EVERY MAN A GOD
In June 1974, Lee Felsenstein moved into a one-room apartment over a garage in Berkeley. It didn't have much in the way of amenities--not even a thermostat--but it only cost $185 a month, and Lee could fit a workbench in the corner, and call it home. He preferred low overhead, portability, utility in a place.
Felsenstein had a specific design project in mind. A computer terminal built on the Community Memory concept. Lee abhorred terminals built to be utterly secure in the face of careless users, black boxes which belch information and are otherwise opaque in their construction. He believed that the people should have a glimpse of what makes the machine go, and the user should be urged to interact in the process. Anything as flexible as computers should inspire people to engage in equally flexible activity. Lee considered the computer itself a model for activism, and hoped the proliferation of computers to people would, in effect, spread the Hacker Ethic throughout society, giving the people power not only over machines but over political oppressors.
Lee Felsenstein's father had sent him a book by Ivan Illich entitled Tools for Conviviality, and Illich's contentions bore out Lee's views ("To me, the best teachers tell me what I know is already right," Lee would later explain). Illich professed that hardware should be designed not only for the people's ease, but with the long-term view of the eventual symbiosis between the user and the tool. This inspired Felsenstein to conceive of a tool which would embody the thoughts of Illich, Bucky Fuller, Karl Marx, and Robert Heinlein. It would be a terminal for the people. Lee dubbed it the Tom
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Swift Terminal, "in honor of the American folk hero most likely to be found tampering with the equipment." It would be Lee Felsenstein bringing the hacker dream to life.
Meanwhile, he would live off income from free-lance engineering contracts. One place he sought work was Systems Concepts, the small company which employed MIT veterans Stew Nelson (the phone wizard and coding genius), and TMRC and TX-0 alumnus Peter Samson. Felsenstein was leery of anything to do with MIT; typical of hardware hackers, he was offended at what he considered the excessive purity of those hackers, particularly their insouciance when it came to spreading the technology among the "losers." "Anyone who's been around artificial intelligence is likely to be a hopeless case," he'd later explain. "They're so far removed from reality that they cannot deal with the real world. When they start saying, 'Well, essentially all you need to do is dot dot dot,' I just glaze over and say, 'OK, buddy, but that's the easy part. Where we do our work is the rest of that.'"
His suspicions were confirmed when he met diminutive but strong-willed Stew Nelson. Almost instantly, they were involved in a disagreement, an arcane technical dispute which Lee later termed an "I'm-smarter-than-you-are, typical hacker dispute." Stew was insisting that you could pull off a certain hardware trick, while Lee, whose engineering style was shaped by his early childhood paranoia that things might not work, said he wouldn't risk it. Sitting in the big, wooden, warehouse-like structure that housed Systems Concepts, Lee felt that these guys were not as interested in getting computer technology out to the people as they were in elegant, mind-blowing computer pyrotechnics. To Lee, they were technological Jesuits. He was unconcerned about the high magic they could produce and the exalted pantheon of canonical wizards they revered. What about the people?
So when Stew Nelson, the archetypal MIT hacker type, gave Felsenstein the equivalent of an audition, a quick design test for a hardware product, Lee did not play the game. He could care less about producing the technological bon mot which Stew was looking for. Lee walked out.
He'd look for work elsewhere. He figured he could make it if he brought in eight thousand dollars a year. Because of the recession,
work had been hard to find, but things were picking up. Fifty miles south of Berkeley, Silicon Valley was beginning to come alive.
The twenty miles or so between Palo Alto on the peninsula and San Jose at the lower end of San Francisco Bay had earned the title "Silicon Valley" from the material, made of refined sand, used to make semiconductors. Two decades before, Palo Alto had been the spawning ground of the transistor; this advance had been parlayed into the magic of integrated circuits (ICs)--tiny networks of transistors which were compressed onto chips, little plastic-covered squares with thin metallic connectors on the bottom. They looked like headless robot insects. And now, in the early 1970s, three daring engineers working for a Santa Clara company called Intel had invented a chip called a microprocessor: a dazzlingly intricate layout of connections which duplicated the complex grid of circuitry one would find in the central processing unit (CPU) of a computer.
The bosses of these engineers were still pondering the potential uses of the microprocessor.
Lee Felsenstein, in any case, was reluctant to take a chance on brand-new technology. His "junk-box" style of engineering precluded using anything but products which he knew would be around for a while. The success of the microchip, and the rapid price-cutting process that occurred after the chips were manufactured in volume (it cost a fortune to design a chip and make a prototype; it cost very little to produce one chip after an assembly line existed to churn them out), resulted in a chip shortage in 1974, and Felsenstein had little confidence that the industry would keep these new microprocessors in sufficient supply for his design. He pictured the users of his terminal treating it the way hackers treat a computer operating system, changing parts and making improvements...
