I was at Homebrew Computer’s 26th Birthday Party at SLAC. Here’s some pics I took and a report of the event from Fred Balin.
What follows is an article written for the Stanford Palo
Macintosh Users Group (SMUG) newsletter.
Board Member, Stanford-Palo Alto Macintosh Users Group
Principal, MacResolutions, http://www.macresolutions.com
Homebrew’s 26th Birthday Commemoration
By Fred Balin
What an evening!
If you attended our March 5th meeting at the Stanford Linear Accelerator
(SLAC) Training Center, you can now rest easy in the remainder of your
days. You have been touched by the Homebrew magic.
We had the appropriate birth date and relevant location, properly inclement
weather and cramped quarters, and a room jammed with living history. In our
midst was a group of special individuals, whose interests, goals, and
values intersected at a unique place and time to create something truly
More significant than any individual, design, product, or company that it
nurtured, Homebrew was a cultural and technological renaissance that
catalyzed the transfer of computing from the insular priesthood of big
corporations and government into the hands of individuals.
Our commemoration was a night of personal, social, and political histories;
of reunions and reminiscences; of computers and technologies past; of
precious vignettes; myth exposure, and of humorous and witty friends,
partners, and competitors.
There is no way to adequately convey in print what transpired. The impact
was as much experiential as informative, and it is the ineffable aura that
is most palpable, now a few weeks after the event.
In this article, however, I return to the printed word, and its logical but
limited mindset. Having watched the raw video, I’m ready to try my hand at
explaining what “objectively” happened. For those of you satisfied to
remain unsullied in the afterglow, please feel free to skip what follows. I
Before The Altair
Homebrew’s first meeting, on March 5, 1975, at Gordon French’s garage in
Menlo Park, centered around the Altair 8800. The creation of Ed Roberts and
his company MITS, the new machine created a sensation in the hacker arena
upon its introduction via the January, 1975, issue of Popular Electronics.
The People’s Computer Company, Homebrew’s progenitor, had an Altair for
review for their bi-monthly publication. And it was on loan to the meeting
in Gordon’s garage that first Homebrew night.
Certainly the introduction of the Altair 8800 was a watershed. Popular
history, including the excellent PBS series Triump of the Nerds, proclaims
it “the first personal computer.” But is this really true?
Len Shustek, a Homebrew original and currently Chairman of the Computer
Museum History Center led off our event by shedding light on that question.
His brief and engaging talk was entitled, Homebrew and Personal Computers
Before the Age of the Altair.
We learned that when declaring a first, it helps to have some criteria.
Therefore with regard to computers: Are we talking digital or analog?
Mechanical or electronic? Homebrew or commercial product? Vacuum tubes,
transistors, or microprocessors? Partially developed idea or working
concept? Marketplace success or blip on the commercial radar? Kit or
fully-assembled product? Stationary, luggable, or portable?
See the problem? So Len walked us through a list of viable candidates,
o The Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage (1871). A mechanical computer
but never completed. (“A classic venture capital funding problem.”)
o The Bicyle-Chain, Prime-Number Generator of Derrick Lehmer (1927).
o Gene Amdahl’s vacuum-tube based Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized
Computer, The WISC (1952).
o The Rand Corporation’s Johnniac (1953) and various “-iac” suffixed
o The Heathkit EC-1 (1959), an analog, vacuum-tube computer.
o The DEC PDP-8 (1965), a very popular minicomputer. (“Personal, because
you could get your arms around it.”)
o The Kitchen Computer, displayed in the 1965 Nieman Marcus Catalog. (“For
$10,000, you got a complete set of menus, two weeks of programming lessons
and an apron.”) None ever sold.
o The Micral (1973), built by a Vietnamese Frenchman, André Thi Truon.
Commercially available in France and based on Intel’s 8008
So what was the first commercially available PC? Well, according to the
results of a 1986 contest sponsored by The (Boston) Computer Museum, it
wasS “none of the above”. Instead, the winner was the Kenback-1, designed
by John Blankenbaker in 1971. It predated microprocessors, had 3
programming registers, 5 addressing modes, and 256 bytes of memory. Price
For recount and other protests, contact Len.
