The fifth of March was a rainy night in Silicon Valley. All thirty-two participants in the first meeting of the yet unnamed group could hear the rain while sitting on the hard cement floor of Gordon French's two-car garage.
Some of the people at the meeting knew each other; others had come into random contact through the flier that Fred Moore had posted. Lee Felsenstein and Bob Marsh had driven down from Berkeley in Lee's battered pickup truck. Bob Albrecht had come over to give the group his blessing, and to show off the Altair 8800 that MITS had loaned PCC. Tom Pittman, a free-lance engineer who'd built an improbable homebrew computer around the early Intel 4004 chip, had met Fred Moore at a computer conference the previous month and had been looking forward to meeting others with similar interests. Steve Dompier, still waiting for the rest of his Altair parts, had seen the notice posted at Lawrence Hall. Marty Spergel had a small business selling electronic parts and figured it would be a good idea to rap to some engineers about chips. An engineer at Hewlett-Packard named Alan Baum had heard about the meeting and wondered if the talk would be of the new, low-cost computers; he dragged along a friend he'd known since high school, a fellow HP employee named Stephen Wozniak.
Almost every person in the garage was passionate about hardware, with the possible exception of Fred Moore, who envisioned sort of a social group in which people would "bootstrap" themselves
into learning about hardware. He didn't quite realize this was, as Gordon French would later put it, "the damned finest collection of engineers and technicians that you could possibly get under one roof." These were people intensely interested in getting computers into their homes to study, to play with, to create with . . . and the fact that they would have to build the computers was no deterrent. The introduction of the Altair had told them that their dream was possible, and looking at others with the same goal was a thrill in itself. And in the front of Gordon French's cluttered garage workshop--you could never have fit a car in there, let alone two--there it was, an Altair. Bob Albrecht turned it on and the lights flashed and everyone knew that inside that implacable front panel there were seething little binary bits, LDA-ing and JMP-ing and ADDing.
Fred Moore had set up a table in the front and took notes, while Gordon French, who was unspeakably proud of his own homebrew 8008 setup, moderated. Everybody introduced himself, and it turned out that six of the thirty-two had built their own computer system of some sort, while several others had ordered Altairs. Right away, there was some debate about the relative merits of chips, particularly the 8008. In fact, there were endless topics for debate: hex (base sixteen numbers) versus octal (base eight); operating codes for the 8080; paper tape storage versus cassette versus paper and pencil listings . . . They discussed what they wanted in a club, and the words people used most were "cooperation" and "sharing." There was some talk about what people might do with computers in the home, and some suggested games, control of home utilities, text editing, education. Lee mentioned Community Memory. Albrecht distributed the latest issue of PCC. And Steve Dompier told about his pilgrimage to Albuquerque, how MITS was trying to fill four thousand orders, and how they were so busy trying to get basic kits out the door that they were unable to even think of shipping the extra stuff that would enable the machine to do more than flash its lights.
Fred Moore was very excited about the energy the gathering generated. It seemed to him that he had put something in motion. He did not realize at the time that the source of the intellectual heat was not a planner-like contemplation of the social changes possible by mass computing, but the white-hot hacker fascination with tech-
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nology. Buoyed by the willingness everyone seemed to have to work together, Moore suggested the group meet every fortnight. As if to symbolize the concept of free exchange that the group would embody, Marty Spergel, the electric parts supplier who would be known as "the Junk Man" within the group, held up an Intel 8008 chip, just as everyone was leaving. "Who wants this?" he asked, and when the first hand went up, he tossed the chip, the fingernail-sized chunk of technology that could provide a good percentage of the multimillion-dollar power of the TX-0.
Over forty people came to the second meeting, which was held at the Stanford AI lab in the foothills, home of Uncle John McCarthy's Tolkien-esque hackers. Much of the meeting was taken up by a discussion of what the group should be called. Suggestions included Infinitesimal Computer Club, Midget Brains, Steam Beer Computer Club, People's Computer Club, Eight-Bit Byte Bangers, Bay Area Computer Experimenters' Group, and Amateur Computer Club of America. Eventually people decided on Bay Area Amateur Computer Users Group--Homebrew Computer Club. The last three words became the de facto designation. In true hacker spirit the club had no membership requirement, asked no minimum dues (though French's suggestion that anyone who wanted to should give a dollar to cover meeting notice and newsletter expenses had netted $52.63 by the third meeting), and had no elections of officers.
By the fourth meeting, it was clear that the Homebrew Computer Club was going to be a hacker haven. Well over a hundred people received the mailing which announced the meeting would be held that week at the Peninsula School, an isolated, private school nestled in a wooded area of Menlo Park.
Steve Dompier had built his Altair by then: he had received the final shipment of parts at ten one morning, and spent the next thirty hours putting it together, only to find that the 256-byte memory wasn't working. Six hours later he figured out the bug was caused by a scratch on a printed circuit. He patched that up, and then tried to figure out what to do with it.
It seems that the only option supplied by MITS for those who actually finished building the machine was a machine language program that you could key into the machine only by the row of tiny switches on the front panel. It was a program which used the 8080 chip instructions LDA, MOV, ADD, STA, and JMP. If every-
thing was right, the program would add two numbers together. You would be able to tell by mentally translating the code of the flashing LEDs out of their octal form and into a regular decimal number. You would feel like the first man stepping on the moon, a figure in history--you would have the answer to the question stumping mankind for centuries: What happens when you add six and two? Eight! "For an engineer who appreciates computers, that was an exciting event," early Altair owner and Homebrew Club member Harry Garland would later say, admitting that "you might have a hard time explaining to an outsider why it was exciting." To Steve Dompier it was thrilling.
