Homebrew - Fire in the Valley (2014)

Fire in the Valley (2014)

Chapter 4

Are you building your own computer? Terminal? TV Typewriter? I/O device? Or some other digital black box? Or are you buying time on a time-sharing service? If so, you might like to come to a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project.…

Flyer for the Homebrew Computer Club, 1975

Why did the Altair and IMSAI computers generate such excitement among engineers and electronics enthusiasts? Not because they were technological breakthroughs—they weren’t. To understand the wild enthusiasm that greeted these computers, you have to get inside the minds of the people who bought them—and who would soon found their own computer companies. And you have to remember the social and political milieu of the time. Although the Altair was released in 1975, it was largely a product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Power to the People

It had its genetic coding in the ’60s…antiestablishment, antiwar, profreedom, antidiscipline attitudes.

-Jim Warren, microcomputer industry pioneer

The San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a hotbed for political activists, but it also had a large and active community of electrical engineers. The two groups overlapped, and it was where the overlap occurred that the spark ignited.

Radical Politics and Electrical Engineering

Lee Felsenstein had dropped out of engineering school at the end of the 1960s and had gone to work for a company called Ampex as a junior engineer. Ampex didn’t require him to work with computers, and that was fine with Felsenstein, who had been cool toward computers ever since an overly ambitious attempt in high school to build one of his own. But while Felsenstein enjoyed the work, he rebelled at pouring his efforts into projects for the benefit of corporate America. He left Ampex in 1969 to write for the Berkeley Barb, a famous and influential counterculture publication, where for a time he was listed on the masthead as “Friday,” as in Robinson Crusoe’s man Friday.


Figure 28. Lee Felsenstein Felsenstein embodied all the technical savvy and counterculture spirit of the early days of personal computing. Here he poses with a minicomputer at UC Berkeley in 1971. (Courtesy of Lee Felsenstein)

Eventually Felsenstein returned to Ampex. There, in 1970, he designed an interface for a Data General Nova computer and began to think that maybe computers weren’t so bad after all. Felsenstein saved his money and in 1971 reenrolled at UC Berkeley, where he completed his engineering degree. In 1972, he gathered up his engineering degree and counterculture credentials and went to work for Resource One.

Resource One was an attempt to bring computer networking to nonprofits and radical groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was run by people from the San Francisco Switchboard, a volunteer referral agency, along with other computer junkies who had left UC Berkeley in protest of the American invasion of Cambodia. Many of these people lived in an urban commune in a factory building in San Francisco, which was a magnet for counterculture engineers, including Felsenstein.

Amazingly, Resource One had a computer—a large, $120,000 XDS 940. It was a remnant of Xerox Corporation’s abortive attempt to enter the mainframe-computer industry. Resource One had inherited it from the Stanford Research Institute, where it ran “Shakey,” one of the first computer-controlled robots. Felsenstein moved in as part of the second generation at Resource One, signing on as chief engineer to run the computer, a job that paid “$350 a month and all the recrimination you can eat.” It was a frustrating job, but he believed in the project and would later recall being annoyed when two UC Berkeley graduate students, Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg, refused to get off the system so he could do maintenance on it.

Resource One put Felsenstein in touch with Cal students and faculty, as well as researchers at other sites. He visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and saw innovations that dazzled him. However, Felsenstein’s sympathies lay less with technological dazzle than with a growing, grass-roots, computer-power-to-the-people movement.

That movement was developing in the San Francisco Bay Area out of the spirit of the times and the frustration of those who, like Felsenstein, knew something of the power of computers. Resenting that such immense power resided in the hands of a few and was so jealously guarded, these technological revolutionaries were actively working to overthrow the computer-industry hegemony of IBM and other companies, and to defrock the “computer priesthood” of programmers, engineers, and computer operators who controlled access to these machines.

Ironically, many of those technological revolutionaries had themselves been part of the priesthood.

Rebelling Against the Priesthood

Bob Albrecht had left Control Data Corporation in the 1960s because of its reluctance to consider the idea of a personal computer, and had, with friends, started a nonprofit alternative-education organization called the Portola Institute. From Portola sprang The Whole Earth Catalog, under the orchestration of Stewart Brand, with its emphasis on access to tools. This, in turn, inspired actress Celeste Holm’s son Ted Nelson to write a book similar in spirit but about access to computers. Nelson’s Computer Lib proclaimed, well before the Altair was announced, “You can and must understand computers NOW!” Nelson was the Tom Paine and his book the Common Sense of this revolution.

The other significant publication at the time that brought information about computers to the Bay Area general public was a tabloid called People’s Computer Company (PCC), another of Albrecht’s projects. Albrecht said that PCCwas a company in the same sense that Janis Joplin’s band Big Brother and the Holding Company was a company.


Figure 29. Computer Lib and Dream Machines “You can and must understand computers NOW,” Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib proclaimed. To Homebrewers it was the manifesto of the revolution. The second half ofComputer Lib was printed upside down and had its own front cover.

(Courtesy of Ted Nelson)

Albrecht was a passionate promoter of computer power to the people. He wanted to teach children, in particular, about the machines. So, he split off from the Portola Institute to form Dymax, an organization dedicated to informing the general public about computers. Dymax gave rise to a walk-in computer center in Menlo Park and to the thoroughly irreverent PCC.

Computers had been mainly used against people, PCC said. Now they were going to be used for people.

Albrecht was never paid, and others worked for little. The 1960s values that pervaded the company exalted accomplishing something worthwhile beyond attaining money, power, or prestige. If Computer Lib had the most revolutionary philosophy and the most brilliantly original ideas, PCC had solid, practical advice for people who wanted to learn more about computers.

Albrecht and company were not writing about personal computers yet, because personal computers didn’t exist. Instead, they wrote about personal access to computers. In the early 1970s, users typically gained access to computers via time-sharing.

These big machines were getting smaller, though, and cheaper. DEC sold a PDP-8/F minicomputer that could be programmed in BASIC and that featured a 110 Teletype machine for under $6,000, a remarkably low price for a minicomputer. To the most visionary contemporary observer, this may have been a hint of what was to come, but consumers weren’t buying the minicomputer and installing it in their dens. At this point, virtually no individual person owned a computer.

Computers like the DEC minicomputer could, nevertheless, be purchased by schools. David Ahl, editor of EDU, DEC’s newsletter on educational uses of computers, spent a lot of time writing about small computers such as the $6,000 system. He argued that children learning about computers should be able to get their hands on the real machines, not just terminals connected to a remote, impersonal time-sharing system.

Making Technology Convivial

Lee Felsenstein was working hard to humanize those same time-sharing systems. He helped organize Community Memory, an offshoot of Resource One that installed public terminals in storefronts. The terminals gave anyone who walked in the front door immediate, free access to a public computer network. They were similar to those message boards you see in sandwich shops and other public places. Except that these message boards could be updated electronically, had an unlimited number of responses attached to them, and could be read all over town.

There were problems, though. People didn’t know how to use the Community Memory terminals, and they frequently broke down. To really bring the power of the computer to the people, access wasn’t enough: it was necessary to make the thing understandable, and to free users from having to depend on a trained repair person.

Felsenstein had a distinct approach to technological problems. Instead of merely fixing the terminals, he began looking for the inherent problem in their design. What was the basic shortcoming of the Community Memory terminals? He decided that they weren’t “convivial.”

Lee’s father had once recommended the book Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society. Pointing to radio as an example, Illich argued that technologies become useful only when people can teach themselves about those technologies. As a child in Philadelphia, Felsenstein had built his own radio, so he appreciated the comparison. Truly useful tools, Illich said, must be convivial. They have to stand up under the abuse people put them through as they’re learning how to use and repair them.