"a living system rather than a mechanical system," he'd later explain. "The tools are part of the regenerative process." These users would need steady access to parts. So while waiting for clear winners in the microchip race to develop, he took his time, pondering the lessons of Ivan Illich, who favored the design of a tool "that enhances the ability of people to pursue their own goals in their unique way." On sunny days in laid-back Berkeley, Lee would take his drawing board down to People's Park, the strip of greenery which he had helped liberate in the not-too-distant sixties, and
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make sketches of schematics, getting a sunburn from the reflection off the white drafting paper.
Felsenstein was only one of hundreds of engineers in the Bay Area who somewhere along the line had shed all pretenses that their interest was solely professional. They loved the hands-on aspects of circuitry and electronics, and even if many of them worked by day in firms with exotic names like Zilog and Itel and National Semiconductor, they would come home at night and build, build fantastic projects on epoxy-based silk-screened boards loaded with etched lines and lumpy rows of ICs. Soldered into metal boxes, the boards would do strange functions: radio functions, video functions, logic functions. Less important than making these boards perform tasks was the act of making the boards, of creating a system that got something done. It was hacking. If there was a goal at all, it was constructing a computer in one's very own home. Not to serve a specific function, but to play with, to explore. The ultimate system. But these hackers of hardware would not often confide their objective to outsiders, because, in 1974, the idea of a regular person having a computer in his home was patently absurd.
Still, that's where things were going. You could sense an excitement everywhere these hardware hackers congregated. Lee would get involved in technical discussions at the PCC potlucks. He also attended the Saturday morning bullshit sessions at Mike Quinn's junk shop.
Quinn's was the Bay Area counterpart of Eli Heffron's at Cambridge, where the Tech Model Railroad hackers scrounged for crossbar switches and step relays. Holding court at the shop, a giant, battleship gray, World War II vintage, hangar-like structure on the grounds of the Oakland Airport, was Vinnie "the Bear" Golden. At a counter cluttered with boxes of resistors and switches marked down to pennies, Vinnie the Bear would bargain with the hardware hackers he lovingly referred to as "reclusive cheapskates." They'd haggle over prices on used circuit boards, government surplus oscilloscopes, and lots of digital clock LEDs (light emitting diodes). Moving around the mammoth structure's well-worn wooden floor, the hacker-scavengers would pick through the rows of boxes holding thousands of ICs, capacitors, diodes, transistors, blank circuit boards, potentiometers, switches, sockets, clips, and cables. A sign in Gothic letters read IF YOU CAN NOT FIND IT DIG FOR IT and it
was advice well taken. A hundred failed companies used Quinn's to dump excess, and you might stumble on a giant gas control unit, a stack of used computer tapes, or even a used computer tape drive the size of a file cabinet. Vinnie the Bear, a bearded, big-bellied giant, would pick up the parts you offered for his observations, guess at the possible limits of their uses, wonder if you could pull off a connection with this part or that, and adhere to the legend on the sign above him: "Price Varies as to Attitude of Purchaser." All sorts of technical discussions would rage on, ultimately ending with Vinnie the Bear mumbling vague insults about the intelligence of the participants, all of whom would come back the next week for more junk and more talk.
Next door to Mike Quinn's was the operation of Bill Godbout, who bought junk on a more massive scale--usually government surplus chips and parts which were rejected as not meeting the exacting standards required for a specific function, but perfectly acceptable for other uses. Godbout, a gruff, beefy, still-active pilot who hinted at a past loaded with international espionage and intrigues for government agencies whose names he could not legally utter, would take these parts, throw his own brand name on them, and sell them, often in logic circuitry kits which you could buy by mail order. From his encyclopedic knowledge about what companies were ordering and what they were throwing out, Godbout seemed to know everything going on in the Valley, and as his operation got bigger he supplied more and more parts and kits to eager hardware hackers.
Lee got to know Vinnie and Godbout and dozens of others. But he developed a particularly close relationship with a hardware hacker who had contacted him via the Community Memory terminal before the experiment went into indefinite remission. It was someone Lee had known vaguely from his Oxford Hall days at Berkeley. His name was Bob Marsh.
Marsh, a small, Pancho Villa-moustached man with long dark hair, pale skin, and a tense, ironic way of talking, had left a message for Lee on the terminal asking him if he wanted to get involved in building a project Marsh had read about in a recent issue of Radio Electronics. An article by a hardware hacker named Don Lancaster described how readers could build what he called a "TV Typewriter"--something that would allow you to put characters from a
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typewriter-style keyboard onto a television screen, just like on a fancy computer terminal.