He did not stop there. He made little machine language programs to test all the functions of the chips. (They had to be little programs, since the Altair's memory was so minuscule.) He did this until his own ten "input devices"--his fingers--had thick calluses. The 8080 chip had a 72-function instruction set, so there was plenty to do. An amateur pilot, Dompier listened to a low-frequency radio broadcasting the weather while he worked, and after he tested a program to sort some numbers, a very strange thing happened when he hit the switch to "run" the program: the radio started making ZIPPPP! ZIIIP! ZIIIIIIIPPPP! noises. It was apparently reacting to the radio frequency interference caused by the switching of bits from location to location inside the Altair. He brought the radio closer, and ran the program again. This time the ZIPs were louder. Dompier was exultant: he had discovered the first input/output device for the Altair 8800 computer.
Now the idea was to control the device. Dompier brought his guitar over and figured out that one of the noises the computer made (at memory address 075) was equivalent to an F-sharp on the guitar. So he hacked away at programming until he figured the memory locations of other notes. After eight hours or so, he had charted the musical scale and written a program for writing music. Although it was a simple program, nothing like Peter Samson's elegant music program on the PDP-1, it took Dompier a hell of a long (and painful) time to enter it by those maddening switches. But he was ready with his rendition of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" (the first piece of sheet music he came across) for the meeting of Homebrew at the Peninsula School.
The meeting was held in a room on the second floor of the school,
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a huge, ancient wooden building straight out of "The Addams Family." Dompier's Altair was, of course, the object of much adoration, and he was dying to show them the first documented application. But when Dompier tried to turn on the Altair, it wouldn't work. The electrical outlet was dead. The nearest working outlet was on the first floor of the building, and after locating an extension cord long enough to stretch from there to the second floor, Dompier finally had his Altair plugged in, though the cord was not quite long enough, and the machine had to stand a bit outside the doorway. Dompier began the long process of hitting the right switches to enter the song in octal code, and was just about finished when two kids who had been playing in the hallway accidentally tripped over the cord, pulling it out of the wall. This erased the contents of the computer memory which Dompier had been entering bit by bit. He started over, and finally shushed everyone up in preparation for the first public demonstration of a working Altair application.
He hit the RUN switch.
The little radio on top of the big, menacing computer box began to make raspy, buzzy noises. It was music of a sort, and by the time the first few plaintive bars of Paul McCartney's ballad were through, the room of hackers--normally abuzz with gossip about the latest chip--fell into an awed silence. Steve Dompier's computer, with the pure, knee-shaking innocence of a first-grader's first recital, was playing a song. As soon as the last note played, there was total, stunned silence. They had just heard evidence that the dream they'd been sharing was real. A dream that only a few weeks before had seemed vague and distant.
Well before they had a chance to recover . . . the Altair started to play again. No one (except Dompier) was prepared for this reprise, a rendition of "Daisy," which some of them knew was the first song ever played on a computer, in Bell Labs in 1957; that momentous event in computer history was being matched right before their ears. It was an encore so unexpected that it seemed to come from the machine's genetic connection to its Hulking Giant ancestors (a notion apparently implicit in Kubrick's 2001 when the HAL computer, being dismantled, regressed to a childlike rendition of that very song).
When the Altair finished, the silence did not last for long. The room burst into wild applause and cheers, the hackers leaping to
their feet as they slammed hands together. The people in Homebrew were a melange of professionals too passionate to leave computing at their jobs, amateurs transfixed by the possibilities of technology, and techno-cultural guerrillas devoted to overthrowing an oppressive society in which government, business, and especially IBM had relegated computers to a despised Priesthood. Lee Felsenstein would call them "a bunch of escapees, at least temporary escapees from industry, and somehow the bosses weren't watching. And we got together and started doing things that didn't matter because that wasn't what the big guys were doing. But we knew this was our chance to do something the way we thought it should be done." This involved no less than a major rewriting of computer history, and somehow this simple little music recital by Steve Dompier's Altair seemed the first step. "It was a major achievement in computer history, in my estimation," Bob Marsh later said. Dompier wrote up the experience, along with the machine language code for the program, in the next issue of PCC under the title "Music, of a Sort," and for months afterward Altair owners would call him in the middle of the night, sometimes three at once on conference calls, playing him Bach fugues.
Dompier got over four hundred calls like that. There were a lot more hackers out there than anyone imagined.
Bob Marsh, Lee Felsenstein's unemployed garage-mate, left the first meeting of Homebrew almost dazed with excitement from what he'd been a part of in that little garage. He knew that until now only a tiny number of people had dared to conceive of the act of personal computing. Now here was long-haired Steve Dompier saying that this random company, MITS, had thousands of orders. Bob Marsh realized right then and there that the hacker brotherhood was going to grow exponentially in the next few years. But like a raging fire, it needed fuel. The flashing LEDs on the Altair were exciting, but he knew that--hackers being hackers--there would be a demand for all sorts of peripheral devices, devices this MITS company obviously could not provide.
But someone would have to, because the Altair was the basis for a fantastic system to build new systems, new worlds. Just as the PDP-1, or the PDP-6, had arrived at MIT as a magic box without a
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satisfactory operating system, and just as the MIT hackers had supplied it with assemblers, debuggers, and all sorts of hardware and software tools to make it useful in creating new systems and even some applications, it was up to these as yet unorganized hardware hackers to make their own mark on the Altair 8800.
Bob Marsh understood that this was the beginning of a new era, and a terrific opportunity. Sitting on the cold floor in Gordon French's garage, he decided that he would design and build some circuit boards that would plug into one of the blank slots on the Altair bus.