Felsenstein took Illich’s message to heart. He wanted computer technology to spread like crystal radio technology had done. He began soliciting ideas for a convivial terminal, and in true 1960s spirit, he sought a communal design. He placed notices in PCC and on the Community Memory boards, calling for a meeting to discuss the “Tom Swift Terminal,” a computer terminal that would appeal to technology-dazzled teenagers who read the ads in the back of science-fiction magazines. The terminals would be as easy to build and repair as a crystal radio.

Stumbling into a Start-up

One of those responding to the Community Memory message was Bob Marsh. Marsh and Felsenstein discovered they had already met, but this meeting via computer was the important one.

Bob Marsh had been an engineering student at UC Berkeley. Both he and Felsenstein lived in Oxford Hall, the University Students’ Cooperative Association building. With his familiar boyish grin and locks of dark hair falling across his forehead, Bob Marsh looked much the same as he did during his days at Berkeley, but Felsenstein could see that his college chum had done some growing up.

While Felsenstein had not been as serious about school as he was about political events, Marsh never seemed to be serious about anything. Pool playing and beer drinking got more of his attention than did classwork, and he had dropped out in 1965 to take a job clerking in a grocery store. Marsh labored there just long enough to save up sufficient cash for a trip to Europe.

When he returned, though, it was with an altered outlook and the motivation to get a degree. He went to a community college to build up a grade-point average that would allow him to return to UC Berkeley. He planned to be a biology teacher—but one visit to a teachers’ meeting ended that dream. Marsh didn’t care for the way principals and administrators treated teachers, and he switched back to an engineering major.

Marsh began working on a series of engineering projects with his friend Gary Ingram. Marsh and Ingram had known each other since 1971, when they collaborated on their first project together. The project was based on a Popular Electronics article by Harry Garland and Roger Melen. Marsh had also read the Don Lancaster TV Typewriter article in Radio-Electronics and had tried to devise an improved version of it, with some success.

Ingram was now working at Dictran International, an importer of dictation equipment, and landed his friend Marsh a job there. When Ingram quit Dictran a month later, Marsh suddenly became chief engineer. Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he liked the position. That job eventually disappeared, but Marsh later said that his stint as chief engineer had changed his life. Experiencing life as a Berkeley student in the 1960s, being on his own in Europe, seeing what it was like to be a teacher working under others, and getting a shot at being an engineer and manager at Dictran—these experiences had all contributed to turning Marsh into the prototype for a generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

But in 1974, Marsh was broke and jobless. As Felsenstein put it, Marsh had worked himself up to the exalted level of an unemployed electronics engineer. With house payments to make, a family to support, and a child on the way, Marsh was looking for a project around which he could build a company.

The Fourth Street Garage

Marsh’s meeting with Felsenstein about the Tom Swift Terminal led to a discussion about electronic products and launching a corporation. But unlike Marsh, Felsenstein wasn’t interested in starting his own company. He was busy fomenting a revolution.

Marsh decided he needed some work space if he was going to get his company going. He talked Felsenstein into splitting the cost to lease a space. Although Felsenstein still had no plans to start his own venture, he did need to move his home office out of his 276-square-foot apartment. In January 1975, the two rented a 1,100-square-foot garage at 2465 Fourth Street in Berkeley for $170 a month.

Marsh could barely afford his half of the modest rent, but set up shop nevertheless. Felsenstein laid claim to a workbench and took on freelance engineering projects that came his way. He remained involved in Community Memory while the Tom Swift Terminal project was on hold. Marsh then connected with a friend who had access to cheap walnut planks and with an electronics distributor named Bill Godbout. He planned to use these contacts as part of an effort to build and market digital clocks.

Then the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics announced the introduction of the Altair computer. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, this would change the lives of Felsenstein, the technological revolutionary, and Marsh, the unemployed engineer. It did so in part because it brought into existence the Homebrew Computer Club, an extraordinary gathering of people with engineering expertise and a revolutionary spirit, from whom would spring dozens of computer companies and eventually a multibillion-dollar industry.

The Homebrew Computer Club

There was a strong feeling [at the Homebrew Computer Club] that we were subversives. We were subverting the way the giant corporation had run things. We were upsetting the establishment, forcing our mores into the industry. I was amazed that we could continue to meet without people arriving with bayonets to arrest the lot of us.

-Keith Britton, Homebrew Computer Club member

Early in 1975, a number of counterculture information exchanges existed in the San Francisco Bay Area for people interested in computers. Community Memory was one, PCC was another, and there was the PCC spin-off, the Community Computer Center. Peace activist Fred Moore was running a noncomputerized information network out of the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park, matching people with common interests about anything, not just computers.

A Place to Come Together

Moore became interested in computers when he realized he needed computing power. He talked to Bob Albrecht at PCC about getting both a computer and a base of operations. Soon Moore was teaching children about computers while learning about them himself. At the same time, Albrecht was looking for someone to write some assembly-language programs. He found Gordon French, a mechanical engineer and computer hobbyist, who at the time supported himself by building motors for toy slot cars.

After the Altair story appeared in Popular Electronics, the need for a more direct information exchange became clear. The PCC people took the Altair seriously from the start. Keith Britton, a demolition consultant and PCC’s treasurer, thought its arrival foretold the eventual demise of the computer “priesthood.”

“All of us were champing at the bit to get an Altair,” French recalls. So Fred Moore pulled out his list of the computer curious, the revolutionaries, the techies, and the educational innovators, and sent out the call: “Are you building your own computer?” Moore’s flyer asked. “If so, you might like to come to a gathering of people with like-minded interests.”

The announcement referred to the gathering as the Amateur Computer Users Group, and alternately as the Homebrew Computer Club. The group first met on March 5, 1975, in Gordon French’s garage. Felsenstein read about the upcoming meeting and resolved not to miss it. He collared Bob Marsh, and they drove Felsenstein’s pickup truck through the rain across the Bay Bridge to the peninsula that stretches from San Francisco south to Silicon Valley. French’s garage was in suburban Menlo Park, a town jogging distance from Stanford University and perched on the edge of Silicon Valley.

At the club’s first meeting, Steve Dompier reported on his visit to Albuquerque. It was the headquarters of MITS. MITS, he told them, had shipped 1,500 Altairs and expected to ship 1,100 more that month. The company was staggering under the weight of the orders and couldn’t possibly fill all of them. Bob Albrecht displayed the Altair that PCC had just received that week. Immediately in front of PCC on MITS’s waiting list were Harry Garland and Roger Melen, the two Stanford University grad students who had created the Cyclops digital camera and who later founded Cromemco, a company that made computer-interface and CPU boards.

Dompier, like Marsh and Felsenstein, had driven down from Berkeley, but most of the 32 attendees at the first meeting were from nearby communities. Albrecht and Gordon French, who chaired the meeting; Fred Moore, who took notes for the club’s newsletter; and Bob Reiling, who soon took over editing the newsletter, all lived in Menlo Park. Others came from towns farther south, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley—Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, and San Jose—people like Allen Baum, Steve Wozniak, and Tom Pittman. Pittman had worked with Intel developing software for the company’s microprocessors and was a self-described microcomputer consultant, perhaps the first in the world.

As the meeting concluded, one Homebrewer held up an Intel 8008 chip, asked who could use it, and then gave it away. Many of those there that night sensed the opportunities presented by this community spirit and Dompier’s revelations that MITS couldn’t build Altairs fast enough to fill its orders.

Homebrew Was an Incubator

One person inspired by the meeting was Bob Marsh, who immediately went to see Gary Ingram about forming a business. “I have a garage,” Marsh told Ingram. That seemed like enough to get started.

They decided to call themselves Processor Technology, immediately shortened to Proc Tech among those in the know. Marsh designed three plug-in circuit boards for the Altair: two I/O boards and a memory board. Both he and Ingram thought they looked pretty good. Marsh designed a flyer announcing Proc Tech’s products, ran off hundreds of copies on a campus photocopying machine, and distributed 300 of them at the third Homebrew meeting.

