View Full Version : How was Altair BASIC used?

April 28th, 2016, 04:00 PM
The Altair famously had a system of lights and switches for input and output. But Bill Gates and Paul Allen famously wrote Altair BASIC as their first product.

How was BASIC code entered into the Altair? Where was output displayed?

April 28th, 2016, 04:10 PM
BASIC was typically loaded from paper tape, either from an ASR-33 Teletype or a standalone paper tape reader like the Oliver Audio OP-80A, or an adapted surplus paper tape reader. You could've toggled the whole thing in, but that's a lot of toggling!

I/O was through a console, which could be a number of output devices. Serial terminals, Teletypes, or TV Typewriter devices were probably the most common. The great thing about a Teletype, especially one with a punch, is it was a multifunction device that fulfilled a lot of needs on a small system like the Altair 8800 -- system console, printer, and storage system via paper tape punch/reader. Storing code on paper tape was really easy, since as a quick and dirty approach an application could just interpret the paper tape as typing at the Teletype keyboard, and handle it just like any other user input. Storing code was just a matter of turning the punch on, and listing the program.

You could of course burn BASIC into ROMs so that it didn't have to be read in every time.

The lights and switches are usable for small programs and debugging, but beyond that they're not so great. Even on minicomputers like the PDP-11, the lights and switches weren't usually the main interface for writing serious programs. Sure, you could, but it's an error-prone process at best.

April 28th, 2016, 04:11 PM
You needed a Teletype or a terminal of some sort. You typed in a short bootloader using the switches, and then you loaded the program using the storage facility of the terminal (usually paper or magnetic tape). You also used the terminal for typing and receiving text.

Check this one out:


April 28th, 2016, 04:18 PM
Also worth noting you didn't have to toggle in the loader necessarily if you had one of the MITS boot ROMs installed in your Altair -- you just had to jump to the loader.

April 28th, 2016, 07:22 PM
MITS BASIC came in two forms--audio cassette and paper tape. At least it did with mine.

As for what it was mostly used for--fodder for pirate versions of BASIC. That really annoyed the heck out of BillG.

April 28th, 2016, 08:43 PM
Morse code. One light for receiving, one switch for sending. The rest were all spares to allow for wear in the field.

April 29th, 2016, 09:45 AM
Morse code. One light for receiving, one switch for sending. The rest were all spares to allow for wear in the field.