Bob Marsh wasn't the only one with that idea. In fact, right there in Palo Alto (the town next to Menlo Park, where the meeting was being held), two Stanford professors named Harry Garland and Roger Melen were already working on add-on boards to the Altair. They hadn't heard about the meeting, but would come to the second meeting of hardware enthusiasts, and be regulars thereafter.
The two Ph.D.s had first heard about the Altair when Melen, a tall, heavy man whose wittiness was only slightly impeded by a recurrent stutter, was visiting Les Solomon in late 1974 at the New York office of Popular Electronics. Melen and Garland had done articles outlining hobbyist projects for the magazine in their spare time, and were just putting to bed an article telling how to build a TV-camera control device.
Melen noticed a strange box on Solomon's desk and asked what it was. Solomon informed him that the box, the prototype Altair that Ed Roberts had sent to replace the one lost in air freight, was an 8080 microcomputer that sold for under four hundred dollars. Roger Melen did not think that such a thing was possible, and Les Solomon told him that if he doubted it, he should call Ed Roberts in Albuquerque. Melen did this without hesitation, and arranged to make a stopover on his way back West. He wanted to buy two of those computers. Also, Ed Roberts had previously licensed a project that Melen and Garland had written about in Popular Electronics, and had never gotten around to paying them royalties. So there were two things that Melen wanted to talk to Roberts about.
The Altair computer was the more important by far--the right toy at the right time, Melen thought--and he was so excited about the prospect of owning one that he couldn't sleep that night. When he finally got to MITS' modest headquarters, he was disappointed to
find that there was no Altair ready to take home. But Ed Roberts was a fascinating fellow, a dyed-in-the-wool engineer with a blazing vision. They talked until five in the morning about the technical aspects of this vision. This was before the Popular Electronics article was out, though, and Roberts was concerned at what the response might be. He figured it would not hurt to have some people manufacturing boards to put into the Altair to make it useful, and he agreed to send Melen and Garland an early prototype, so they could make something to connect a TV camera to the machine, and then a board to output a video image as well.
So Garland and Melen were in business, naming their company Cromemco, in honor of the Stanford dorm they'd once lived in, Crowthers Memorial. They were delighted to find similar spirits at the Homebrew Club, among them Marsh, who had talked his friend Gary Ingram into helping start a company called Processor Technology.
Marsh knew that the biggest immediate need of an Altair owner was a memory bigger than the lousy 256 bytes that came with the machine, so he figured he'd make a board which would give 2K of memory. (Each "K" equals 1,024 bytes.) MITS had announced its own memory boards, and had delivered some to customers. They were nice memory boards, but they didn't work. Marsh borrowed the PCC's Altair and looked it over carefully, read the manual backward and forward. This was a necessity because he couldn't initially afford to spend the money to make a Xerox copy. He figured that he would run the company the way Roberts was apparently running MITS--announce his product first, then collect the money required to design and manufacture the product.
So on April Fools' Day, Marsh and Ingram, a reclusive engineer who didn't go to Homebrew meetings ("It's not the kind of thing he did," Marsh later explained), officially inaugurated the company. Marsh was able to scrape up enough money to Xerox fifty fliers explaining the line of proposed products. On April 2, Marsh stood up at the third Homebrew meeting, handed out the fliers, and announced a 20 percent discount to anyone who ordered in advance. After a week, he hadn't heard anything. As Marsh later said, "Despair had set in. We felt, we've blown it, it's not going to work. Then our first order came in, for a ROM [memory] board costing only forty-five dollars. A purchase order asking 'Net 30 terms,' from
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this company called Cromemco. We thought, 'Who is this Cromemco? And why don't they pay cash?' Despair set in once more. IT'S NOT GOING TO FLY! The next day three orders came in, and within a week after that we had twenty-five hundred dollars cash. We took a thousand, ponied up for a sixth-page ad in Popular Electronics, and all hell broke loose after that. It took us only two months to get a hundred thousand dollars in orders."
The irony was that Marsh and the other hacker-run operations were not setting up to be huge businesses. They were looking for a way to finance their avocation of playing with electronics, of exploring this new realm of little bitty computers. For Marsh and the others who left the first few Homebrew meetings with board-building fervor, the fun was beginning: designing and building stuff, expressing themselves by the twists and tangles of a digital logic integrated circuit board to be attached to Ed Roberts' byzantine bus.
As Marsh found out, building a board for the Altair was the Homebrew hacker's equivalent of attempting a great novel. It would be something that harsh Homebrew reviewers would examine carefully, and they would not only note whether it worked or not but judge the relative beauty and stability of its architecture. The layout of circuits on the board was a window into the designer's personality, and even superficial details like the quality of the holes by which one mounted the board would betray the designer's motives, philosophy, and commitment to elegance. Digital designs, like computer programs, "are the best pictures of minds you can get," Lee Felsenstein once said. "There are things I can tell about people from hardware designs I see. You can look at something and say 'Jesus Christ, this guy designs like an earthworm--goes from one place through to the end and doesn't even know what it was he did in the middle.'"
Bob Marsh wanted Processor Technology to be known for quality products, and he spent the next few months in a frazzled state trying not only to finish his projects, but to do them right. It was important for the company and for his pride as well.
The process was not a terribly simple one. After figuring out what your board would do, you would spend long nights designing the layout. Looking in the manual that described the workings of the 8080 chip, you would jot down the numbers for the various sections
you wanted--designating this section for an input, that one for memory--and the labyrinthine grid inside that piece of black plastic would begin to reshape inside your head. The effectiveness of your choice of which sections to access would depend on how well and how accurately you kept that vision up there. You would make a pencil drawing of those connections, with the stuff destined to go on one side of the board written in blue, stuff for the other side in red. Then you would get sheets of Mylar, lay them on a grid on a light table, and begin laying out the outline of the connections, using crepe paper tape. You might find out that your scheme had some problems--too much traffic in one part, the interconnections too tight--and have to realign some things. One mistake could blow everything. So you'd be sure to do an overlay of the schematic: placing that on top of your taped-up design, you could see if you made some grievous error, like hooking three things together. If the schematic itself was in error, forget it.