By this time, the club was flourishing. Fred Moore was exchanging newsletters with Hal Singer, who put out the Micro-8 Newsletter in Southern California and had formed a Micro-8 club shortly after Homebrew started. Other publications were passed around at the meetings. PCC and Hal Chamberlin’s Computer Hobbyist attracted special attention. A Denver organization, The Digital Group, identified itself as a provider of support for Micro-8 and TV Typewriter hobbyists, and offered subscriptions to its newsletter. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with changes in the movement. Intel introduced its 4004, 8008, and 8080 chips, and at least 15 other semiconductor manufacturers had introduced microprocessors into the market. The newly formed club labored to keep its members informed about them all.

The third Homebrew monthly meeting drew several hundred people, too many for Gordon French’s garage. The club moved meetings to the Coleman mansion, a Victorian dwelling that later became a schoolhouse. There Marsh gave a brief talk, explaining that he was selling memory and I/O boards for the Altair. He hoped to present Proc Tech as a serious company, not just the whim of an unemployed electronics engineer with access to a copying machine. He offered a 20 percent discount for cash prepayment. To his disappointment, no one approached him during or after the meeting.

But by the following week, the first order arrived. Harry Garland and Roger Melen, the Stanford students and computer entrepreneurs/hobbyists who had created the Cyclops camera for the Altair, were first in line with Proc Tech. Marsh read the order, written on the stationery of Garland and Melen’s new company, Cromemco, and saw a request for 30 days net credit. This was hardly what Marsh had expected. Still, he supposed this meant that Proc Tech was now being treated like a serious enterprise. Proc Tech was a serious company, and Cromemco was a serious company—there just wasn’t any serious money being exchanged. Oh, well. It was a start.

After the Cromemco order many others followed, and most had cash enclosed. Ingram fronted $360 of his own money for an advertisement in the influential Byte magazine, but now with cash streaming in, Marsh and Ingram could afford to advertise in Popular Electronics—and they did, spending $1,000 for a one-sixth-page ad. Next they incorporated, and Ingram was named president. For its corporate headquarters and factory, Processor Technology had half of an 1,100-square-foot garage; but it had no products, no schematics for proposed products, no supplies, no employees, and thousands of dollars in cash orders. It was beginning to appear that they had some work ahead of them.

The Toastmaster of Homebrew

Meanwhile, Lee Felsenstein was getting increasingly involved with Homebrew. He took over the master-of-ceremonies role from Gordon French but refused to think of himself as a chairman. The meetings were now held in the auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Over the years, Felsenstein became intimately associated with the club and fostered its anarchic structure. The group had no official membership, no dues, and was open to anyone. Its newsletter, offered free after a nudge from Felsenstein, became a pointer to information sources and a link between hobbyists.

As group toastmaster, Felsenstein performed with a sort of showmanship that was as curious as it was engaging. As one attendee, Chris Espinosa, said, “People call him the Johnny Carson of Homebrew, but he’s more than that. He kept order, he kept things moving, he made it fun to go to the meetings. There were 750 people in that room at one time, and he worked it like a rock concert. It’s hard to describe, but to see him work a crowd like a Baptist preacher… He was great.”

With Felsenstein running them, the meetings didn’t follow Robert’s rules of order. He gave meetings their own special twist. First came a Mapping session, during which Felsenstein recognized people who quickly proffered their interests, questions, rumors, or plans. Felsenstein typically had snappy answers to questions and sharp-witted comments on their plans. A formal Presentation session followed, generally on someone’s latest invention. Finally, there was the Random Access session, in which everyone scrambled around the auditorium to meet others they felt had common interests. The formula worked brilliantly, and numerous companies were formed at the Homebrew meetings. A remarkable amount of information was also exchanged at those meetings. Much information needed to be exchanged; they were all in unfamiliar territory.

Around this time, a branch of Homebrew started at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. Universities were becoming hotbeds of self-taught microcomputer expertise. Professors with grant money now found it cost-effective to buy minicomputers rather than buy time on the university mainframe computer, which was invariably out of date and overworked. DEC was selling PDP-8 and PDP-11 minicomputers to professors as fast as it could build them. The computers were especially popular in psychology labs, where they were used for experimenting on human subjects, automating animal lab processes, and analyzing data. The invasion of the psych lab by minicomputers created a new kind of expert: someone who may know something about research and data analysis but who was actually more of a hacker and computer nut—someone to figure out how to run the computer and make it do what the professors wanted.

Homebrew Spawns More Start-Ups

Howard Fulmer was such a person. Fulmer worked in the Psychology Department at UC Berkeley running PDP-11s, selecting minicomputers for professors to buy, building interfaces, and programming experiments. It all changed in early 1975 when one of Fulmer’s professors bought an Altair and Fulmer taught himself how to use it. Soon after that, Fulmer left his job to devote more time to microcomputers.


Figure 30. George Morrow A little older and more outgoing than most of the early personal-computer developers, Morrow was an entertaining showman as well as a technologist.

(Courtesy of George Morrow)

He was not alone: the fever produced by the announcement of the Altair in Popular Electronics spread through UC Berkeley. George Morrow, a graduate student in math, worked with Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg, two other students at the university’s Center for Research in Management Science. They were the same Grant and Greenberg who had refused a few years earlier to get off the Resource One computer to allow Lee Felsenstein to perform maintenance on it. They were attempting to develop a language to use with a microprocessor in computer-controlled research.

Morrow, Grant, and Greenberg found that they worked well together. All three were perfectionists, although in different ways. The thin, prematurely balding Morrow, with the perpetual twinkle in his eye and an irrepressible wit, seemed always to be enjoying himself, and especially so when he was hard at work. Grant and Greenberg, on the other hand, tended to be all business. Although Grant and Greenberg often attended Homebrew meetings and profited from the free, open exchange of information, they never considered themselves part of the hobbyist community. But as far as the technical stuff went, the three formed a good team: Morrow knew hardware, Grant preferred software, and Greenberg was at home with either.

The trio considered making boards for the Altair, or even a computer of their own. They knew that they were a good design team, but they also knew they lacked sophistication when it came to marketing. So Morrow sought the advice of Bill Godbout, a seemingly unlikely choice. Middle-aged, blunt, and opinionated, Godbout freely joked about his expanding paunch and kept an airplane for stunt flying. He was the electronics distributor Bob Marsh had tried, unsuccessfully, to interest in his walnut digital clock when he and Felsenstein first moved into the garage at 2465 Fourth Street.


Figure 31. Bill Godbout Godbout sold chips and memory boards by mail and did business with developers on a handshake basis. (Courtesy of Bill Godbout)

Godbout was at the time selling chips and minicomputer memory boards by mail. Morrow asked him if he intended to sell Altair memory boards. Godbout scoffed. He wouldn’t so dignify the product, he said. Morrow wondered if Godbout might be interested in distributing a good computer, one that was the creation of a top-notch design team.

“With you guys?” Godbout sniffed. He gave Morrow the once-over. Godbout felt he was good at sizing people up, and decided Morrow looked all right. They quickly agreed to split the profits equally and shook hands on it. No written contract, Godbout insisted. Written contracts were a sign of mistrust and an invention of lawyers, and if there was anybody Godbout didn’t trust, it was a lawyer.

For all their differences, these entrepreneurs were all convinced that they were involved in the birth of something remarkable. The irascible Bill Godbout, who hated lawyers; ex--Berkeley Barb technical editor and current Homebrew toastmaster Lee Felsenstein; Bob Albrecht, who left a high-paying career to teach children about computers, smoked cheap cigars, and called himself “The Dragon”; Bob Marsh, who was testing his own abilities by turning his love for electronics into a garage corporation; and Keith Britton, who saw himself and the other Homebrewers as pivotal in “an equivalent of the industrial revolution but profoundly more important to the human race.” They all knew that they were revolutionaries.