Marsh had been a hardware freak since childhood; his father had been a radio operator, and he worked on ham sets through school. He majored in engineering at Berkeley, but got diverted, spending most of his time playing pool. He dropped out, went to Europe, fell in love, and came back to school, but not in engineering--it was the sixties, and engineering was extremely uncool, almost right-wing. But he did work in a hi-fi store, selling, fixing, and installing stereos, and he kept working at the store after graduating with a biology degree. Infused with idealism, he wanted to be a teacher of poor kids, but this did not last when he realized that no matter how you cut it, school was regimented--students sitting in precise rows, not able to talk. Years of working in the free-flow world of electronics had infused Marsh with the Hacker Ethic, and he saw school as an inefficient, repressive system. Even when he worked at a radical school with an open classroom, he thought it was a sham, still a jail.
So, after an unsuccessful try at running a stereo shop--he wasn't a very good businessman--he went back to engineering. A friend named Gary Ingram who worked at a company called Dictran got him a job, working on the first digital voltmeter. After a couple of years at that, he got into the idea of computers, and was amazed to see Lancaster's article. He figured he might use the TV Typewriter as a terminal to hook up to a computer.
Buying parts from Mike Quinn's to enhance the equipment in the kit offered in the magazine, he worked for weeks on the project, trying to improve on the design here and there. He never did get it working 100 percent, but the point was doing it, learning about it. He later explained: "It was the same as ham radio. I didn't want to spend my money to get on the air bragging about my equipment. I wanted to build things."
Lee responded to Marsh's message on CM and they met at the storefront headquarters of the group. Lee told him of the Tom Swift Terminal, a terminal which would use a home TV set as a character display, a "cybernetic building block" which could expand into almost anything. Marsh was impressed. He was also unemployed at the time, spending most of his time hacking the TV Typewriter in a rented garage on Fourth Street, near the bay. Marsh was married and had a kid--money was running low. He asked Lee to split the
$175 garage rent with him, and Lee moved his workbench down there.
So Marsh worked on his project, while also cooking up a scheme to buy digital clock parts from Bill Godbout and mount them in fancy wooden cases. He had a friend who was a great woodworker. Meanwhile, Lee, president of the one-man LGC Engineering Company (named after Loving Grace Cybernetics), was working on his terminal, which was as much a philosophic venture as a design project.
Unlike your usual design in which all the parts would be controlled by one central chip, Lee's project had a complex multi-backup way of operating. It would have a "memory"--a place where characters could be stored--and that memory would be on a circuit "card," or board. Other cards would get the characters from the keyboard and put characters on the screen. Instead of a processor directing the flow, the cards would constantly be sending or receiving--"Gimme, gimme, gimme," they'd say, in effect, to the inputs such as the keyboard. The memory would be the terminal's crossroads. Even if you put a microprocessor on the terminal later on, to do computer-like functions, that powerful chip would be connected to the memory, not running the whole show--the task to which microprocessors are accustomed. It was a design that enshrined the concept of decentralization. It was also Felsenstein's paranoia coming to the fore. He wasn't ready to cede all the power to one lousy chip. What if this part fails? What if that one does? He was designing as if his brother were still looking over his shoulder, ready to deliver withering sarcasm when the system crashed.
But Lee had figured out how the Tom Swift Terminal could extend itself unto eternity. He envisioned it as a system for people to form clubs around, the center of little Tom Swift Terminal karasses of knowledge. It would revive Community Memory, it would galvanize the world, it would be the prime topic of conversation at Mike Quinn's and PCC potlucks, and it would even lay a foundation for the people's entry into computers--which would ultimately topple the evil IBM regime, thriving on Cybercrud and monopolistic manipulation of the marketplace.
But even as Lee's nose was reddening from the reflection of the sun on the schematics of his remarkable terminal, the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics was on its way to almost half a million
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hobbyist-subscribers. It carried on its cover a picture of a machine that would have as big an impact on these people as Lee imagined the Tom Swift Terminal would. The machine was a computer. And its price was $397.
It was the brainchild of a strange Floridian running a company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The man was Ed Roberts and his company was named MITS, short for Model Instrumentation Telemetry Systems, though some would come to believe it an acronym for "Man In The Street." Ed Roberts, an enigma even to his closest friends, inspired that kind of speculation. He was a giant, six feet four and over two hundred and fifty pounds, and his energy and curiosity were awesome. He would become interested in a subject and devour it wholesale. "I tend to consume shelves in libraries," he'd later explain. If one day his curiosity was aroused about photography, within a week he would not only own a complete color developing darkroom but be able to talk shop with experts. Then he would be off studying beekeeping, or American history. The subject that enthralled him most was technology and its uses. His curiosity made him, as an early employee of MITS named David Bunnell would say, "The world's ultimate hobbyist." And those days, being a hobbyist in digital electronics meant you were probably a hardware hacker.