You would design it so that the board would have several layers; a different set of connections on the top and the bottom. You would flip the layout back and forth as you worked, and sometimes the tape would peel off, or you would have little pieces of tape left over, or a hair would get stuck somewhere: any of these uncalled-for phenomena would be faithfully duplicated in the sepia reproductions made for you at a blueline house (if you didn't have money for that, you'd do a careful Xerox), and result in a disastrous short circuit. Then you'd mark up the layout for the board company, telling where to drill and what needed gold-plating, and so on.
Finally, you'd go to a local board house with drawings in hand. You'd give it to them. Since it was still a recession, they would be happy for the business, even business coming from a scruffy, smalltime, glassy-eyed hardware hacker. They would put the thing on a digitizer, drill the holes, and produce on greenish epoxy material a mess of silvery interconnections. That was the deluxe method--Bob Marsh at first could not afford that, so he hand-etched the board over the kitchen stove, using printed circuit laminate material, making barely discernible lines that the material would melt into. That method was a tortuous courting of the bitch goddess Disaster, but Marsh was a compulsively careful worker. He later explained: "I really get into it. I become one with my schematic design."
For this first memory board, Marsh was under particular pressure.
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Every other week at the Homebrew meeting, every day on the phone, frantic people were gasping for static memory boards like divers gasping for air. Marsh later recalled their cries: "Where's my board? I need it. I GOTTA HAVE IT."
Finally Marsh was done. There wasn't time for a prototype. He had his board, which was the green epoxy rectangle with a little protrusion of etched gold connectors underneath, sized to fit into a slot in the Altair bus. He had the chips and wires which the kit-builders would solder onto it. (Processor Tech would only sell unassembled boards at first.) Marsh had it all ready--and no Altair to test it out on. So despite the fact that it was three in the morning he called that guy Dompier he knew from Homebrew and told him to bring the machine over. Dompier's Altair was at least as valuable to him as a human infant offspring would be if he weren't in Bachelor Mode, so he carefully wrapped it up in a little red blanket to bring it over. Dompier had gone by the book in assembling the machine, even wearing a copper bracelet around his wrist when he soldered (to keep static down), and taking care not to touch the fragile 8080 heart of the machine. So he was stunned, after lovingly setting the machine down in Marsh's workshop, when the hardware veterans Marsh and Ingram began handling chips like a couple of garage mechanics installing a muffler. They'd grab chips with their grubby fingers and throw chips around and pull chips out and stuff them back in. Dompier watched in horror. Finally they had the board all ready, and Ingram flicked the switch on, and Steve Dompier's precious computer fizzled into unconsciousness. They'd put the board in backward.
It took a day to fix Dompier's Altair, but Steve Dompier harbored no anger: in fact, he loaned his machine to Processor Technology for future testing. It was indicative of Homebrew behavior. These were a different breed of hacker than the unapproachable wizards of MIT, but they still held to the Hacker Ethic that sublimated possession and selfishness in favor of the common good, which meant anything that could help people hack more efficiently. Steve Dompier was nervous about his Altair, but he wanted little in the world more than a memory board, so he could run some real programs on the machine. And then he wanted i/o devices, display devices . . . so that he could write utilities to make the machine more powerful. Tools to Make Tools, to go deep into the world that centered on the
mysterious 8080 microprocessor inside his machine. Bob Marsh and the others in Homebrew, whether they were offering products for sale or were simply curious hackers like himself, were all in this together, and together they formed a community that may not have been as geographically centered as MIT's PDP-6 community was--it stretched from Sacramento to San Jose--but was strongly bonded nonetheless.
When Bob Marsh showed up at a Homebrew meeting in early June with the first shipment of boards, the people who ordered them were so thankful you might think that he'd been giving them away. He handed over the little plastic blister-wrapped packets of board and ICs, along with the instruction manual Lee Felsenstein had written. "Unless you are an experienced kit-builder," Lee warned, "don't build this kit."
There was very little experience in the world at building those kinds of things, but much of the experience that did exist in the world was centered in that meeting room, which was now the auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC). It was four months after the first casual meeting of the club, and its membership had grown almost tenfold.
The little club formed by Fred Moore and Gordon French had grown to something neither could have imagined. It was the vanguard of a breed of hardware hackers who were "bootstrapping" themselves into a new industry--which, they were sure, would be different from any previous industry. The microcomputer industry would be ruled by the Hacker Ethic. (The term "bootstrap" was indicative of the new jargon spoken by these hackers: the term literally describes the process by which a computer program feeds itself into a machine when the machine is first turned on, or "booted." Part of the program will feed the code into the computer; this code will program the machine to tell itself to feed the rest of the code in. Just like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It is symbolic of what the Homebrew people were doing--creating a niche in the world of small computer systems, then digging deeper to make the niche a cavern, a permanent settlement.)
But the club's founders were both soon outdistanced by the technical brilliance around them. In French's case, he suffered from
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what seemed to be a latent bureaucratic attitude. In some respects, his mania to keep the club progressing in an orderly, controlled manner was helpful. He acted as secretary and librarian, keeping a list of everyone's phone number and what equipment everyone owned. As he later recalled, "My phone rang off the hook. It was incredible. Everybody needed information, and they needed each other in order to get going because there was an absolute paucity of equipment. For example: 'If you have a terminal could I borrow it for a couple days while I get my program in it so it'll read my punch paper tape reader?' That sort of thing."