They weren’t necessarily political, although a surprising number of these early movers and shakers held political views that would have shocked the local Rotary Club, and almost all of them had no love for IBM or the rest of the computer establishment. But they and others like them were bringing about a new industrial revolution.

And much of the action took place at Homebrew.

The Homebrew Computer Club was not merely the spawning ground of Silicon Valley microcomputer companies. It was also the intellectual nutrient in which they first swam. Presidents of competing companies and chief engineers would gather there to argue design philosophy and announce new products. Casual remarks made at Homebrew changed the directions of corporations. Homebrew was a respected critic of microcomputer products. The Homebrewers were sharp, and could spot shoddy merchandise and items that were difficult to maintain. They blew the whistle on faulty equipment and meted out praise for solid engineering and convivial technologies. Homebrewers had the power to make or break new companies. Due in part to Lee Felsenstein, Homebrew encouraged the conviction that computers should be used for and not against people. Homebrew thrived in a kind of joyous anarchy, but the club was also an important step in the development of a multibillion-dollar industry.

The seeds of all of this were already present in the spring of 1975.

Wildfire in Silicon Valley

Processor Technology was a nexus for hobbyists making a transition, trying to be serious about it all and not always succeeding.

-Lee Felsenstein, designer of several microcomputer products

The Fourth Street garage in Berkeley was a busy place that spring. Lee Felsenstein was making a meager living from odd jobs, including repairing friends’ Altairs, while Bob Marsh was tearing open checks, writing ad copy, and doing his best to convince hobbydom that Processor Technology was a million-dollar company when, in fact, it still existed mostly in his head.

Fixing the Altair

Felsenstein had gotten himself in trouble that spring. In spreading the word about the Altair through an article for PCC, he based his description of the machine’s workings and capabilities on information he received from Homebrew and from a telephone interview with MITS president Ed Roberts. Irate letters soon poured into the PCC office contending that Felsenstein had not been critical enough of the product. The Altair had serious problems, the letters claimed. Steve Dompier, for one, showed Felsenstein the difficulties he’d had with the front panel of his Altair and even got Felsenstein to fix it.

In a PCC article he titled “Criticism and Self-Criticism,” Felsenstein apologized: “I lied folks; this thing has problems.” He detailed the computer’s flaws and how to correct them. He also began fixing Altairs for friends and PCCreaders, working on them in his half of the garage. Loyal to other hobbyists and feeling guilty about misinforming people, Felsenstein did the work cheaply. In the process, he learned a great deal about those early Altairs.

Meanwhile, Marsh and Ingram were using their half of the garage to create the Altair boards they were getting checks for. But they were stalled early on: they needed a sharp engineer to draw up the schematics for the boards that Marsh had conceived. The engineer had to be willing to work in a cramped and messy garage, and he had to work cheap.

Marsh knew just the man.

Felsenstein had made it clear that he did not want to join Processor Technology or any other company. He had better things to do. Although he was working long hours for little pay, he was doing what he wanted and felt beholden to no one. And long hours for little pay was about all Bob Marsh could offer him. Nevertheless, Marsh put forward a new proposal. Would Felsenstein just do the schematic for the first board, as a consultant rather than an employee?

Felsenstein thought it over, agreed, and offered to do the schematic for $50. This price, Marsh thought, was pathetically low. It was a $3,000 job and Felsenstein, the poor goof, was offering to do it for $50. Marsh refused to go below $500. Felsenstein accepted the compromise.

It was fast work, and by June they were shipping boards. One of them was first meant to be a 2K memory board for the Altair, an ambitious project given that MITS was shipping only an eighth as much memory. Then, at the last minute, Marsh changed the design, doubling the capacity to 4K. MITS’s first real competition came from those 4K memory boards, which definitely cut into MITS’s profits. Ed Roberts wasn’t pleased.

But MITS’s defective memory boards and delivery backlog had already kicked the door open for some real competition. Bruce Seals, a Tennessee hobbyist, flew to Albuquerque in July to discuss an East Coast dealership, and returned to Tennessee with the entire state as his territory and a promise of three-day delivery. When MITS couldn’t move the products fast enough, especially the memory boards, Seals saw the same need—and opportunity—that Marsh had, and he, too, designed and began to sell a 4K memory board. An industry of sorts was developing.

Processor Technology continued to market memory boards while moving on to new designs. The VDM, or video display module, Felsenstein’s next contract for Proc Tech, was an interface board that allowed the Altair to display output on a television screen. Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg, who had left UC Berkeley with George Morrow and were now doing business as G & G Systems, did the software for the module, and Steve Dompier wrote Target, a video game that showed off the VDM. Dompier later asserted that it was the VDM that made video games possible.

In the fall of 1975, a local computer show took place at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, where the East Bay spin-off Homebrew Computer Club first got together. MITS was represented by two area Altair dealers, Paul Terrell and Boyd Wilson, who proudly showed Felsenstein and Marsh the hoops their machine could jump through. Marsh was more impressed by the fact that the Altair was filled with Processor Technology memory boards. Harry Garland and Roger Melen were also present, demonstrating how their Cyclops camera could be used with the Altair.

Sharing Ideas

Before the original Homebrew Computer Club had grown large enough to need the auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), Popular Electronics technical editor Les Solomon visited the club at the nearby SLAC Orange Room. He was the star of the evening, telling somewhat far-fetched stories of his own experiences. Sometimes he sounded like a counterspy, other times like a vaudeville magician. “It was unclear which country he was working for,” joked Lee Felsenstein, who was among Solomon’s admirers. At one point, Solomon led the Homebrewers outside, did some hocus-pocus, and instructed them to lift the huge stone table in the yard. They were surprised to find that they could hoist it right up, although Felsenstein noted dryly that the group hadn’t tried lifting it without the hocus-pocus.

Some nights at Homebrew, a tall, dapper, charismatic man could be found at the back of the room selling books out of a cardboard box. He was Adam Osborne, a chemical engineer born in Bangkok of British parents, and the same Adam Osborne who had been doing technical writing for Intel. He had since self-published a book called An Introduction to Microcomputers. It was, in fact, an introduction to microprocessors, such as the Intel 8080. In the early days, microprocessors were commonly referred to as microcomputers, especially by the public-relations departments of semiconductor companies.

Although the people from IMSAI, the leading microcomputer company, almost never attended club meetings, IMSAI cofounder Bruce Van Natta was at Homebrew one night when Osborne was hawking his books, and bought a copy. His decision to include a copy of Osborne’s book with every IMSAI allowed Osborne to start a publishing company that would eventually be purchased for millions by McGraw-Hill. Ironically, it would be Osborne who would first announce IMSAI’s demise in a column in a computer magazine.

After Homebrew meetings, its most fanatical members went to a Menlo Park beer-and-burger place named the Oasis but known to the savvy as “the O.” They sat in wooden booths surrounded by the deeply carved initials of generations of Stanford students, drank beer, and argued computer design. They ignored the fact that they were competitors. There were a lot of things to learn in developing this new kind of product, and they weren’t about to let economic issues get in the way. Marsh and Melen regularly traded insights on design, and Grant and Greenberg sometimes joined them at the O.

Wildfire grep -nH -e Beyond the Valley

By the end of 1975, new microcomputer companies were poking up everywhere, with the most furious activity still in the San Francisco Bay Area. IMSAI was located in San Leandro. Bay Area--based Cromemco was designing boards for the Altair. MOS Technology had released its KIM-1 hobby computer, based on its bargain-basement 6502 microprocessor, equipped with a hexadecimal keyboard in place of binary switches. Microcomputer Associates in Los Altos had its Jolt, a 6502 kit.