It was model rocketry that led him to start MITS, which initially produced light flashers for hobbyist rocket ships, so backyard von Brauns could photograph the trajectories of their attempts to poke holes in the sky. From there, Roberts took MITS into test equipment--temperature sensors, audio sweep generators, and the like. Then Roberts became interested in things using LEDs, so MITS made digital clocks, both assembled and in kits, and his company was perfectly placed to take advantage of advances in microchip technology that made small digital calculators possible. He sold those in kits, too, and the company took off, expanding to nearly one hundred employees. But then the "Big Boys" came in, giant companies like Texas Instruments making their own microchips, and smaller companies reacted by cutting calculator prices so low that MITS could not compete. "We went through a period where our cost to ship a calculator was thirty-nine dollars and you could buy one in a
drugstore for twenty-nine dollars," Roberts later recalled. It was devastating. By mid-1974, Ed Roberts' company was three hundred sixty-five thousand dollars in debt.
But Ed Roberts had something up his sleeve. He knew about Intel's new microprocessor chips and knew it was possible to take one and build a computer around it. A computer. Ever since he'd first had contact with them, during his time in the Air Force, he had been in awe of their power and disgusted with the convoluted steps one had to take to get access to them. Around 1974, Ed Roberts would talk often to his boyhood friend from Florida, Eddie Currie, so much so that to keep phone bills down they had taken to exchanging cassette tapes. The tapes became productions in and of themselves, with sound effects, music in the background, and dramatic readings. One day Eddie Currie got this tape from Ed Roberts which was unlike any previous one. Currie later remembered Ed, in the most excited cadences he could muster, speaking of building a computer for the masses. Something that would eliminate the Computer Priesthood for once and for all. He would use this new microprocessor technology to offer a computer to the world, and it would be so cheap that no one could afford not to buy it.
He followed up the tape with calls to Currie. Would you buy it if it were five hundred dollars?
Four hundred? He talked it over with what staff was left in his failing company (the staff had shrunk to a relative handful) and, MITS employee David Bunnell would later recall, "We thought he was off the deep end."
But when Ed Roberts had his mind made up, no force could compel him to reconsider. He would build a computer, and that was it. He knew that Intel's current chip, the 8008, was not powerful enough, but when Intel came out with a new one, the 8080, which could support a good deal of memory as well as other hardware, Roberts called up the company for some horse-trading. Bought in small lots, the chips would cost $350 each. But Roberts was not thinking in small lots, so he "beat Intel over the head" to get the chips for $75 apiece.
With that obstacle cleared, he had his staff engineer Bill Yates design a hardware "bus," a setup of connections where points on the chip would be wired to outputs ("pins") which ultimately would support things like a computer memory, and all sorts of peripheral
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devices. The bus design was not particularly elegant--in fact, later on hackers would universally bitch about how randomly the designer had chosen which point on the chip would connect to which point on the bus--but it reflected Ed Roberts' dogged determination to get this job done now. It was an open secret that you could build a computer from one of those chips, but no one had previously dared to do it. The Big Boys of computerdom, particularly IBM, considered the whole concept absurd. What kind of nut would want a little computer? Even Intel, which made the chips; thought they were better suited for duty as pieces of traffic-light controllers than as minicomputers. Still, Roberts and Yates worked on the design for the machine, which Bunnell urged Roberts to call "Little Brother" in an Orwellian swipe at the Big Boys. Roberts was confident that people would buy the computer once he offered it in kit form. Maybe even a few hundred buyers in the first year.
While Ed Roberts was working on his prototype, a short, balding magazine editor in New York City was thinking along the same lines as Roberts was. Les Solomon was a vagrant from a Bernard Malamud story, a droll, Brooklyn-born former engineer with a gallows sense of humor. This unremarkable-looking fellow boasted a past as a Zionist mercenary fighting alongside Menachem Begin in Palestine. He would also talk of strange journeys which led him to the feet of South American Indian brujos, or witch doctors, with whom he would partake of ritual drugs and ingest previously sheltered data on the meaning of existence. In 1974, he was looking for someone who'd designed a computer kit so that the electronics-crazy readers of the magazine he worked for, Popular Electronics, would be in the vanguard of technology and have plenty of weird projects to build. Later on, Solomon would attempt to shrug off any cosmic motives. "There are only two kinds of gratification that a human being can possess," he would say, "ego and wallet. That's it, baby. If you got those you're in business. It was my job to get articles. There was another magazine [Radio Electronicsl] which was also doing digital things. They came out with a computer kit based on the Intel 8008. I knew the 8080 could run rings around it. I talked to Ed Roberts, who had published things about his calculators in our magazine, about his computer, and I realized it would be a great project in the magazine. Hopefully, I would get a raise."
But Solomon knew that this was not just another project, and in
fact there were many factors here beyond ego and wallet. This was a computer. Later on, when coaxed, Les Solomon would speak in hushed terms of the project he was about to introduce to his readers: "The computer is a magic box. It's a tool. It's an art form. It's the ultimate martial art . . . There's no bullshit in there. Without truth, the computer won't work. You can't bullshit a computer, God damn it, the bit is there or the bit ain't there." He knew of the act of creation that is a natural outgrowth of working with the computer with a hacker's obsessive passion. "It's where every man can be a god," Les Solomon would say.