But in other respects, particularly in the way he moderated the meetings, French's style was not consistent with the hacker spirit brewing in Homebrew. "Gordon was a didactic sort," Lee Felsenstein would later recall. "He would try to push the discussion to where he wanted it to go. He wanted it to be an educational event, holding lectures, teaching people about certain things, especially stuff he was expert on. He was very upset if the discussion strayed from people literally teaching other people in a schoolish sense. He would jump into whatever people were saying and get involved in the content, injecting his opinions and telling them 'There's an important point that shouldn't be missed, and I know more about this kind of stuff.'" After the first part of the meeting, in which people would introduce themselves and say what they were working on, Gordon would stand up in front of the room and give what amounted to a tutorial, explaining the way the machine uses the code you feed into it, and informing the restless members how learning good coding habits will save you headaches in the future . . . and sooner or later people would get so impatient they'd slip out of the meetings and start exchanging information in the hall. It was a touchy situation, the kind of complex human dilemma that hackers don't generally like to confront. But the feeling emerged that a new moderator should take over.
The logical choice might have been Fred Moore, who sat in the front of the room for the first few months of Homebrew with his tape recorder and notebook, capturing the meeting so he could summarize highlights in the newsletter he put out every month. He was putting a lot of his time into the group, because he saw that the hackers and their Altairs were on the verge of what might be a significant social force. "By sharing our experience and exchanging
tips we advance the state of the art and make low-cost computing possible for more folks," he wrote in the newsletter, adding his social commentary: "The evidence is overwhelming that people want computers, probably for self-entertainment and education usage. Why did the Big Companies miss this market? They were busy selling overpriced machines to each other (and the government and the military). They don't want to sell directly to the public. I'm all in favor of the splash MITS is having with the Altair because it will do three things: (1) force the awakening of other companies to the demand for low-cost computers in the home . . . (2) cause local computer clubs and hobby groups to form to fill the technical knowledge vacuum, (3) help demystify computers . . ."
Moore explicitly identified the purpose of the club as an information exchange. Like the unfettered flow of bits in an elegantly designed computer, information should pass freely among the participants in Homebrew. "More than any other individual, Fred Moore knew what sharing was all about," Gordon French later recalled. "That was one of the expressions he was always using-- sharing, sharing, sharing."
But the majority of the club preferred a path that diverged from Fred Moore's. Fred was always harping on applications. Every so often in the early meetings he would urge the members of this basically anarchistic group to get together and do something, though he was usually vague on what that something might be. Maybe using computers to aid handicapped people, maybe compiling mailing lists for draft resistance. Moore might have been correct in perceiving that the thrust of the club was in some way political, but his view seemed at odds with the reality that hackers do not generally set about to create social change--hackers act like hackers. Moore was less fascinated with the workings of computer systems than with the idea of bringing about a sharing, benevolent social system; he seemed to regard Homebrew not as a technical stronghold of people hungry for the pyramid-building power of in-home computers, but as a cadre devoted to social change, like the draft resistance or anti-nuke groups he'd been involved in. He would suggest cake sales to raise funds for the group, or publish cute little poems in the newsletter like "Don't complain or fuss / It is up to each of us / To make the Club do / What we want it to." Meanwhile, most of the club members would be turning to the back of
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the newsletter to study the schematics in the contribution called "Arbitrary Logic Function Generation Via Digital Multiplexers." That was the way to change the world, and a lot more fun than a cake sale.
Lee Felsenstein later reflected that he didn't think Moore "got his politics straight. At the surface level he remained at the point of the protest or the gesture of protest. But we were much more interested in what you might call the Propaganda of the Deed."
So when an opening fortuitously appeared to make the meetings more compatible with the free-flowing hacker spirit--Gordon French, doing consulting work for the Social Security Administration, was temporarily called to Baltimore--it was not Moore that some club members asked to moderate, but Lee Felsenstein. He turned out to be an ideal choice, since he was as much a hardware hacker as any, but also a political computerist. He looked upon the call to moderate these meetings as a significant elevation. He could now be the point man of the revolution on the hardware front, allowing the meetings to progress with just the right blend of anarchism and direction, continuing his own guerrilla hardware design schemes which would lead to the triumph of the Tom Swift Terminal, and participating in the resurrection of the dormant Community Memory concept--a process which was beginning that summer with the publication of a mimeographed periodical called Journal of Community Communication, which would spread the concept of microcomputer devices "created and used by people in their daily lives as members of communities."
When he first stood in front of the room at a June 1975 meeting of Homebrew, though, he was terrified. As he recalls it, someone asked who the new moderator would be, and Marty Spergel, the "Junk Man" who owned the M&R Electronics supply house, suggested Lee, and "the cry went up." It was as if he'd been crowned. Nervous as he was, it was a chance he could not pass up. As usual for Lee, the risks of failing were less intimidating than the risks that came from not trying at all.
He knew a bit about running a forum. During his student radical days in l968, he'd been listening to a Berkeley radio call-in show which was so badly engineered, with inaudible callers and fuzz and things, that he ran over to the studio waving his portable radio and saying, "Listen to this, you idiots!" He wound up helping run the
show, and part of his role was to prime the guests before they went on the air. He thought that his role in Homebrew could draw from that; he urged people not familiar with addressing any audience larger than a tableful of electronic parts to talk to other humans about their interests. As Fred Moore sensed, this was to be the heart of the meeting, the exchange of information. So Lee, creating an architecture for the meeting as if he were tackling an electronic design problem, flowcharted the session. There would be a time to go around the room and let people say what they were doing or what they wanted to know--that would be the "mapping" section, akin to drawing a schematic. Then there would be a "random access" section, where you would drift over to the people who suggested things that interested you, or could answer your questions, or seemed to have information you wanted, or just seemed interesting to talk to. After that, there would be perhaps a brief talk, or someone would demonstrate a system or show a new product, and then there would be more mapping, and more random access. When Lee saw that people were reluctant to return from the first random access section--sometimes you could get lost in some technical point, or some religious issue like a technique for wire-wrapping a board or something--he changed the structure to include only one random access section, at the end of the meeting. Thus debugged, the structure worked fine.