Southern California was also a center of growing hobbyist activity. In Gardena, Dennis Brown was selling his Wave Mate Jupiter II, a computer based on the Motorola 6800 microprocessor and designed to attract “serious hobbyists,” for less than $1,000. Although the Altair had sold for less than half that, a realistic price for an assembled Altair system, including some sort of I/O device, adequate memory, and a storage device, was well over $1,000. In San Diego, Electronics Products announced another 6800-based computer, the Micro 68.

On December 31, 1975, Rich Peterson, Brian Wilcox, and John Stephensen quit their jobs to form their own company. Peterson and Wilcox had built an Altair, Stephensen had built his own 8080 machine from scratch, and they found themselves designing boards to make the Altair run better. Deciding that their hobby could just as well be their vocation, they formed PolyMorphic Systems and started working on a computer kit. They first called it the Micro-Altair, and later, under duress, changed the name to Poly 88.

Elsewhere in the West, MITS in Albuquerque was offering a 4K static memory board for its 8080 system and was developing a computer based on what was emerging as the “Southwest chip”: Motorola’s 6800. Systems Research in Salt Lake City sold a 6800 microcomputer board. Mike Wise’s Sphere, operating out of a small factory near Salt Lake City, was offering its 6800 computer with a built-in terminal and plastic case. Southwest Technical Products, run by Dan Meyer in San Antonio, also offered a 6800 system. The Digital Group in Denver was selling a variety of boards.

In the Midwest, Martin Research was offering its Mike CPU boards with 8008 or 8080 chips. Ohio Scientific Instruments in Hudson, Ohio, had 6800 and 6502 kits. Heathkit in Benton Harbor, Michigan, had a computer in the works.

In the East, the hobbyist movement grew up around the Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey. Scelbi, in Milford, Connecticut, put out a popular kit based on the 8008, and Technical Design Labs in Trenton, New Jersey, was developing a computer kit around a new chip, the Zilog Z80. Hal Chamberlin in North Carolina, Bruce Seals in Tennessee, and Georgia Tech student Ron Roberts were active hobbyists working on systems, components, or software.

But the fire burned most strongly in Silicon Valley, with its atmosphere of symbiotic information sharing. New companies that created circuit boards for the Altair popped up almost daily. By the end of 1975, one of these, Processor Technology, was on its way to parlaying its substitute for the defective Altair memory board into financial wealth and, within a curiously anticorporate industry, a kind of corporate respectability.

Nostalgia for the Future

Bob said he would pay me to design the video section of the Tom Swift Terminal. He knew how to manipulate me.

-Lee Felsenstein

In June 1975, Bob Marsh and Popular Electronics technical editor Les Solomon were contemplating an “intelligent terminal” kit. It would consist of a terminal with semiconductor circuitry that would perform certain display and keyboard decoding functions that another computer attached to it would have otherwise handled. Marsh had some ideas from his own experience and from discussions with Felsenstein about the Tom Swift Terminal. “If you can get me a working model in 30 days, I’ll give you a cover story,” Solomon said.

A Terminal with a Brain

Marsh put the proposition to Felsenstein this way: “Do you think it’s impossible?” Felsenstein appreciated Marsh’s careful phrasing of the question. To dodge the job, he would have to pronounce it impossible, a distasteful act to any self-respecting engineer.

Marsh said he would pay Felsenstein to design the video portion of his dream machine, the convivial terminal that Felsenstein saw as essential to releasing the power of computers to everyone. Felsenstein liked the idea, and agreed to do it. It soon became apparent that Marsh had a different project in mind. What he wanted was a terminal with a brain—the same Intel 8080 chip that was the brain of the Altair. They argued over the details of the design, with Marsh usually getting the better of the arguments. Felsenstein, Marsh, and Les Solomon didn’t realize it then, but the product they were designing would become something more than just a terminal.

Felsenstein had to withdraw from another project when he agreed to design the intelligent terminal. “The roof is falling in again,” he told his ex-customer. Until then, he paid his share of the rent by consulting for various people. But Proc Tech was expanding to take up the whole garage—all 1,100 square feet of it. Felsenstein was gradually being absorbed into Marsh’s enterprise.

Marsh had already developed the terminal’s architecture and continued to change the design requirements as Felsenstein worked. Felsenstein had enjoyed consulting, in part because he could get some distance between him and the person he was working for and concentrate without interruption on a problem. This advantage evaporated when he began to devote most of his time to the Proc Tech terminal. Marsh insisted on design changes on a daily basis and repeatedly forced Felsenstein to junk much of his careful work and start over. “The situation,” Felsenstein later said, “did call heavily on my sense of futility, absurdity, and ultimate irrelevance.”

Despite his complaints, Felsenstein was enjoying himself. His grumbling about being manipulated was more of a jab at himself than it was at Marsh, who, for all his entrepreneurial energy, was involved at least partly for the fun of it. At one point in the project, Felsenstein said, “Let’s advertise it as having ‘the wisdom of Solomon.’” He meant it as a sly reference to Les Solomon, and this whimsical slogan soon inspired them to name the machine “the Sol.”


Figure 32. Bob Marsh and Gary Ingram Founders Marsh (chin on fist) and Ingram dressed up to meet customers at Processor Technology’s booth at an early trade show. (Courtesy of Bob Marsh)

Marsh and Felsenstein argued ceaselessly over the design at Felsenstein’s workbench at one end of their garage and at the makeshift Proc Tech offices housed at the other end. They argued about it over meals and while driving across the San Francisco Bay to Homebrew meetings. Despite their constant wrangling over design, they got the goods out. On one drive to a Homebrew meeting, they redesigned an entire internal bus.

A Real Computer

It eventually dawned on Marsh and Felsenstein that they were designing a real computer. After all, it had an 8080 in it. But clearly it was also a terminal. Until then, computers typically consisted of rectangular boxes with accessory connections to terminals of some kind—Teletypes, cathode-ray tubes, typewriters, or printers. But theirs was a screen, a keyboard, and a computer all in one. Could they really pull this thing off?

The question had both technical and political implications. At this point, the Altair dominated the tiny microcomputer industry, and IMSAI had not yet made its entry. And here they were, developing this terminal under the auspices of the Altair’s biggest booster outside of Albuquerque—Leslie “Uncle Sol” Solomon. Would he rescind the cover-story agreement if they told him they were concocting a computer instead of a terminal?

They decided not to tell him.

And they continued to work. Despite all the arguments, Marsh, Ingram, and Felsenstein were enjoying themselves. “This is a company that’s going to have fun,” Felsenstein said, “no matter how miserable I have to be.” He described his partners as “nostalgic for the future,” like many computer hobbyists of the day, and their discussions were frequently those of visionaries. But the mundane, day-to-day decisions also had to be made. Marsh’s friend still had all that cheap walnut originally slated for the digital-clock business, and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste, so Marsh incorporated walnut side panels into the Sol’s design, giving it the appearance of a 1950s station wagon.

Felsenstein had originally expected to hand the finished schematic to a layout artist. As it turned out, he was the chief layout artist. Because they had long since filled all the available floor space in the garage, a light table for the layout work was installed in a loft above the Proc Tech offices. Felsenstein padded the forehead-level conduit, but couldn’t keep from bumping his head on the rafters as he worked with the other layout artist 14 to 17 hours a day, seven days a week. The other artist, pumping himself up with cola, dropped out before the end of the project, and Felsenstein had to finish the job alone, on orange juice.

Marsh kept the pressure on, and within 45 days of his initial discussion with Les Solomon, he had a circuit board. But Solomon had given the team a 30-day deadline, so as they neared completion Marsh booked a flight to New York and informed a bleary-eyed Lee Felsenstein that he was going, too. They stuffed the Sol into two brown paper bags and carried it with them on the plane.