So he was eager to see Ed Roberts' machine. Ed Roberts sent him the only prototype via air freight, and it got lost in transit. The only prototype. So Solomon had to look at the schematics, taking Roberts' word that the thing worked. He believed. One night, he flippantly asked his daughter what might be a good name for this machine, and she mentioned that on the TV show "Star Trek" that evening, the good ship Enterprise was rocketing off to the star called Altair. So it was that Ed Roberts' computer was named Altair.
Roberts and his design helper Bill Yates wrote an article describing it. In January 1975, Solomon published the article, with the address of MITS, and the offer to sell a basic kit for $397. On the cover of that issue was a phonied- up picture of the Altair 8800, which was a blue box half the size of an air conditioner, with an enticing front panel loaded with tiny switches and two rows of red LEDs. (This front panel would be changed to an even spiffier variation, anchored by a chrome strip with the MITS logo and the legend "Altair 8800" in the variegated type font identified with computer readouts.)
Those who read the article would discover that there were only 256 bytes (a "byte" is a unit of eight bits) of memory inside the machine, which came with no input or output devices; in other words, it was a computer with no built- in way of getting information to or from the world besides those switches in front, by which you could painstakingly feed information directly to the memory locations. The only way it could talk to you was by the flashing lights on the front. For all practical purposes, it was deaf, dumb, and blind. But, like a totally paralyzed person whose brain was alive, its noncommunicative shell obscured the fact that a computer brain
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was alive and ticking inside. It was a computer, and what hackers could do with it would be limited only by their own imaginations.
Roberts hoped that perhaps four hundred orders would trickle in while MITS perfected its assembly line to the point where it was ready to process reliable kits to the dedicated hobbyists. He knew he was gambling his company on the Altair. In his original brainstorm he had talked about spreading computing to the masses, letting people interact directly with computers, an act that would spread the Hacker Ethic across the land. That kind of talk, he later admitted, had an element of promotion in it. He wanted to save his company. Before the article came out he would rarely sleep, worrying about possible bankruptcy, forced retirement.
The day the magazine reached the subscribers it was clear that there would be no disaster. The phones started ringing, and did not stop ringing. And the mail bore orders, each one including checks or money orders for hundreds of dollars' worth of MITS equipment --not just computers, but the add- on boards that would make the computers more useful. Boards which hadn't even been designed yet. In one afternoon, MITS took orders for four hundred machines, the total response that Ed Roberts had dared hope for. And there would be hundreds more, hundreds of people across America who had burning desires to build their own computers. In three weeks, MITS' status with its bank went from a negative value to plus $250,000.
How did Les Solomon describe the phenomenon? "The only word which could come into mind was 'magic.' You buy the Altair, you have to build it, then you have to build other things to plug into it to make it work. You are a weird- type person. Because only weird-type people sit in kitchens and basements and places all hours of the night, soldering things to boards to make machines go flickety- flock. The worst horror, the horrifying thing is, here's a company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that nobody ever heard of. And they put together a machine which is a computer. And a magazine who publishes this article and puts it on the cover says, 'Now you can build your own computer for four hundred bucks. All you gotta do is send a check to MITS in Albuquerque and they will send you a box of parts.' Most people wouldn't send fifteen cents to a company for a flashlight dial, right? About two thousand people, sight unseen, sent checks, money orders, three, four, five hundred dollars apiece, to an
unknown company in a relatively unknown city, in a technically unknown state. These people were different. They were adventurers in a new land. They were the same people who went West in the early days of America. The weirdos who decided they were going to California, or Oregon, or Christ knows where."
They were hackers. They were as curious about systems as the MIT hackers were, but, lacking daily access to PDP-6s, they had to build their own systems. What would come out of these systems was not as important as the act of understanding, exploring, and changing the systems themselves--the act of creation, the benevolent exercise of power in the logical, unambiguous world of computers, where truth, openness, and democracy existed in a form purer than one could find anywhere else.
Ed Roberts later spoke of the power: "When you talk about wealth, what you're really saying is,
'How many people do you control?' If I were to give you an army of ten thousand people, could you build a pyramid? A computer gives the average person, a high school freshman, the power to do things in a week that all the mathematicians who ever lived until thirty years ago couldn't do."
Typical of the people who were galvanized by the Altair article was a thirty-year-old Berkeley building contractor with long blond hair and gleaming green eyes named Steve Dompier. A year before the Popular Electronics article had come out he had driven up the steep, winding road above Berkeley which leads to the Lawrence Hall of Science, a huge, ominous, bunker-like concrete structure which was the setting for the movie The Forbin Project, about two intelligent computers who collaborate to take over the world. This museum and educational center was funded by a grant to support literacy in the sciences, and in the early 1970s its computer education program was run by one of Bob Albrecht's original medicine-show barkers, Bob Kahn. It had a large HP time-sharing computer connected to dozens of gunmetal-gray teletype terminals, and when Steve Dompier first visited the hall he stood in line to buy a fifty-cent ticket for an hour of computer time; as if he were buying a ride on a roller coaster. He looked around the exhibits while waiting for his turn on a terminal, and when it was time he stepped into a room with thirty clattering teletypes. It felt like being inside a cement mixer. He flicked on the terminal, and with violent confidence the line printer hammered out the words, HELLO. WHAT'S
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YOUR NAME. He typed in STEVE. The line printer hammered out HI STEVE WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO, and Steve Dompier was blown away.