Lee found that standing in front of a group of people who accepted him and were appreciative of his role as a "stack pointer"--the computer function which determines the order by which computational tasks get done--helped his conscious effort to bring himself out of his mole-like shell. Soon into his tenure as moderator, he felt confident enough to give the group a talk on his Tom Swift Terminal; scrawling on the blackboard at the front of the small auditorium at SLAC, he talked of video displays, hardware reliability, Ivan Illich, and the idea of incorporating the user in the design. It was a good blend of social commentary and technical esoterica, and the Homebrewers appreciated it. Lee found himself talented in the ready quip, and eventually hacked a little routine that he'd deliver at the beginning of each meeting. He came to take a fierce pride in his job as club master of ceremonies: in his thinking he was now the ringmaster of a hacker movement, a group that was central in shaping a microprocessor way of life.
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Not long after Lee took over, a troubled Fred Moore resigned his roles as treasurer, secretary, and editor of the newsletter. He was having some personal problems; the woman he'd been seeing had left him. It was a rough time for him to leave: he felt that the club had been his legacy, in a sense, but it was probably clear by then that his hopes of it being devoted to public service work were futile. Instead there was the Propaganda of the Deed, and, more disturbing, some people who came to meetings, Fred later recalled "with dollar bill signs in their eyes, saying, 'Wow, here's a new industry, I'll build this company and make these boards, and make a million . . .'" There were other computer-related social issues Moore wanted to pursue, but he had come to realize, he later explained, that "the people in the club were way ahead [of him] as far as their knowledge of electronics or computing, [and because of this] the people were enamored with those very devices, devices which were very seductive." So Fred was unhappy at how blindly people accepted technology. Someone had told Fred about the cheap female labor in Malaysia and other Asian countries who physically assembled those magical chips. He heard how the Asian women were paid pitiful wages, worked in unsafe factories, and were unable to return to their villages, since they never had a chance to learn the traditional modes of cooking or raising a family. He felt he should tell the club about it, force the issue, but by then he realized that it was not the kind of issue that the Homebrew Club was meant to address.
Still, he loved the club, and when his personal problems forced him to bow out and go back East, he would later say it was "one of the saddest days of my life." A small, wistful figure, he stood at the blackboard at a mid-August meeting and wrote down his duties, asking who would do the newsletter, who would do the treasury, the notes . . . And someone came up and began writing "Fred Moore" beside each item. It broke his heart, yet he felt for him it was over, and while he couldn't share all his reasons he had to let his brothers know he couldn't be there any more.
"I saw myself as a person who had helped those people get together and share their skills and energy," Moore said later. And those goals had been reached. Indeed, each meeting seemed to crackle with spirit and excitement as people swapped gossip and chips, bootstrapping themselves into this new world. At the map-
ping period, people would stand up and say that they had a problem in setting up this or that part of the Altair, and Lee would ask, "Who can help this guy?" and three or four hands would go up. Fine. Next? And someone would say that he needed a 1702 chip. Someone else might have an extra 6500 chip, and there'd be a trade.
Then there would be people standing up to announce the latest rumors in Silicon Valley. Jim Warren, a chunky former Stanford computer science grad student, was a particularly well-connected gossipmonger who would pop up in the random access period and go on for ten minutes about this company and the next, often slipping in some of his personal views on the future of computer communications by digital broadcasts.
Another notorious purveyor of this weird form of gossip was a novice engineer named Dan Sokol, who worked as a systems tester at one of the big Valley firms. His tidbits were often startlingly prescient (to keep them guessing, Sokol later admitted, he'd fabricate about half his rumors). Sokol, a long-haired, bearded digital disciple who threw himself into Homebrew with the energy of the newly converted, quickly adhered to the Hacker Ethic. He considered no rumor too classified to share, and the more important the secret the greater his delight in its disclosure. "Is anybody here from Intel?" he might ask--and, if there wasn't, he would divulge the news of the chip that Intel had previously been successful in shielding from every company in the Valley (and perhaps from a cadre of Russian spies).
Sometimes Sokol, an inveterate barterer, would actually reach into his pocket and produce the prototype of a chip. For instance, one day at work, he recalled, some men from a new company called Atari came in to test some chips. They were extremely secretive, and didn't say what the chips were. Sokol examined them: some were marked Syntech, some AMI. Sokol knew guys at both companies, and they told him the chips were custom parts, laid out and designed by the Atari people. So he took one home, put it on a board, and tested it out. The chip turned out to contain a program to play the new video game "Pong"--the new Atari firm was just beginning to put together a home setup to play that game, in which two people control "paddles" of light on a TV screen and try to keep a blip-like "ball" in play. Sokol laid out the design on a circuit board, took it to Homebrew and displayed it. He took a few extra chips
THE HOMEBREW COMPUTER CLUB 213
along with him, and traded the chips with others, eventually winding up with a keyboard and a few RAM chips. "We're talking outright thievery," he later explained; but in Homebrew terms, Sokol was liberating a neat hack from the proprietary oppressors. Pong was neat, and should belong to the world. And in Homebrew, exchanges like that were free and easy.