The Return of Roger and Harry
Well, so much for the general acceptance of the Altair 8800 as the first
personal computer, but there is no denying the influence of this machine on
our special guests and other hackers of the period. This was well
documented in a short video clip we watched from Triumph of the Nerds,
which featured the Altair, MITS, and Ed Roberts; and Homebrewers Roger
Melen, Harry Garland, and Lee Felsenstein at SLAC Auditorium.
In a reprise of their video appearance, Roger Melen and Harry Garland came
up together to address the group.
It was Roger who happened upon the Altair prototype in the offices of
Popular Electronics in New York, where the new marvel would be photographed
for the January 1975 cover.
“It was hard to believe it was real,” he remembered. “I was obsessed with
the thingSso obsessed that I changed my plans…I went straight to New
Mexico and I bought two of them.”
And he brought them both to our meeting. Wow!
As was pointed out in the video, despite all the fanfare, the Altair was
“Of course, they didn’t do a lot,” Roger admitted. “I had to build a way to
put more than 50 bytes in the machine. You could code as much as 1k and
have it work. Much above a k was unrealistic to do.
“I had a teletype device with a paper tape and a keyboard and printout
display?a fantastic input/output device?but I had to build a plug-in card
to make it work. That took some time.”
“Why would an otherwise sane Stanford graduate student do it,” inquired Lee
Felsenstein, who probably knew the response to come. “It was cool.”
The two early Altair adopters started a company, Cromenco, and several of
the original team were in the audience and recognized by Harry. They
included Terry Walker, Hardware Engineer; Joe McCrate, Tom McCalmont, and
Boris Krtolica; Software Engineers; and Brent Gammon, General Counsel.
Roger also told the story of the Dazzler, the display hardware-and-software
combination that stopped traffic in midtown Manhattan.
“Dazzler was the first board to make an Altair plug into a color TV set,”
he explained. “It was put in the front of a store in Times Square and
stopped cars and created a huge jam…it was very well known as The Machine
That Stopped The Cars.”
And the software display that caused the stoppage? It was from The Game of
Life as implemented by Lichen Wang, who was in the audience and received
the highest praises from both Roger and Gordon French.
“Lichen made the game come out very spectacularly,” Roger said. “It looked
like stained glass, and the reason the people stopped, was because of the
spectacular effects of the stained glass, which changed from shape to
Feed a Man, Create a Revolution
In the years leading up to the Altair, computer hobbyists in the Bay Area
often met at Peoples Computer Company (PCC) and exchanged ideas at the
Wednesday night PCC pot luck dinners. It was at PCC that Gordon French met
Fred Moore. Gordon was a designer of large computer systems, and Fred, a
community activist. The two seeming opposites became friends.
With PCC going through some internal changes, the pot luck suppers were
about to be discontinued.
“Fred saw the problem,” Gordon explained. “We were going lose track of all
the people who were interested in building their own computers.”
Fred Moore had deep activist roots. As Lee Felsenstein related later in the
evening, as far back as 1959, Fred had been engaged in a day-and-a-half
hunger strike in protest against compulsory ROTC training at UC Berkeley.
“Fred was not the kind of person you would expect to have anything to do
with computers,” Lee related, “…[but he] turns up at PCC, someone
perpetually curious and seeing himself as an activist, trying to get people
together, to do things. Fred did what none of us would have done.” [He] got
that first [Homebrew] meeting going.”
Gordon explained how he offered his garage for the meeting and loaned Fred
$5 to produce handbills. Fred did so and placed them in strategic places in
the area. And so with Fred’s Homebrew publicity machine in full swing, the
first meeting came to be at Gordon’s, on March 5, 1975.
Visualizing the Dream
Prior to the Altair, if you wanted your own computer you definitely had to
“go homebrew.” For those ready to take the plunge, it required
visualization and ingenuity. Gordon conveyed the situation.