He later described it: "It was the magic machine that had intelligence. Of course I didn't understand how it worked. But on everybody's face you could see the same thing for the first four or five months until they understood it really wasn't intelligent. That's the addictive part, that first magic where this machine talks back to you and does mathematics incredibly fast." For Steve Dompier, the addiction continued. He played games on the system, like Star Trek, or carried on a dialogue with a version of Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA program. He got a book of BASIC programming and worked on making little routines. He read Computer Lib and got technologically politicized. He bought a teletype for his home so he could access Lawrence Hall's computer by phone, where he'd play the new space game Trek '73 for hours on end. And then he heard about the Altair.
He was instantly on the phone to Albuquerque, asking for their catalog, and when he got it, everything looked great--the computer kit, the optional disk drives, memory modules, clock modules. So he sent for everything. Four thousand dollars' worth. His excuse to himself was that he would use his new computer system to catalog all his Popular Science magazines; if he wondered where that article about, say, heat pipes was, he'd type HEAT PIPES on the computer and it would say, ISSUE 4, PAGE 76, STEVE! Ten years and many computers later, he still wouldn't have gotten around to that task. Because he really wanted a computer to hack on, not to make any stupid index.
MITS wrote back to him saying he sent too much money; half the equipment he ordered was only in vague planning stages. The other half of the equipment he ordered didn't exist either, but MITS was working on those products. So Steve Dompier waited. He waited that January, he waited that February, and in early March the wait had become so excruciating that he drove down to the airport, got into a plane, flew to Albuquerque, rented a car, and, armed only with the street name, began driving around Albuquerque looking for this computer company. He had been to various firms in Silicon Valley, so he figured he knew what to look for . . . a long, modernistic one-story building on a big green lawn, sprinklers whirring,
with a sign out front with "MITS" chiseled in rustic wood. But the neighborhood where the address seemed to be was nothing like that. It was a shabby industrial area. After he drove back and forth a few times he saw a little sign, "MITS," in the corner of a window in a tiny shopping center, between a massage parlor and a Laundromat. If he'd looked in the parking lot nearby, he would have seen a trailer that some hacker had been living in for the past three weeks while waiting for his machine to be ready for delivery.
Dompier went in and saw that MITS headquarters was two tiny offices, with one secretary trying to cope with a phone that would ring as soon as the receiver was hung up. She was assuring one phone caller after another that yes, one day the computer would come. Dompier met Ed Roberts, who was taking all this with good cheer. Roberts spun a golden tale of the computer future, how MITS was going to be bigger than IBM, and then they went into the back room, piled to the ceiling with parts, where an engineer held up a front panel in one hand and a handful of LEDs in the other. And that was all there was of the Altair so far.
The MITS system of kit delivery did not quite conform to United States postal regulations, which frowned upon accepting money through the mail for items that did not exist except in pictures on magazine covers. But the post office did not receive many complaints. When Ed Roberts' friend Eddie Currie joined the company to help out in the crunch, he found that his experience with some MITS customers in Chicago was typical: one guy in particular complained about sending over a thousand dollars more than a year before, with no response. "You guys are ripping me off, not even offering me my money back!" he shouted. Currie said, "Fine, give me your name, I'll have the accounting department issue you a check immediately, with interest." The man quickly turned humble. "Oh, no. I don't want that." He wanted his equipment. "That was the mentality," Currie later recalled. "It was incredible how badly people wanted this."
Ed Roberts was on a high, too busy trying to get things done to worry about how far behind in orders his company was. He had over a million dollars in orders, and plans which were much bigger than that. Every day, it seemed, new things appeared to make it even clearer that the computer revolution had occurred right there. Even Ted Nelson, author of Computer Lib, called with his
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blessing. Bob Albrecht also called, and said he'd write a book about games on the Altair, if Roberts would send him a working model to review for PCC.
Eventually, MITS managed to get some kits out the door. Steve Dompier had left the office only after Roberts had given him a plastic bag of parts he could begin working with, and over the next couple of months more parts would arrive by UPS, and finally Dompier had enough parts to put together an Altair with a serial number of four. Number three went to the guy in the parking lot who would work with a battery-powered soldering system. Every time he had a problem he would leap out of the trailer and bug a MITS engineer until he understood the problem. An even earlier assembled prototype went to PCC, which had the fantastic advantage of getting an already constructed model.