Years earlier, Buckminster Fuller had developed the concept of synergy--the collective power, more than the sum of the parts, that comes of people and/or phenomena working together in a system --and Homebrew was a textbook example of the concept at work. One person's idea would spark another person into embarking on a large project, and perhaps beginning a company to make a product based on that idea. Or, if someone came up with a clever hack to produce a random number generator on the Altair, he would give out the code so everyone could do it, and by the next meeting someone else would have devised a game that utilized the routine.
The synergy would continue even after the meeting, as some of the Homebrew people would carry on their conversations till midnight at The Oasis, a raucous watering hole near the campus. (The location had been suggested by Roger Melen; Jim Warren, a virulent anti-smoker, once tried to lure people over to the no-smoking section at The Village Host, but that never caught on.) Piling into wooden booths with tables deeply etched with the initials of generations of Stanford students, Garland and Melen and Marsh and Felsenstein and Dompier and French and whoever else felt like showing up would get emboldened by the meeting's energy and the pitchers of beer. They would envision developments so fantastic that no one ever believed they could be more than fantasies, far-flung fancies like the day when home computers with TV displays would engender pornographic programs--SMUT-ROMs, they called them--which would not be illegal because they'd only be pornographic if you scanned them the way the computer did. How could the raw computer code be pornographic? It was just one of dozens of perversely improbable musings that would be not only realized but surpassed within a few years.
Synergy: Marty Spergel, the Junk Man, knew exactly how that worked. A tanned, middle-aged haggler with a disarmingly wide smile, he thought that Homebrew was like "having your own little Boy Scout troop, everybody helping everybody else. I remember I
had trouble with a teletype machine at my office and one guy [at Homebrew] said he'd check it out. Not only did he check it out but he came out with a little kit and he put in four or five different parts, oiled it, lubed it, adjusted all the gears. I said, 'How much do I owe you?' He said, 'Nothing.' " To the Junk Man, that was the essence of Homebrew.
Spergel always kept track of what parts people needed; he'd sometimes bring a box of them to a meeting. After the Tom Swift Terminal talk, he asked Lee if he cared to build one for Spergel's company, M&R Electronics. Well, the Swift terminal wasn't ready, Lee told him, but how about this design for a modem--a device which enables computers to communicate by the phone lines--that Lee had done a couple of years back? "He probably even knew what a modem was, though that was not clear from the way he reacted," Lee said later. Modems sold then for four to six hundred dollars, but Marty was able to construct Lee's cleanly designed "Pennywhistle" modem to sell for $109. They sent a copy of the schematics to Lee Solomon at Popular Electronics and he put a picture of Lee's modem on the cover.
Synergy. The increasing number of Homebrew members who were designing or giving away new products, from game joysticks to i/o boards for the Altair, used the club as a source of ideas and early orders, and for beta-testing of the prototypes. Whenever a product was done you would bring it to the club, and get the most expert criticism available. Then you'd distribute the technical specifications and the schematics--if it involved software, you would distribute the source code. Everybody could learn from it, and improve on it if they cared to and were good enough.
It was a sizzling atmosphere that worked so well because, in keeping with the Hacker Ethic, no artificial boundaries were maintained. In fact, every principle of that Ethic, as formed by the MlT hackers, was exercised to some degree within Homebrew. Exploration and hands-on activities were recognized as cardinal values; the information gathered in these explorations and ventures in design were freely distributed even to nominal competitors (the idea of competition came slowly to these new companies, since the struggle was to create a hacker version of an industry--a task which took all hands working together); authoritarian rules were disdained, and people believed that personal computers were the ultimate
THE HOMEBREW COMPUTER CLUB 215
ambassadors of decentralization; the membership ranks were open to anyone wandering in, with respect earned by expertise or good ideas, and it was not unusual to see a seventeen-year-old conversing as an equal with a prosperous, middle-aged veteran engineer; there was a keen level of appreciation of technical elegance and digital artistry; and, above all, these hardware hackers were seeing in a vibrantly different and populist way how computers could change lives. These were cheap machines that they knew were only a few years away from becoming actually useful.
This, of course, did not prevent them from becoming totally immersed in hacking these machines for the sake of hacking itself for the control, the quest, and the dream. Their lives were directed to that moment when the board they designed, or the bus they wired, or the program they keyed in would take its first run . . . One person later referred to that moment as akin to backing up a locomotive over a section of track you'd just fixed, and running it over that track at ninety miles an hour. If your track wasn't strong, the train would derail calamitously . . . smoke . . . fire . . . twisted metal . . . But if you hacked well, it would rush through in an exhilarating rush. You would be jolted with the realization that thousands of computations a second would be flashed through that piece of equipment with your personal stamp on it. You, the master of information and lawgiver to a new world.
Some planners would visit Homebrew and be turned off by the technical ferocity of the discussions, the intense flame that burned brightest when people directed themselves to the hacker pursuit of building. Ted Nelson, author ofComputer Lib, came to a meeting and was confused by all of it, later calling the scruffily dressed and largely uncombed Homebrew people "chip-monks, people obsessed with chips. It was like going to a meeting of people who love hammers." Bob Albrecht rarely attended, later explaining that "I could understand only about every fourth word those guys were saying . . . they were hackers." Jude Milhon, the woman with whom Lee remained friends after their meeting through the Barb and their involvement in Community Memory, dropped in once and was repelled by the concentration on sheer technology, exploration, and control for the sake of control. She noted the lack of female hardware hackers, and was enraged at the male hacker obsession with technological play and power. She summed up her
feelings with the epithet "the boys and their toys," and like Fred Moore worried that the love affair with technology might blindly lead to abuse of that technology.