“We had nothing. You didn’t have a UART [Universal Asynchronous Receiver
Transmitter], so you had to write a wait loop for characters and do clock
counts in order figure when to put out a character and when to get a
“My gosh, you couldn’t afford to buy a monitor, because a monitor, which
was a keyboard and a CRT display in one integrated unit, cost a couple of
thousand dollars. Now the Naked Mini [product trademark of the time] came
out and, holy mackerel, here was a board for a 19” rack and you know it
only cost something like nineteen hundred dollars, which was getting
there…If you called the company and said, ‘OK, now if I had a teletype,’
which was another two thousand dollars, ‘how would I interface this Naked
Mini so it would read and write characters?’
“‘Oh, well that’s our interface board.’
“‘Oh, How much is the interface board?’
“‘Well that’s only three thousand dollars.’
“These were 1970 dollars we’re talking about, big-time bucks.”
But his dream was in full flower. Gordon had put together a Homebrew
machine, his Chicken Hawk running on Intel’s 8008 pre-Altair
microprocessor. He turned to his fellow builder Len Shustek in high praise
and mock envy:
“Dr. Shustek and I S both had operating 8008 systems. His was really
impressive. He had expanded his memory so he could go past the 16k
boundaryS. He had grant money, and a 19” rack to house it in, oh big time,
and a teletype for it, oh ho!
“That memory was really surplus core memory we’d gotten from SLAC,” Len
“He had a program, that he called Rain,” Gordon continued undeterred, “S it
was a CRT screen and he would randomly pick a spot and then draw an
expanding circle, and this was done often enough that it resembled a pool
being rained on, and it was really impressive. I don’t know what the hell
else you did for all that money they were spending on you.”
“It didn’t matter, my bosses aren’t here,” Len responded as the audience
Gordon upped the ante. “One of the head starts that I got was a chance to
get a Teletype Model 35; now you know you’re talking big time here. [It]
ran my little Chicken Hawk, and this 35 was about as big as this table and
weighed six or seven hundred pounds. Anyway if it weren’t for that, I
probably wouldn’t be a footnote in the history of the microprocessor, but
some guys getS breaks like that.”
It was the glory days of sensory immersion: touch it, feel it, hear it.
“I go back to looking at computers with switches that click, oh boy. I
think the last machine that I worked on that had switches that click was a
Hewlett-Packard 2116A and it had 18 of ’em, ahh. When they took the
switches off the front panel, all you guys that did NorthStar and all those
other dirty computers, you took the thrill clear out of it.”
When asked by SMUG President Jerry Mullins about the first evidence of
useful work on the Altair or any other computer, Gordon thought for moment
before responding with total assurance.
“No, You’ve got the wrong guy.
“Seymour Papert, who was the head of MIT’s Computational Lab for some time
sat with me and tried to figure out historically what my significance was.
‘ OK,’ Papert said, ‘your claim to fame is that in 1974, you were one of
about 11 people who had computers for themselves that worked for trivial
Gordon was followed by Bob Marsh, co-founder of Processor Technology, which
would compete with Cromenco in the Altair add-on market. Upon seeing the
8800 in Gordon’s garage that first Homebrew evening, Bob came up with an
idea for a product line: ROM card, “so you didn’t have to flip the
switches,” static memory card, and I/O card.
“And we figured out a way to make these things well and really cheap.” he
explained. “We put an ad in a magazine and between that first [Homebrew]
meeting and the next one, we came up with a flyer and offered a 20%
discount for anyone who would buy one of our boards.
“You had to send cash or check. That was legal in those days; Severyone did
that Sthat’s what put MITS back in business.”
After a week with no orders, Bob was getting discouraged. Then a letter
fell through their mail slot in Berkeley. Cash and a new customer? No.
“It was a purchase order asking for Net 30 for our cheapest product?cost
$45?and it came fromS “
“SCromenco.” Came the response from the audience.
But in the coming days things picked up significantly and for the next four
years Processor Tech was thriving. “We didn’t have any capital,” Bob
explained; “we did it all on what I would call ‘customer financing.’ But
what I would like to say, and I’ve never said this all these years, ‘Thank
Pointers and Postulates
Lee Felsenstein was introduced, handed his signature piece, and immediately
demonstrated “something I learned at the Homebrew.” Displaying years of
polish, he gracefully twirled his pointer. First out front, then behind his
back, and then while spinning ever-so-lightly around. Tada!