It was not easy to put an Altair together. Eddie Currie later acknowledged this when he said, "One of the nice things about the kit [from MITS' point of view] was you didn't have to test the parts you sent, you didn't have to test the subunits, you didn't have to test the finished units. You just put all the stuff in envelopes and shipped them. It was left to the poor customer to figure out how to put all those bags of junk together." (Actually, Ed Roberts would explain, it would have been cheaper to assemble the things at the factory, since frustrated hobbyists would often send back their semi-completed machines to MITS, which would finish the task at a loss.)
It was an education in itself, a course of digital logic and soldering skills and innovation. But it could be done. The problem was that, when you were finished, what you had was a box of blinking lights with only 256 bytes of memory. You could put in a program only by flicking octal numbers into the computer by those tiny, finger-shredding switches, and you could see the answer to your problem only by interpreting the flickety-flock of the LED lights, which were also laid out in octal. Hell, what did it matter. It was a start. It was a computer.
Around the People's Computer Company, the announcement of the Altair 8800 was cause for celebration. Everybody had known about the attempts to get a system going around the less powerful Intel 8008 chip; the unofficial sister publication of PCC was the
"Micro-8 Newsletter," a byzantinely arranged document with microscopic type published by a teacher and 8008 freak in Lompoc, California. But the Altair, with its incredibly low price and its 8080
chip, was spoken about as if it were the Second Coming.
The first issue of PCC in 1975 devoted a page to the new machine, urging readers to get hold of the Popular Electronics article, and including a handwritten addendum by Bob Albrecht: "We will put our chips on the chip. If you are assembling a home computer, school computer, community memory computer . . . game-playing-fun-loving computer . . . using an Intel 8008 or Intel 8080, please write a letter to the PCC Dragon!"
Lee Felsenstein, who was doing hardware reviews for PCC, was eager to see the machine. The biggest thing before that had been the TV Typewriter that his garage-mate Bob Marsh had been working on, and Lee had been corresponding with its designer, Don Lancaster. The design seemed to have the fatal flaw of blanking out at the end of each page of text--a "whirling dervish" scheme of erasing what went before when the screen was refreshed with a new output--and Lee had been thinking of designing a board to fix that. But when the Altair came out all bets were off. Felsenstein and Marsh read the Popular Electronics article, and they instantly realized that the model pictured in the magazine was a dummy, and that even when the real Altair was ready, it would be a box with
flashing lights. There was nothing in it! It was just a logical extension of what everyone knew and no one had dared to take advantage of.
This did not upset Lee in the least; he knew that the significance of the Altair was not as a technological advance, or even as a useful product. The value would be in the price and the promise--both of which would entice people to order kits and build their own computers. Lee, who had no respect for the elitist ivory-tower universities like MIT, was exultant at the opening of the first college with a major in hardware hacking: University of Altair. Your degree would come after completing courses in Soldering, Digital Logic, Technical Improvisation, Debugging, and Knowing Whom to Ask for Help. Then you would be ready for a lifelong matriculation toward a Ph.D. in Getting the Thing to Do Something. When Altair sent one of the first assembled computers to PCC, Bob Albrecht lent it to Lee for a week. He took it to Efrem Lipkin's place and they set it down, treating it as a curiosity, a piece of
EVERY MAN A GOD 191
sculpture. Lee got the thing apart and began dreaming of things to put in it to make a system out of the machine. In his review of the machine in PCC, which ran with a picture of lightning striking a small town, he wrote: "The Altair 8800 has two things (at least) going for it: it's here and it works. These facts alone will guarantee that it is THE amateur computer for at least the next year . . ."
PCC devoted pages to the machine, which was the center of the now imminent revolution. But as enthusiastic as Bob Albrecht was about the Altair, he still felt that the key thing his operation had to offer was the initial magic of computing itself, not the hard-wired craziness experienced by the hardware hackers rushing to order Altairs. There were plenty of hardware people hanging out at PCC, but when one of them, Fred Moore, an idealist with some very political ideas about computers, asked Albrecht if he could teach a PCC class in computer hardware, Albrecht demurred.
It was a classic hacker-planner conflict. Albrecht the planner wanted magic spread far and wide, and considered the intense fanaticism of high-level hacking as secondary. Hardware hackers wanted to go all the way into the machines, so deep that they reached the point where the world was in its purest form, where "the bit is there or it ain't there," as Lee Solomon put it. A world where politics and social causes were irrelevant.
It was ironic that it was Fred Moore who wanted to lead that descent into hardware mysteries, because in his own way Moore was much more a planner than a hacker.
Fred Moore's interest in computers was not only for the pleasure they gave to devoted programmers, but also for their ability to bring people together. Fred was a vagabond activist, a student of nonviolence who believed that most problems could be solved if only people could get together, communicate, and share solutions. Sometimes, in the service of these beliefs, Fred Moore would do very strange things.
