familiar with that and know of any? I will be away this weekend (as I guess you are too), so it would not be until the following weekend before I could ship."

Attached were those pictures:

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This was it! My dream. A wonderful Altair 8800 in - as far I could tell from the pictures - in good condition. The inside was a bit modified, but the power supply seemed to be original. The wooden inserts were definitely home made, but that wasn't surprising since those computers were available in kit form and many of them were assembled by their proud owners back in 1975. This was exactly the computer I was looking for! This was my chance to get an Altair! I couldn't believe it. Now I thought: "Please don't let the guy back out, please."

Now was the time to make a phone call:
The guy on the other end was exceptionally nice and told me that he was looking for a digi-comp 1 with the original manuals as long as I was looking for an Altair. The Altair was given to him some time ago. He told me that he wanted to start a computer museum a few years ago and he started to collect some computers. Besides the Altair he owns the
Popular Electronics magazine from January 1975. This is the magazine which introduced the Altair and has the same historical value like the Altair itself and another item I was always looking for. Furthermore he has an Heathkit H8 computer complete with Floppy Drive and manuals another hard to come by, Intel 8080 based, early micro I've been looking for.
I asked him if he would be interested to make a trade for the Heathkit and the Popular Electronics magazine, too. He said he was not sure and that he would think about it.We agreed to finish the deal "Trade digi-comp - Altair" first. I agreed to send the digi-comp first and take care of the shipping of the Altair.

When I hang up the phone I was about the happiest person on the planet. The deal really seemed to happen.

The next day I wrapped up the Digi-comp, brought it to the post office, insured the parcel for $1000 and of it went.

A week later, on February 26th I couldn't wait any longer and I wrote an email:
"Hi Jim, did you receive the digi-comp, yet? Greetings Herbert"
the answer:
I got it last night. It may have actually come Friday, but we were not at the post office until Monday. I have not even opened the box. My family is puzzled by the whole affair. The postmaster was overly curious as to what it was. I guess he was intrigued by a box from Nova Scotia marked toys, gift and insured for $1000 I will try to get a cost of shipping the Altair today

Thank god! It arrived. It sounds funny, but the mail-connection between Canada and the USA aren't the best. Sometimes a parcel gets held off at customs and I had cases were parcels didn't arrive at all. So I was relived when the parcel arrived in one piece. So my part of the deal was done. Now all I had to do was wait for the Altair and pay the shipping bill.
Then Jim got back to me with the shipping quote:
I got a estimate to ship. Assuming 30 lbs and $2000 Insurance
$ 115 Ground
$ 200 Air
This includes $23 for the shipping company to pack. It would cost me over $10 to buy material so I think it is well spent since it will assure that the Altair is packaged properly. He did indicate that the insurance would be difficult to collect on unless the value could be proven. You would need an appraisal or receipt. Something to think about since the declared value could raise customs questions ??? Let me know"

This was what I was afraid of. Like I said before between Canada and the States we have a little "shipping dilemma". First of all shipping is awfully expensive and on top of that there is 8% duty on almost everything. Furthermore if anything happened to the parcel it would be really difficult to collect the money. Ground shipping takes about 6 weeks. I didn't want to wait that long. My calculation was like this:
$200 for shipping + $160 duty=US$360! A lot of money! So I started to think. Here is what I mailed to Jim:
"Hi Jim,
I was thinking. I have never been to the big computer museum in Boston. A place where I always wanted to go. The shipping of the Altair would be around $200 and another $200 customs for me. Also I'm very interested in the Heathkit you told me. Maybe it would be the smartest if I combine everything, go to Boston to the computer museum, take the Long Island Ferry, visit you and pick it up myself. This way I know it arrives safely and I'm sure I can convince the officers at the border that I have not to pay any duty. Considering the shipping/duty costs, the whole trip would pay for itself. Furthermore you wouldn't have any hassle to pack it/ship it etc.
I could come down on the weekend of March 24th.
How does that sound? It would be a exciting "old computer" trip for me... Also it would be great if we could make a deal on the Heathkit and I could take it with me, too.
How much would you like for it?
Greetings Herbert

We finally figured everything out. Jim would sell me the Heathkit H8 AND the Popular Electronics Magazine. We agreed on a price and I would pick everything up myself on March 24th. I couldn't wait! In about a week I would actually go and pick up some of the "Holy Grails" of computer collecting (at least for me).

The distance from Nova Scotia, Canada to Long Island, New York is about 1300km.
Including two ferries (Digby, NS - Saint John, New Brunswick) and New London, Connecticut - Orient Point, Long Island the whole trip takes about 16hours of constant travel. The weather didn't help and the first 100km in New Brunswick it was snowing like crazy.
I arrived late (or early) in New London, Connecticut, and spent the rest of the night in the car. Next morning I arrived earlier then I thought at Jim's house. There I saw the first time my new stuff. I've seen an Altair 8800 before in the Smithonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but only behind glass. This one was real! I could touch it! and best of all: It was mine!! On top of the Altair was the Popular Electronics Magazine and next to it the Heathkit H8. What a site! A computer collectors dream!
Jim planned on opening and building the Digi-comp 1 I traded him for the Altair. I wanted to see the built product. The Jim surprised me. He didn't open the box, yet, he wanted to wait for me. So we unwrapped the original shrinkwrap from the Digi-comp 1 and opened the box. Somehow it felt weird. The box was sealed since 1963! I guess there are not too many sealed Digi-comps in existence. Everything was there. All the parts, and the wonderful manuals in the typical 60s style with NASA rockets and a lot of experiments one could only do with a "real digital computer in plastic". I'm sure Jim will have a blast building his Digi-comp 1.

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I loaded the Altair, the Heathkit with its Floppydrive (what an heavy piece) and the magazine in the car, said good bye to Jim, and started to drive back. Waiting for the Ferry in Orient Point I had the first chance to examine everything closely and have a look in the famous Popular Electronics magazine, I read so many things about. I scanned the important parts for everybody who is interested in that part of computer history here.