The demonstration for Solomon at Popular Electronics was an utter disaster. The thing just didn’t work. They made what excuses they could and, feeling hopeless at this point, flew to an appointment at Byte, where the presentation was even more disastrous. Felsenstein, dead on his feet from the grueling work schedule, fell asleep during the Byte demonstration.

Well-rested and back in California at his workbench, he quickly located the problem, a short circuit. Marsh promptly put Felsenstein back on a plane to New York to demonstrate a working Sol with strict instructions to not reveal that it was actually a computer.

Felsenstein kept his mouth shut, but Solomon was no dummy. When Felsenstein showed him the Sol terminal, he watched it work for a while, and then asked Felsenstein what was to stop him from plugging in a memory board with BASIC on it and running the Sol as a bona fide computer.

“Beats me,” Felsenstein deadpanned.

Who Owns the Software?

Of course the Sol was a computer. And that meant, Marsh and Ingram realized, that it needed software, particularly BASIC. The two contracted with Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg to write it. One-time partner George Morrow had had a falling out with Grant and Greenberg because he didn’t think they were taking their oral agreement with Bill Godbout seriously enough. Morrow decided to deal with Godbout alone, leaving Grant and Greenberg to go off on their own.


Figure 33. Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg Grant (left) and Greenberg were involved in the personal-computer revolution from the start, and launched several companies, including Kentucky Fried Computers and North Star Computers. (Courtesy of North Star)

As they worked on the BASIC, Grant and Greenberg found they were having the most trouble with the floating-point routines: arithmetic on real numbers, not integers. They simply couldn’t process the operation as quickly as they wanted to. They finally decided to build the floating-point math into the hardware, and hired George Millard to help design a floating-point board.

Around this time, the issue of proprietary software came up. Conflict arose over ownership of an implementation of the BASIC computer language. Marsh asserted that the software was being developed for Proc Tech, whereas Grant and Greenberg, with growing ambition, insisted that it was theirs and began soliciting other customers for their BASIC. Proc Tech took Grant and Greenberg to court, and the case lumbered through discovery and delay, doing neither company any good.

The Problem of Storage


Figure 34. Chuck Grant In the early days of the personal-computer era, there was nothing unusual about a computer company’s founder demonstrating his product at a show in a T-shirt.

(Courtesy of David H. Ahl)

Grant and Greenberg had other hot projects going. They developed a cassette-tape interface that would allow microcomputers to save data to tape using cheap audio-tape recorders. But then Shugart, a Silicon Valley minicomputer disk-drive manufacturer, announced the introduction of a drive that used 1 1/4" disks—smaller than the 8" disks commonly used on big computers—that cost less than any other disk drive. Disk drives were the obvious answer for data storage, if they could be made affordable. So Grant and Greenberg dropped their interest in cassette storage and started designing a controller board to make the Shugart disk drive work with microcomputers.

When they had their disk system together, they gave themselves a new name, North Star, perhaps echoing the name Altair, another bright star in the sky. Simultaneously, as Applied Computer Technology, they contracted to sell IMSAIs bundled with their own BASIC and cassette interface to universities. But the market, they discovered, did not want configured systems, but rather raw computers, so they began selling IMSAIs out of Mark Greenberg’s garage. This operation, at Grant’s suggestion, was called Kentucky Fried Computers.

Meanwhile, their ex-partner, George Morrow, bought an Altair, studied it, and decided not to imitate it. He shared Godbout’s estimation of the Altair. The computer that he and Godbout planned to build, and that he began to design, would definitely be better. He would base it on National Semiconductor’s PACE, a microprocessor they hoped to get for $50 from National.

Godbout, however, had reservations about the project. He meditated over Altair’s sales figures and decided that memory boards for the Altair might do well after all. Morrow, with some reluctance, put aside the PACE machine and commenced designing a 4K memory board with his own name on it, joining Proc Tech and Seals in the memory market. Godbout sold the board for $189, well under Proc Tech’s price, and Morrow suddenly found himself making $1,800 a month in royalties.

Godbout now became intensely interested in selling microcomputer boards. But when he vetoed one of Morrow’s ideas, Morrow reevaluated their relationship. Couldn’t he sell his boards just as well as Godbout, he asked himself. The only difference, he decided, lay in who placed the magazine ads. Thus was born Morrow’s Microstuf.

There was no telling who would be successful among these entrepreneurs. Godbout already had a successful electronics business. Morrow was a bit older than some of these players, and with his bald head he came across as more of grown-up and hence more of a serious businessman. Marsh, on the other hand, looked like a kid, and Felsenstein was staunchly anticorporate. But Proc Tech was starting to look really promising. The market was crazy, according to Morrow. “You could start a company, announce a product, and people would throw money at you.”

Bob Marsh had already learned this lesson with Proc Tech’s memory boards, but was more than willing to take a refresher course. Marsh and Felsenstein took the Sol to the PC Computer show in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in June 1976 to unveil it to the world. It went over big.

When they returned to California, they continued to enhance and modify the Sol. While writing tutorial articles on computer design for PCC, Felsenstein added what they called, to use writer Don Lancaster’s term, a “personality module.” This tiny circuit board had a ROM (read-only memory) chip and could be plugged into the back of the machine, enabling its “personality” to be changed in a second. Felsenstein wryly imagined employees popping in game modules for the business modules while the boss was out of the office.


By late 1976, DEC was selling its LSI-11 bottom-of-the-line minicomputer for slightly over $1,000. In Southern California, Dick Wilcox gave hard thought to a suggestion in Dr. Dobb’s Journal about interfacing the LSI-11 with an Altair or IMSAI. What he came up with was the Alpha Micro, an LSI-like multiuser CPU board, which he demonstrated to Homebrew in December 1976.

New microprocessors continued to arrive. Toshiba released the first Japanese chip, the T3444. National Semiconductor issued a new microprocessor plus supplied the development tools hobbyists needed to start building real computers and writing software.

Scores of new microcomputer companies began to appear. Vector Graphic in Thousand Oaks, California, introduced an 8K memory board. Vector consisted of a Stanford engineering-school graduate and two businesswomen. Men had founded almost all the microcomputer companies, although some had recruited wives or girlfriends as business managers. But Vector’s Lore Harp quickly showed she was more than just a business manager as she guided the company with a shrewd sense of the market’s needs and the possibilities for growth.

However, Vector was not doing any better than Proc Tech. During the winter of 1976-1977, Proc Tech moved to a much larger facility, 14,000 square feet, next to a beef-rendering plant in nearby Emeryville. The atmosphere was uninviting, but the new location was far roomier than their former digs.

A month after Proc Tech moved out of the Fourth Street garage, Grant and Greenberg took over two-thirds of the space of the garage, Felsenstein reclaimed the other third, and their three company names were placed on the door: North Star, Applied Computer Technology, and Kentucky Fried Computers. As the last company, they were now marketing IMSAIs, PolyMorphic and Vector Graphic boards, and an Apple I kit that they were persuaded to take on consignment by a scraggly bearded young man named Steve Jobs. But soon, sales of their North Star disk system soared, and they closed Kentucky Fried Computers to concentrate fully on North Star. A letter from a certain fast-food chain that demanded they cease and desist from using the name Kentucky Fried Computers made the decision easier.

By the end of 1976, Processor Technology, Cromemco, North Star, Vector Graphic, and Godbout Engineering were prominent among the Silicon Valley enterprises, building an entire industry where none had existed two years before. And that industry was growing with amazing speed.

Sixers and Seventy-Sixers

I was working on…a military project with $1.5 million to build a display. It occurred to me maybe I could make a few concessions and do it for $99 instead.

-Don Lancaster, early computer hobbyist and writer

By the mid- to late-1970s, the fire of invention burned brightly in Silicon Valley, fueled by a unique environment of universities and electronics and semiconductor firms, and the legacy of revolutionary fervor left by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and 1960s counterculture values. But tinder sparks were igniting in scattered places throughout the country. Some of those figurative sparks were fanned by a man who actually spent his days watching for real fires.