One of his more notable moments had come four years earlier, in 1971, during the demise party of the Whole Earth Catalog. Editor Stewart Brand had thrown this farewell-to-the-Catalog bash into turmoil by announcing that he was going to give away twenty thousand dollars: it was up to the fifteen hundred party-goers to decide whom he should give it to. The announcement was made at 10:30 P.M., and for the next ten hours the party turned, variously,
from town meeting to parliamentary conference, to debate, to brawl, to circus, and to bitching session. The crowd was dwindling: around 3 A.M. the I Ching was thrown, with inconclusive results. It was then that Fred Moore spoke. Described later by a reporter as "a young man with wavy hair and a beard and an intense, earnest expression," Moore was upset that money was being labeled a savior and people were being bought. He thought the whole thing was getting to be a downer. He announced to the crowd that more important than the money was the event occurring right then. He noted that a poet had asked for money to publish a book of poems and someone had said, "We know where you can get paper," and someone else had suggested a cheap printer . . . and Fred thought that maybe people didn't need money to get what they wanted, just themselves. To illustrate the point, Fred began setting fire to dollar bills. Then people decided to take a vote whether to bother to spend the money; Moore opposed the vote, since voting in his view was a way of dividing people against each other. His opposition to the concept of voting so confused the issue that polling the audience didn't work. Then, after much more talk, Moore began circulating a petition which said, in part, "We feel the union of people here tonight is more important than money, a greater resource," and he urged people to sign their names to a piece of paper to keep in contact through a pragmatic networking. Finally, well after dawn, when there were around twenty people left, they said to hell with it, and gave the money to Fred Moore. To quote a Rolling Stone reporter's account, "Moore seemed to get the money by default, by persistence . . . Moore wandered around for a while, bewildered and awed, trying to get riders to accompany him back to Palo Alto and wondering aloud whether he should deposit the money in a bank account . . . then realized he had no bank account."
Fred Moore never did put the money in a bank ("They make war," he said), but eventually distributed thousands of dollars to worthy groups. But the experience showed him two things. One, he knew: money was evil. The other was the power of people getting together, how they could do things without money, just by banding together and using their natural resources. That was why Fred Moore got so excited about computers.
Moore had been involved with computers for a few years, ever
EVERY MAN A GOD 193
since wandering into the computer center at the Stanford Medical Center in 1970. He was traveling around then in a Volkswagen bus with his young daughter, and he would sometimes leave her in the bus while he played with the computer. Once he got so wrapped up in the machine that a policeman came to the computer center asking if anyone knew anything about the little girl left out in the parking lot . . .
He saw the computer as an incredible facilitator, a way for people to get control of their environment. He could see it in the kids he taught games to, in classes at PCC. The kids would just play and have a good time. Fred was teaching about thirteen of these classes a week, and thinking a lot about how computers might keep alternative people together in big data bases. And then the Altair was announced, and he thought that people should get together and teach each other how to use it. He didn't know much about hardware, had little idea how to build the thing, but he figured that people in the class would help each other, and they'd get things done.
Bob Albrecht did not like the idea, so there was no hardware class.
Fred Moore got to talking about this with another frustrated hanger-on in the PCC orbit, Gordon French, the consulting engineer who'd built--"homebrewed," as the hardware hackers called it--a computer which more or less worked, centered on the Intel 8008 chip. He named his system Chicken Hawk. Gordon French liked to build computers the way people like to take engines out of automobiles and rebuild them. He was a gangly fellow with a wide, crooked smile and long, prematurely gray hair. He loved to talk computers, and it sometimes seemed, when Gordon French got going on the subject, a faucet opened up that would not stop until a squad of plumbers with big wrenches and rubber coats came to turn off the flow. A yearning to meet people with similar likes led him to PCC, but French was unsuccessful in his application to be on the PCC board of directors. He was also unhappy that the Wednesday potlucks seemed to be phasing out. The Altair was for sale, people were going crazy, it was time to get together, and there was no way to do it. So French and Moore decided to start up a group of people interested in building computers. Their own hardware group, and it would be full of good computer talk, shared electronic technique,
and maybe a demonstration or two of the latest stuff you could buy. Just a bunch of hardware hackers seeing what might come of a somewhat more than random meeting. So on crucial billboards in the area--at PCC, at Lawrence Hall, at a few schools and high-tech corporations--Fred Moore tacked up a sign that read:
AMATEUR COMPUTER USERS GROUP
HOMEBREW COMPUTER CLUB . . . you name it
Are you building your own computer? Terminal? TV Typewriter? I/O device? or some other digital black magic box? Or are you buying time on a time-sharing service? If so, you might like to come to a gathering of people with likeminded interests. Exchange information, swap ideas, help work on a project, whatever . . .
The meeting was called for March 5, I975, at Gordon's Menlo Park address. Fred Moore and Gordon French had just set the stage for the latest flowering of the hacker dream.