Then he quickly moved on to correcting the popular historical record. “The
representation of the supposed Homebrew Computer Club meeting in Berkeley
that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak crashed and took over, never happened!
They never took over a meeting. There was only one meeting in Berkeley that
was an attempt to start a spin-off; that didn’t work. The two Steves would
hang out in the back of the meetings and show their stuff off and got along
fine with everybody. And then they have this jerk standing up in front of
the meeting in “The Pirates of Silicon Valley” boring everyone to death
with a pointerSI’m gonnna sue those guys, I know it.”
Then Lee turned to more serious matters, placing Homebrew into a social and
political context to answer his question, “What the hell was going on?”
In Lee’s postulate:
“What was going on was a continuation of the American Revolution into the
field of technology. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ S. that
people can take care of themselves. They don’t need to be told what to do
from superior people across the sea or wherever S.and moving along we see
that that revolution continued in the civil rights movement ….blew back
to the campusesS and that was basically us trying to say ‘us too.’ Middle
class whites for the most part basically shut down the concept of in loco
parentis on the part of the university.
“We were saying basically that we will not be directed in our political
activities. We may be under 21, but we are still citizens. This is a public
university and, by God, you’re going to have to run that in accordance with
“It was a very meaningful moment for me, no one knew what was gong to
The aftermath of the Berkely protests of 1964 and 1965 was a dramatic
turnover in society. Thousands of students left the university. Haight
Ashbury, the counterculture, the anti-war movement, and women’s and gay
liberation came to the fore. “Things that nobody thought would happen, but
they did,” Lee explained. “It was all based on the premise that people know
what’s good for them. You don’t have to be told.”
The ripples continued well into the 70s, and intersected with technology:
Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog (“a kind of Popular Science for
the counterculture”) and The Portola Institute, a nebulous non-profit that
provided a base for Bob Albrecht and subsequently the People’s Computer
“In 1968,” Lee continued, “Bob was instructing kids in digital electronics
through four-function desktop calculators and this was –whoa, wait a
minute– Computers and kids? Forbidden. And he was very much interested in
breaking down that concept of what’s forbidden with computers and bringing
kids into the whole picture. That led Sto the Pot Lucks at PCC, which Bob
essentially founded as a place were kids could come and play with
computers. SSome people probably thought at the time that there was a law
against kids using computers. Computer professionals did not like it.
“Bob found his first base in the Whole Earth Catalog folks who were running
a Whole Earth Truck Store in downtown Menlo Park. SFred Moore’s path winds
through the Whole Earth Catalog era.
Fred organized the first Homebrew meeting with Gordon. The initial result
was a bunch of geeks sitting around a machine that didn’t do much and
nobody knew much of what to do with it. Now what?
“That’s where the magic happened,” explained Lee. “We began to talk to each
other, we began to tell each other what we were doing, what we wanted to
do, what we thought we would doSAnd then in one of those magic moments
Marty Spergel gave away an 8008 chip.”
“My suggestion was to make an ‘instant directory’: [a way] you could reach
[others] and [find out] what they were interested in doing. It was the
beginning of the mapping idea.
“It caught fireSthe idea that we don’t have to have large industrial and
governmental structures tell us what to do. Technology was very important
to us. It’s very important to everybody; that was not an issue. The
question was how to deal with it. There were lots of big, dumb thinkers who
were writing books and all that, some day I’ll get around to reading them,
“What We Should Do About Technology?” And our solution was to play with it
and encourage others to play around with it. Mess around, try things. Who
knows what might happen?
“We were fortunate to be at a place and time when a lot of people were
interested in that; it resonated. I don’t know if anyone could have
In familiar Homebrew self-effacement, Lee downplayed his impact as a leader
of the group, passing credit on to others. “I’m happy to have brought the
structural concept in. First we sit still and say what we want to talk
about. But my job as leader was to stop them from actually saying it…that
was for random access.