The Fire Spotter

Don Lancaster wasn’t your typical aerospace engineer. He had gone to work for a defense contractor in the 1960s as a way of avoiding the Vietnam draft, but wasn’t too thrilled to find himself working for a company that produced machines designed to kill people. During his tenure there, he began to write articles for Popular Electronics and soon found that he could do better on his own. This was before the Altair. He quit the aerospace job, moved to Arizona, and went to work for the forest service as a fire spotter. Stationed in a lonely ten-foot-square fire tower, he had many hours to think up ideas for electronics projects he could write about.

Lancaster’s antiwar sentiments may not have found universal approval in Arizona, but his rugged individualism did. And he looked the part. Many of the California Homebrewers, such as Steve Dompier, were longhairs who rebelled against the “straight” look of the typical engineering student. But not Don Lancaster. Picture Lancaster as a computer-era Chuck Yeager—clean-cut, square-jawed, and tight-lipped, with aviator sunglasses and a cowboy hat planted squarely on his head.

Despite his straight-laced appearance, Lancaster was a genuine revolutionary. His do-it-yourself electronics articles were written by one individualist for other individualists. They were written to put the kind of power formerly reserved for aerospace firms and corporate data-processing departments—the computer priesthood—into the hands of the technically savvy everyman.

Lancaster was prolific. In addition to his freelance articles, he wrote books that electronics enthusiasts devoured, with titles like TTL Cookbook, CMOS Cookbook, and Cheap Video Cookbook. An excerpt from the latter provides a sense of Lancaster’s style and substance, and a glimpse into the kinds of issues that early microcomputer hobbyists had to deal with:

“Cheap video is a brand new collection of hardware and software ideas that dramatically slash the cost and complexity of both alphanumeric and graphics microprocessor-based video displays. A typical cheap video system…lets you do things like 12 × 80 scrolling display using only seven ordinary ICs with a total circuit cost as low as $20, transparently run on a microcomputer system that still has as much as 2/3 of its throughput remaining for other programs.”

Lancaster was original and generous as well as prolific. Popular Electronics’s Les Solomon spoke for all those who had been inspired by Lancaster’s books and articles when he said he had been “constantly startled by Don Lancaster’s brilliant innovations over the years.”

Intel vs. Motorola

Ed Roberts of MITS was one of those who studied Lancaster’s books and articles, and he worried because he thought Lancaster had hitched his wagon to a star brighter than Altair. Soon after Popular Electronics featured the MITS Altair on its cover, Lancaster joined up with Southwest Technical Products (SWTPC) in San Antonio. SWTPC had been in the audio-component business until late 1975, when it jumped into the business that Ed Roberts regarded as his personal domain: hobby computers. Roberts was convinced that the 6800 microprocessors that SWTPC was getting from Motorola made a better brain for a small computer than the Intel chip that Roberts bought at clearance to put in his Altair.

Roberts’s worries foreshadowed the split in the industry between the supporters of processors from Intel and chips from Motorola and other vendors, a split that would continue for decades.

Because the chips in the Intel line usually featured the number 8 prominently in their product names and the Motorola chips usually had a 6 in their names, supporters of the two lines were often called, respectively, “eighters” and “sixers.” Roberts was an eighter by default, but wanted to be a sixer. The attendees of the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley were mostly eighters, with some notable exceptions, such as the young Steve Wozniak, a clearance-sale-shopping sixer who had recently taken a job at Hewlett-Packard. Although the chips weren’t all that different in their capabilities, the choice of a computer’s microprocessor affected myriad hardware and software compatibility issues. A seemingly small decision, it was nevertheless a fateful one.

Lancaster was a sixer.

The TV Typewriter

Lancaster’s best-known contribution to the technological revolution was one of his earliest: the TV Typewriter. Lancaster published his prescient Radio-Electronics article that described the groundbreaking TV Typewriter device in 1973, a full two years before Ed Roberts had an Altair up and running. One industry pundit would later crown Lancaster the “father of the personal computer” because of this invention.

The TV Typewriter was just a terminal, but it was a terminal that computer hobbyists could build themselves. The device, and Lancaster’s description of its capabilities, got hobbyists thinking about real homebrew computers, and about the kinds of capabilities that the Internet would deliver to a broad market more than two decades later. It is no exaggeration to say that the TV Typewriter inspired a generation of computer hobbyists.

The TV Typewriter impressed Les Solomon. It made it possible for users to enter text on a cheap keyboard and display the characters on a television screen—uniting two inexpensive components that could, in principle, serve as the primary input and output devices for a computer. Bingo. Solomon wanted a way of getting information into and out of the Altair box that was easier and more user-friendly than having to flip switches and read the blinking patterns of the front-panel lights. Inevitably, he thought of Lancaster’s TV Typewriter.

The TV Typewriter and the Altair couldn’t work together as they were; one or the other would have to be redesigned. But which one? Solomon grabbed the bull by the horns, perhaps a more apt metaphor than he would have liked, and took Lancaster to Albuquerque to meet Ed Roberts. He thought a face-to-face meeting could resolve the issue. No such luck: Arizona faced off against New Mexico, and neither gave an inch.


Figure 35. Bob Marsh Marsh had been a teacher and enjoyed showing his computer to children at trade shows. (Courtesy of Bob Marsh)

The TV Typewriter proved more successful in another context. It was Lancaster’s article on the device that got Bob Marsh into computers and had him hook up with Lee Felsenstein, which led to the creation of the Sol. The Sol was the first of the hobby computers to feature a built-in screen and keyboard. So although the design was not Lancaster’s, the germ of the idea was his. The built-in screen and keyboard first popularized in the Sol would prove key to turning a hobbyist microcomputer into a true personal computer.

The “Industry” in 1977

By the spring of 1977, the wildfire had spread around the country and beyond. The most visible signs of the phenomenon were the computer clubs springing up all over. The Philadelphia Area Computer Society tracked developments in its newsletter, The Data Bus. The Toronto Region Association of Computer Enthusiasts newsletter already had a rating system for products. In Santa Monica, California, a group of hobbyists had formed an influential club, the Southern California Computer Society.

Microcomputer-related companies had already appeared and were doing business—in Tempe, Arizona; Englewood, Colorado; Norcross, Georgia; Skokie, Illinois; Olathe, Kansas; Crofton, Maryland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Saint Louis, Missouri; Peterborough, New Hampshire; New York City, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Aloha, Oregon; Malmö, Sweden; Provo, Utah; Issaquah, Washington; and Laramie, Wyoming, to cite a few examples. Newman Computer Exchange in Ann Arbor, Michigan, could already boast of its “giant” catalog of microcomputer equipment, bigger than all the other such catalogs.

Jim Warren, editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, “chairbeing” of the first West Coast Computer Faire and strategically placed observer of the rapid spread of this hobby-computer movement, in August 1977 estimated that there were “50,000 or more general-purpose digital computers in private ownership for personal use.” Whether or not that estimate was accurate, or took into account a few rich enthusiasts who could well afford to house a minicomputer in their basements, it stated with certainty that a wild and unstoppable fire was burning across the land.

If Jim Warren had listed all the microcomputer companies, clubs, magazines, and newsletters he knew about in mid-1977, the list would have bulged with Silicon Valley addresses, and not just because it was Warren’s home base. California enterprises in general would have occupied a large share of the list. Other states that were home to mainframe and minicomputer companies, semiconductor companies, and high-tech research schools, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Texas, would take another big chunk of the list. And then you had the New Jersey hackers.