None of these concerns slowed down the momentum of Homebrew, which was growing to several hundred members, filling the auditorium of SLAC, becoming the fortnightly highlight in the lives of well over a hundred hard-core Brewers. What they had started was almost a crusade now, something that Ted Nelson, whose book was filled with anti-IBM screeds, should have appreciated. While IBM and the Big Guys never gave a thought to these random hackers in computer clubs with their ideas of owning computers, the Homebrew people and others like them were hacking away not only at 8080 chips, but at the now crumbling foundations of the Batch-processed Tower of Bit-Babble. "We reinforced each other," Lee Felsenstein later explained. We provided a support structure for each other. We bought each other's products. We covered each other's asses, in effect. There we were--the industrial structure was paying no attention to us. Yet we had people who knew as much as anyone else knew about this aspect of technology, because it was so new. We could run wild, and we did."
By the time Les Solomon, the New York guru of this movement, arrived for a visit to the West Coast, the golden age of the Homebrew Computer Club was gleaming its brightest. Solomon first checked on Roger Melen and Harry Garland, who had just finished the prototype of the Cromemco product that would be on the cover of Popular Electronics in November 1975--an add-on board for the Altair which would allow the machine to be connected to a color television set, yielding dazzling graphic results. In fact, Melen and Garland were calling the board "the Dazzler." Les went over to Roger's apartment to see it, but before they put the board into Roger's Altair the three of them got to drinking, and they were pretty well lubricated by the time the board was in and the color TV was on.
There were two Altair programs that could take advantage of the Dazzler then. One was called Kaleidoscope, and it shimmered and changed shape. It was a great moment for Solomon, seeing the
THE HOMEBREW COMPUTER CLUB 217
computer he had helped bring to the world making a color television set run beautiful patterns.
Then they tried another program: LIFE. The game-that-is-more-than-a-game, created by mathematician John Conway. The game which MIT wizard Bill Gosper had hacked so intently, to the point where he saw it as potentially generating life itself. The Altair version ran much more slowly than the PDP-6 program, of course, and with none of those elegantly hacked utilities, but it followed the same rules. And it did it while sitting on the kitchen table. Garland put in a few patterns, and Les Solomon, not fully knowing the rules of the game and certainly not aware of the deep philosophical and mathematical implications, watched the little blue, red, or green stars (that was the way the Dazzler made the cells look) eat the other little stars, or make more stars. What a waste of time, he thought. Who cares?
Then he began idly playing with the machine, sketching out a pattern to run. He happened, in his inebriation, to put up something resembling the Star of David. He later recalled: "I ran the program and watched the way it ate itself up. It took about ten minutes and finally it died. I thought, 'Gee that's interesting--does that mean the Jewish religion is about to go after 247 generations?' So I drew a crucifix. That went for 121 generations. Does this somehow mean that Judaism will outlast Christianity?" Soon he was putting up crescents and stars and symbols of different meanings, and the three of them--four of them, including the Altair--were exploring the mysteries of the world's religions and nationalities. "Who the hell needs philosophy at three o'clock in the morning, drinking?" Solomon later said. "It was a computer. It was there."
But Les Solomon had more magic to transmit. One of the stories he would tell, stories so outrageous that only a penny-pincher of the imagination would complain of their improbability, was of the time he was exploring in pursuit of one of his "hobbies," pre-Colombian archeology. This required much time in jungles, "running around with Indians, digging, pitching around in the dirt . . . you know, finding things." It was from those Indians, Les Solomon insisted, that he learned the vital principle of vril, a power which allows you to move huge objects with very little force. Solomon believed that it was the power of vril which enabled the Egyptians to build the pyramids. (Perhaps vril was the power that Ed Roberts was talking
about when he realized that his Altair would give people the power of ten thousand pyramid-building Egyptians.) According to his story, Solomon met a venerable Indian brujo and asked if he might learn this power. Could the brujo teach him? And the brujo complied. Now, after the drunken evening with the LIFE program, Solomon attended a Homebrew meeting at SLAC where he was accorded the respect of an honored guest--the midwife of Ed Roberts' Altair. And after the meeting, Solomon was telling the hardware hackers about vril. There was some skepticism.
Outside of SLAC were huge orange picnic tables with concrete bases. Solomon had the Homebrew people touch their hands on one of the tables, and he touched it, too. They simply had to think it would rise.
Lee Felsenstein later described the scene: "He'd said, 'Hey, let me show you . . .' We were hanging on his every word, we'd do anything. So about six people surrounded the table, put their hands on. He put his hand on top, squinted his eyes and said, 'Let's go.' And the table raised about a foot. It rose like a harmonic motion, [as elegantly as] a sine wave. It didn't feel heavy. It just happened."
Afterward, even the participants, save Solomon, were not sure that it had really happened. But Lee Felsenstein, seeing another chapter close in that earth-shattering science-fiction novel that was his life, understood the mythic impact of this event. They, the soldiers of the Homebrew Computer Club, had taken their talents and applied the Hacker Ethic to work for the common good. It was the act of working together in unison, hands-on, without the doubts caused by holding back, which made extraordinary things occur. Even impossible things occur. The MIT hackers had discovered that when their desire to hack led them to persist so single-mindedly that the barriers of security, exhaustion, and mental limits seemed to shrink away. Now, in the movement to wipe away generations of centralized, anti-hacker control of the computer industry, to change the world's disapproving view of computers and computer people, the combined energy of hardware hackers working together could do anything. If they did not hold back, not retreat within themselves, not yield to the force of greed, they could make the ideals of hackerism ripple through society as if a pearl were dropped in a silver basin.
Homebrew Club was sitting atop the power of vril.