“People still come up to me and say ‘Thank you for all you were doing
there.’ I wasn’t doing it; you were doing it. Surprise. The function
Following Lee’s presentation, other Homebrew originals were introduced
o Marty Spergel, affectionately referred to as “the junk man” and who gave
away the 8008 chip that first night.
o Three Palo Alto High School students, Bob Lash, Ralph Campbell, and Mike
Freemont (who was ill and couldn’t make it.)
o Mike Carlisle, a UC programmer/analyst.
o Walter Bryant, who worked at Microform Data System with Gordon.
o George Oetzel, who was at SRA.
o Allen Baum, an HP employee, who had brought his colleague and good
friend, Steve Wozniak to the first meeting.
Two Homebrew originals were remembered by their peers. Lee paid tribute to
Bob Reiling; Gordon, to Fred Moore.
“Bob was there the first night,” Lee said, “a very dignified-looking
individual, leonine… He took on the administrative load of creating the
Homebrew Club as a non-profit corporation. He diligently handled those
duties and also made sure that the newsletter got out, the money was
handled. He did it all by voluntary donations at every meeting. There was
no subscription fee.
“I just recently had the opportunity to look through S the first few years
of the newsletter which is quite a tribute to his effort. “
Lee then referred to the eulogy he had written. [See
“I credited him with really being the stabilizing force that made it all
happen. He was every inch the engineer in that regard, and he’s the kind of
engineer that you don’t notice until you notice what has happened, and then
you realize what didn’t happen. He’s greatly to be thanked; it wouldn’t
really have happened without him, I think, because the rest of us weren’t
really willing to concentrate they way he was. Bob died in 1999, and the
corporation papers are still active.”
I inquired if Bob was the Club Secretary. “He was the President,” I was
corrected, “There were five board members and in theory those were the
members of the Homebrew Computer Club. So if anyone says they were a member
of the Homebrew Computer Club, bet against them.”
Gordon then spoke further of Fred Moore, Homebrew catalyst and social
activist, who died in 1997.
“For those of you who knew me in the early days, you also know that I
worked on some weapons systems, and I had a high clearance. And for a while
right after the club formed, I drove a bright red Porsche and behind me was
a ubiquitous blue Plymouth.
“My telephone was so badly bugged that it interfered with my TV set and it
took me years to figure out why that happenedS.It was at the memorial
service at The Friends Center at Berkeley where I heard the eulogies for
Fred Moore [and learned why.]
“Fred Moore was an activist’s activist. He was a man of considerable
determination and resource. He could for little or next-to-nothing move
“Without Fred’s work of cataloging and mapping of who we were, I couldn’t
turn around to you guys,” and Gordon turned to face the others, “and say
‘I’ve got the notes that Fred collected from you when all you guys wanted
was a TV terminalS.it was Fred’s fault.”
Other Homebrew originals sent email and digital images.
Bob Albrecht, of PCC, could not attend but sent his best wishes.
Steve Dompier, the man who made the Altair sing, sent regards and a digital
image of himself and his wife, Eve, together with the Governor of Montana,
Judy Martz. Lee mentioned that Steve had worked at Processor Technology and
had started Island Graphics.
Dan Sokol sent a group shot of Steve Wozniak, Gordon, Lee, and himself
taken at The Oasis, Homebrew’s other staging area. Woz and Dan were in
Washington, D.C. where Woz received the Heinz Award, named after the late
US Senator, John Heinz.
I mentioned two other notable originals that we were not able to get in
touch with: Tom Pittman and Keith Britton.
Gordon pointed out that his son Allan was also in the garage that first
night, and he came up and joined the group.
Eleven Homebrew originals at our commemoration!
Extending the Circle
But there was more; it was time to open up the stage to others.
We reintroduced Roger Melen and Harry Garland, who missed the first meeting
but soon became active Homebrew participants.
Dennis Allison of Peoples Computer Company was introduced and provided
additional background on PCC and the genesis of Dr. Dobb’s Journal. Dennis
announced that he is collecting data on people who were involved with PCC.
Contact him or PCC [http://sumeru.stanford.EDU/pcc/] for details.
Gordon then introduced Gene Wallace, who wrote a column for PCC under the
subheading “Old Soldier.” Gordon admitted that he wrote pieces under the
byline “Know It All.”
