Microcomputer Exhibit to Open in Microsoft Birthplace

Microsoft co-founder, Paul G. Allen, announced today plans for a museum exhibit in Albuquerque, NM , which will document the history and impact of the microcomputer. The 3,000-square-foot Microcomputer Gallery is scheduled to open to the public in 2006 and will be housed in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Albuquerque is considered a historical landmark in the development of the personal computer, as it was here that the first publicly available microcomputer, the Altair 8800, was manufactured, and it was here where Allen and Bill Gates started Microsoft back in 1975.

This is not Allen's first museum project. He founded the Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. He is also the financial backer of SpaceShipOne, which is vying to be the first commercial spacecraft to take the public into low-Earth orbit.

"For all of the museums that I have been involved in, there is a theme that everyone, especially young people, can express their creativity," Allen said. Whether that creativity comes out in entrepreneurialism or space travel, he said, "that's the spirit I want to encourage."

Adrian Hunt, director of the museum, likened the choice of Albuquerque to having the "aviation museum at Kitty Hawk." But Allen had more personal reasons: "I always had a fondness for the area."

Microcomputer Beginnings

The nascent home computer industry had its humble beginnings in the Cal Linn building near the New Mexico state fairgrounds. Ed Roberts ran a calculator company there in the mid-1970s called MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) that sold an Altair do-it-yourself kit for around $400, or an assembled version for about a $100 more.

The Altair was based on a 2MHz Intel 8080 processor. The machine had no keyboard or monitor or software, just switches and blinking lights. Even though seemingly useless, there were thousands of orders from hobbyists and scientists in the first few months of its availability.

"This was the first computer that caught people's imagination, because it allowed them to say, 'Gee, I can own my own computer,'" Allen said. "The inexpensiveness of it caused a groundswell."

The Altair was put on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975, which caught the attention of Allen and Gates, who were at the time 21 and 19 years old, respectively. They approached MITS with a proposal to develop the BASIC computer language for the Altair.

When Allen successfully demonstrated their program to Roberts, he was given a job. Gates left Harvard University to join Allen in Albuquerque. They received free space in the MITS office while they developed software.

"We would program until we couldn't stay awake anymore," Allen said. He recalled a late-night Denny's restaurant near the Cal Linn building that he and Gates frequented. "Bill just loved Denny's," Allen said.

Allen and Gates later separated themselves from MITS, forming one of the world's first software companies, Microsoft. They moved operations in 1979 from Albuquerque to Bellevue, WA. Allen left the company in 1983.

Allen had considered placing a computer museum in the Cal Linn building, but the logistics turned out to be too difficult for that location. Instead, the Microcomputer Gallery will reside about 15 minutes west -- down historic Route 66 -- at the natural history museum.

Computer Dinosaurs

The NMMNHS has about a quarter of a million visitors per year. Because many fossils have been found in the state, the exhibits tend to focus on dinosaurs, but the museum also covers topics like cosmology and space exploration.

"Most of our exhibits deal with the evolution of the universe and life, so the Microcomputer Gallery will fit in as the evolution of the computer," Hunt said. He also mentioned that computers are vital to much of the latest advances in paleontology and other sciences.

The proposed gallery will trace the computer revolution from large vacuum tubes to handheld devices. There will be interactive elements that will allow users to experience what it is like being a software programmer, and there will be displays showing a mix of the early "dinosaurs" - including, of course, the Altair.

The cost of the project is estimated at $5 million, the bulk of which will come from Allen. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered $1 million and the nonprofit New Mexico Museum of Natural History Foundation is seeking other donations.

"The commitment has been made by the museum and the department to have a permanent exhibit," said Secretary Stuart Ashman of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

Ashman went on to say that, "New Mexico is often thought of as an outback," but he believed the state has many intellectual contributions, including two National Laboratories, as well as Intel Corp.'s largest chip manufacturing facility. "The [gallery] fits into the kaleidoscope of this activity."