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The Homebrew Computer Club

If the Altair was the germinal seed of the personal computer movement, the Homebrew Computer Club in northern California was the primordial ooze into which that seed landed. Any number of computer clubs sprouted nationwide in response to the Altair, but two things distinguished Homebrew: it was located in the technology-rich Silicon Valley around Palo Alto, California, and it was fertilized by the altruistic ideals of the counterculture.

Fliers for the first Homebrew meeting were posted by Fred Moore and Gordon French, a couple of regulars at a progressive educational organization called The People’s Computer Company. They were joined by Lee Felsenstein, who would become the moderator of the meetings. He had recently organized the Community Memory project to get timesharing terminals into public places. PCC and Community Memory were part of a loose-knit family that included the Whole Earth Catalog, a mélange of high tech and hog farm that encouraged the notion that computer literacy and the secrets of vegetable canning would be equally important in the coming age.

The Whole Earth Catalog was devoted to increasing individual and community power through access to tools, an idea that also appealed to Homebrew’s founders. Their mission was to build electronic communities, which in practice meant setting up a timesharing terminal in the local record store, exposing it to whatever unwashed inspiration might come in off the street. Into this cauldron of social activism plopped the Altair, which had appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. A machine had been sent to the People’s Computer Company for review and Lee Felsenstein took it home. He showed it to one of his Community Memory compadres, who considered it worthless. Felsenstein himself, in his PCC review, wrote, “The Altair 8800 has two things (at least) going for it: it’s here and it works.”

That was enough to get Homebrew off the ground. The first meeting attracted 32 people; within two months there were well over a hundred and it kept growing. In front sat the founders and activists, who saw the personal computer as a community-building tool—but behind them the rank and file were interested in one thing: the technology. All they wanted was to figure it out, put it together, control it. They were hackers. Most of them probably didn’t know what a hacker was, but this was the hacker spirit, flowering among a motley gathering of computer enthusiasts.

The grander social aspirations soon fell away before the sheer thrill of all that technology. Fred Moore left, discouraged. Others were equally dispirited by the seeming lack of a larger political consciousness at Homebrew. One dismissed it as “boys with their toys.” Lee Felsenstein, however, stayed. He was flexible enough to go with the flow, and, besides, he was a hacker at heart. Perhaps he realized that the hacker values of learning and sharing were enough.

There was a feeling at Homebrew that they were at the forefront of a revolution, which in the main turned out to be true, even if they were guided more by a hacker’s sci-fi dream of a computer on every wrist than by any grand political aspirations.

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Related Links

Lee Felsenstein and the Homebrew Computer Club
Links to information on the club and one of its most prominent members.

Memoir of a Homebrew Computer Club Member
Bob Lash remembers what it was like when computers were new.

The Homebrew Computer Club 30 Year Retrospective
DigiBarn's account of the event held at the Computer History Museum in 2005.