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May 23, 2020

Today we’re going to cover the Homebrew Computer Club.

Gordon French and Fred More started the Homebrew Computer Club. French hosted the Home-brew Computer Club’s first meeting in his garage in Menlo Park, California on March 5th, 1975. I can’t help but wonder if they knew they were about to become the fuse the lit a powder keg? If they knew they would play a critical role in inspiring generations to go out and buy personal computers and  automate everything. If they knew they would inspire the next generation of Silicon Valley hackers? Heck, it’s hard to imagine they didn’t with everything going on at the time. Hunter S Thompson rolling around deranged, Patty Hearst robbing banks in the area, the new 6800 and 8008 chips shipping…

Within a couple of weeks they were printing a newsletter. I hear no leisure suits were damaged in the making of it. The club would meet in French’s garage three times until he moved to Baltimore to take a job with the Social Security Administration. The group would go on without him until late in 1986. By then, the club had played a substantial part in spawning companies like Cromemco, Osborne, and most famously, Apple.

The members of the club traded parts, ideas, rumors, and hacks. The first meeting was really all about checking out the Altair 8800, by an Albuquerque calculator company called MITS, which would fan the flames of the personal computer revolution by inspiring hackers all over the world to build their own devices. It was the end of an era of free love and free information. Thompson described it as a high water mark. Apple would help to end the concept of free, making its founders rich beyond their working-class dreams. 

A newsletter called the People’s Computer Company had gotten an early Altair. Bob Albrecht would later change the name of the publication to Dr Dobbs. That first, fateful meeting, inspired Deve Wozniak to start working on one of the most important computers of the PC revolution, the Apple I. They’d bounce around until they pretty much moved into Stanford for good. 

I love a classic swap meet, and after meetings, some members of the group would reconvene at a parking lot or a bar to trade parts. They traded ideas, concepts, stories, hacks, schematics, and even software. Which inspired Bill Gates to write his “Open Letter to Hobbyists” - which he sent to the club’s newsletter.  

Many of the best computer minds in the late 70s were members of this collective. 

  • George Morrow would make computers mostly through his company Morrow designs, for 30 years.
  • Jerry Lawson invented cartridge-based gaming. 
  • Lee Felsenstein built the SOL, a computer based on the Intel 8080, the Pennywhistle Modem, and designed the Osborne 1, the first real portable computer. He did that with Adam Osborne who he met at the club. 
  • Li-Chen Wang developed Palo Alto Tiny Basic.
  • Todd Fischer would help design the IMSAI.
  • Paul Terrell would create the Byte Shop, a popular store for hobbyists that bought the first 50 Apple 1 computers to help launch the company. It was also the only place to buy the Altair in the area. 
  • Dan Werthimer founded the SETI@home project. 
  • Roger Melen would found Cromemco with Harry Garland. They named the company after Crothers Memorial, the graduate student engineering dorm at Stanford. They built computers and peripherals for the Z80 and S-100 bus. They gave us the Cyclops digital camera, the JS-1 joystick, and the Dazzler color graphics interface - all for the Altair. They would then build the Z-1 computer, using the same chassis as the IMSAI, iterating new computers until 1987 when they sold to Dynatech. 
  • John Draper, also known as Captain Crunch, had become a famous phreaker in 1971, having figured out that a whistle from a box of Captain Crunch would mimic the 2600 hertz frequency used to route calls. His Blue Box design was then shared to Steve Wozniak who set up a business selling them with his buddy from high school, Steve Jobs. 
  • And of course, Steve Wozniak would design the Apple 1 using what he learned at the meetings and team up with his buddy Steve Jobs to create Apple Computer and launch the Apple I, which Woz wanted to give his schematics away for free and Jobs wanted to sell the boards. That led to the Apple II, which made both wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations and paved the way for the Mac and every innovation to come out of Apple since. 

Slowly the members left to pursue their various companies. When the club ended in 1986, the personal computing revolution had come and IBM was taking the industry over. A number of members continued to meet for decades, using the new name, the 6800 club, named after the Motorola 6800 chip, which had been used in the Altair on that fateful day in 1975. 

This small band of pirates and innovators changed the world. Their meetings produced the concepts and designs that would be used in computers from Atari, Texas Instruments, Apple, and every other major player in the original personal computing hobbyist market. The members would found companies that went public and inspired IBM to enter what had been a hobbyist market and turn it into a full fledged industry. They would democratize the computer and their counter-culture personalities would humanize computing and even steer computing to benefit humans in an era when computers were considered part of the military industrial complex and so evil. 

They were open with one another, leading to faster sharing of ideas, faster innovation. Until suddenly they weren’t. And the higher water mark of open ideas was replaced with innovation that was financially motivated. They capitalized on a recession in chips as war efforts spun down. And they changed the world. And for that, we thank them. And I think you listener, for tuning in to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so, so lucky to have you. Now tune in to innovation, drop out of binge watching, and go change the world.