Frank Perdue once said that it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. If Paul Ceruzzi is right, then a similar irony holds true for computers. In A History of Modern Computing (MIT Press), Ceruzzi, a National Air and Space Museum curator, contends that it took a mighty lame computer to usher in our golden age of personal computing.

The Altair 8800, released in 1975, had no keyboard or monitor. Sold via mail order, it was about the size of a breadbox and seemed about as technologically advanced; even the savviest programmers could do little more than make the lights on its front panel blink in patterns. In an age of mighty, room-sized IBM mainframes, the Altair looked downright puny.

But Ceruzzi’s new book restores the luster of this mostly forgotten device. The Altair featured a revolutionary “open bus” that allowed the owner to replace its weak guts with more powerful plug-in cards; moreover, the Altair’s microprocessor was made by an obscure little company known as Intel. Most important, Ceruzzi contends, the Altair became a hot toy for thousands of computer hobbyists who used it to “bootstrap” their way into a more powerful computer age. If not for such geeks, the Altair would be, in Ceruzzi’s words, “a joke.” “I’m sure Bill Gates agrees,” he adds: Gates dropped out of Harvard to program for the Altair in Albuquerque, N.M., where he and Paul Allen created a small company called “Micro Soft.”

A computer curator’s job is hard, “because if you look at the statistics, a machine usually looks pathetic—10K worth of RAM, or whatever,” Ceruzzi says. “So you have to say, ‘No, it was something really important for its day.’ I have to figure out how to convey that. We do it all the time at the museum with airplanes.” But the public understands old planes—it doesn’t mind if a plane isn’t fast, because it usually at least looks interesting. “But unless you’re an engineer,” he says, “you’re not going to recognize the value of an early computer. It’s a big challenge for me to explain why it’s valuable.”

As Ceruzzi, 49, sits in the museum’s employee dining room, Gates’ attorneys fight a crucial antitrust suit in a courthouse just blocks away. Yet Ceruzzi—who spent eight years writing his book—claims not to be following the trial at all. “It’s not interesting to me, because what’s interesting are the things that are bubbling up from below,” he says. The ’70s-era antitrust case against IBM, he notes, was anticlimactic, because IBM was soon overtaken by then-obscure companies like Microsoft. “Somebody out there—I don’t know who—is going to force Bill Gates to reinvent Microsoft as another company,” Ceruzzi says. Mindful as a curator not to take sides, Ceruzzi states it as if it were a fundamental rule of physics: No one stays on top forever, no matter how rich.— Louis Jacobson

More from WCP