Lichen Wang, author of the Dazzler’s edition of The Game of Life, joined
Captain Crunch, John Draper, of blue-box fame was introduced. John spoke of
his work on voice scramblers and cross assemblers at Call Computer. Then in
response to Marty Spergel’s prodding about “a program to call 800 numbers,’
John delighted the audience with a story from his days at Apple.
“I designed a phone board for the Apple II,” The Captain recalled. “And I
left the working program on Woz’s desk on a cassette tape. And Woz rewrote
the program to call Jobs’s house. And his phone would ring, and he’d hang
up the phone, and it would ring again. He’d pick it up and there was
nothing on the line. He’d hang up the phone, it would ring again,Sall night
long …and boy did I get in trouble the next day.”
Random Access was now fully underway.
Allen Baum extended the Call Computer connection. “Call Computer is one of
the places were Steve Wozniak got his start,” he noted. “He designed a
really, really cheap terminal, which became the basis of the Apple I.”
The I asked Allen about The Apple I board he had brought.
“This is an Apple I board.” he replied.
“You could have bought one of these at the Shell Station out of somebody’s
car,” Gordon interjected.
“You were forbidden to do trunk-to-trunk transfers in the parking lot of
the SLAC,” Lee added. “We were not unobserved.”
“This actually is my father’s board, Allen continued, “I don’t think it has
a serial number. Just another Apple I board. There were several hundred of
I noted that according to my research, the Apple I was introduced at
Homebrew, 25 years ago this April, a few days after the formation of Apple
as a company on April Fools Day, 1976.
“I do remember when he [Steve Wozniak] brought the prototype [to Homebrew],
Allen recalled. “There was no cassette interface yet. He was working on
BASIC. He’s an incredible programmer and got BASIC into this really, really
small space. But he didn’t have any storage, he didn’t have any software,
he didn’t have an assemblerS.he wanted to demonstrate [the machine]. So
while the meeting was going on and Lee was doing his thing, he was up in
the back typing in BASIC in hex; the entire thing. Now Steve has many
talents, one of them is he’s a really fast typist?he’d make any secretary
green with envy?and he’s a really, really accurate typist, so before
intermission he got BASIC all the way in, and he was able to demonstrate.”
Marty then asked Allen to name the city printed on the Apple I board.
“For some odd reason it says Palo Alto,” Allen said. “Now there’s a reason
for that. Steve Jobs really thought ahead and he figured that if anyone
would want to buy a computer from Los Altos, which no one had ever heard
of, or Cupertino, which no one ever heard of, they’d think that Apple
Computer was a joke. He wanted something that was firm and upright like
Hewlett Packard, so they got a mail-drop box on Welch Road, I think 777
Welch Road, and that was the address for quite awhile.”
Others from the audience were introduced or came up to speak.
Dan Kottke, Apple Computer employee number 3, was introduced.
Frank Rothacker, who worked at SLAC and helped Fred Moore secure the
facility for Homebrew, described his mounting concern over the growing
crowds and the exposed electronics strewn over the facility.
Bill Bates, a New York Times writer in 1976, explained how he used the term
“personal computer” in an article for the paper’s business section. “They
[The Times] said there was no such thing, and there was a big debate, and
they concluded that there could be no such thing.”
After a final round of thanks for our guests, we adjourned the official
meeting. Now people had time to freely chat, visit, connect and reconnect.
Well over an hour later, the last of our special guests filed out of the
Training Center, into their cars and through the SLAC entranceway. Some
went down the hill past the pivotal Shell swap station (“Gas, oil, and
logic boards.”) down to El Camino and over to the Oasis or other local
destinations. Others headed West to 280, then North to the more familiar
confines of Berkeley and the City or South into the Valley.
But each of our guests navigated that grand and popular divided
thoroughfare, now astride the venture capital establishments so firmly
entrenched on their club’s fertile roots. For our select company, it was
always a part of their road less traveled and will from now on, by at least
one attendee, be referred to by its rightful name, Homebrew Road.
Happy Birthday, folks, and thank you so much.
Homebrew Computer Club Reunion, 2013 | The Silicon Valley StoryNovember 9, 2013 at 7:20 pm
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