Sol Libes and the ACGNJ

The Garden State was rich with microcomputer companies, like Technical Design Labs in Princeton and Electronic Control Technology in Union. Roger Amidon and Chris Rutkowski had a “supercomputer,” the General, with very good software. There were also the magazines—Computer Decisions magazine in Rochelle Park, and the most mainstream, accessible, and entertaining of the lot, David Ahl’s Creative Computing.

But the clubs were where the ideas were shared, and they were what kept the fire spreading. The Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey (ACGNJ) was one of the most active computer clubs in the country, and one of its fire-starters was a man named Sol Libes.

Like Don Lancaster, Libes wrote books for electronics enthusiasts. But whereas Lancaster was a loner, Libes was a joiner. Or perhaps it was that he could convince others to join him. Sol was a little older than some of the hackers, and may have seemed avuncular to a number of them. But he was one of the most active ACGNJ members, always getting involved with projects, including a couple of slick computer magazines.

Magazines were important to the spread of the microcomputer movement, but they lacked the immediacy that feeds a fast-moving phenomenon. Clubs like the Homebrew Computer Club and the Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey brought together computer enthusiasts who could share and critique ideas and designs in real time.

The BBS Phenomenon

Although meeting in real time was critical to the movement, meeting in real space wasn’t. It was only a matter of time before some hacker figured out that the best place for computer hobbyists to meet would be on a computer.

Most of the new microcomputers were capable of being hooked up to a modem. That meant with the right software they could be used to allow computer owners to communicate with each other over phone lines, somewhat like ham-radio enthusiasts who typed rather than talked.

Despite this capability, that scenario presented certain problems. Even if you had the right software, and even if the right software that both you and your friend had made all the same assumptions, you could talk only when you were both willing and available at the same time. It would be nice if you could leave an electronic message for your friend, but unless your friend’s computer and modem happened to be turned on when you sent the message, where would you leave it?

A Chicago computer enthusiast solved these nagging problems. He created a way of transmitting data between microcomputers over phone lines, called XMODEM, that became the communications standard. He also created a place to store messages with the first computer bulletin-board system (CBBS or just BBS).

His name was Ward Christensen, and in 1978 he and Randy Seuss wrote the first software that made it possible to set up BBSs, which not only provided a place to store messages for other computer enthusiasts, but also became places where communities of people with common interests—and not just a shared interest in computers—developed.

Over time, communities based not on geography but purely on shared interests developed on BBSs, and later on in Usenet newsgroups, email lists, interactive websites, multiuser domains, and virtual worlds. In 1978, most of those developments were still a thing of the future, but the model for every virtual community to come was present in those BBSs.

The virtual electronic communities on BBSs, the computer clubs popping up all over the country, the companies built more for the excitement than because of a desire for big profits—these were all evidence that something was going on that couldn’t be understood in terms of economic self-interest. On the other hand, ignoring economic realities is not a good idea in any business, as some of the Silicon Valley firms soon found out.

Home Rule

The first part of the meeting we were involved in open combat with Intel. Intel was out to torpedo any standardization effort on the S-100 bus.

-George Morrow, founder of Morrow’s Microstuf

Although the spirit of sharing was well established in the early days of the microcomputer industry, its participants had a lot to learn about working together. One thing that accelerated the learning process was fear.

The Big Boys

A continuing concern in the developing microcomputing industry was that “the big boys” would come and spoil all the fun. “The big boys” sometimes meant IBM and the other mainframe-computer and minicomputer companies, but mostly the reference was to such companies as Commodore and other electronics companies that had waged Pyrrhic price-cutting wars in the calculator industry. And, most especially, it meant Texas Instruments, known for its ruthless price slashing. Lee Felsenstein summarized the dread of many hobbyist entrepreneurs: “Anyone but TI!”

Intel and some of the other semiconductor companies, although well situated to produce microcomputers from their own chips, had expressed reluctance to do anything that could be construed as competing with their own customers. By this time, the hobbyist-born microcomputer companies had developed just about enough clout to be taken seriously as semiconductor customers. Or so it seemed.

Then, in December 1976, Commodore International leaked information to Electronic Engineering Times about a new product. Commodore, the story went, was ready to release a machine very much like the Sol, but at a lower price and backed by all of Commodore’s marketing muscle. Proc Tech was just shipping the first Sols, and Marsh was thinking about the company’s next product, a new version of the Sol with an integrated keyboard and 64K of memory that would be sold for a cheap $1,000. Unfortunately, it was, in essence, the same as the Commodore machine.

Convinced that Commodore actually had its computer product on the launch pad and that Proc Tech could never compete with it, and worried by the news that National Semiconductor was also planning a microcomputer, Marsh scrapped the new-and-improved Sol project. Five years earlier, the rules of battle in the calculator wars demanded that companies cut prices to the baseline and push the technology relentlessly, even under threat of corporate extinction. Marsh and Ingram had no illusions about being able to compete with Commodore and National in bloody mortal combat. As it turned out, the Commodore machine would not appear for some time, and the National Semiconductor computer never materialized.

Parasitic Engineering

Despite their worries about the big boys, hobbyist-entrepreneurs kept right on launching companies. Many of these new hobbyist-born companies were starting to manufacture microcomputers, but most of them were turning out boards for the Altair or IMSAI, and practically all were small start-up companies like Proc Tech.

Howard Fulmer began such a firm in his Oakland basement. After reading an editorial by Ed Roberts in David Bunnell’s Computer Notes that attacked the Altair-compatible memory-board companies as “parasites,” he considered calling his own company Symbiotic Engineering to emphasize his conception of the proper relationship between MITS’s products and his own. But a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army was making a name for itself right about then, and he wanted to avoid confusion with the radical political group. Instead, he called his company Parasitic Engineering, sending a rather pointed message to Roberts.

Meanwhile, Marsh was wondering if Proc Tech shouldn’t do a Z80 machine as well. But it seemed irrational to dump a successful design in order to achieve a marginal improvement in performance. The Sol was a hit, and he believed the processor mattered much less than the software. The software made the computer work, and that would distinguish one machine from another. It was the software that really mattered.

And that led to the idea that programs—games, business applications, or anything, really—written specifically for the Sol might help sell the machines. But rather than simply commission software to be written for the Sol, Marsh did something subtler: he commissioned the tools to make it easier to write software for the machine. After all, most of Proc Tech’s customers were engineers who could write their own software.

Proc Tech called on two programmers, Jerry Kirk and Paul Greenfield of MicroTech in Sunnyvale, who had produced high-level language compilers for minicomputers. They were asked to create a set of programmer’s tools: programs that would make it easier to write, edit, and debug other programs on the Sol. Ingram developed their work into Software Package One, which made the Sol the easiest machine to program, giving it a huge advantage.

Questioning the Culture of Sharing

But software ownership was becoming an inflammatory issue in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Processor Tech was aggressively pro-sharing, and its hobbyist founders swapped program tapes at Homebrew meetings along with everyone else. Gordon French, who after helping to start Homebrew became Proc Tech’s general factotum (his official title), argued for an open system—that is, free dissemination of software code and internal workings to anyone. He wanted outside programmers and peripheral manufacturers to be able to create compatible products and expand the market.

At the same time, Ed Roberts and the entire mainframe and minicomputer industry held the opposite view, that software should be proprietary. But the hobbyists were bringing their own values to bear in the industry. Most favored openness in hardware and software design. An open architecture—the publicly known, physical design of a machine—was one emerging ideal. An open operating system was another.

At Proc Tech, however, the idea of an open operating system was frowned upon. Marsh and Ingram wanted that particular component to be proprietary. In fact, Proc Tech had its own disk operating system very early on. The company bought PT-DOS from its author, 19-year-old Bill Levy, who developed it at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. Levy modeled PT-DOS after Unix, a mainframe/minicomputer operating system in use at UC Berkeley. Marsh thought PT-DOS, with its rich set of tools, was much better than the CP/M disk operating system, which did only the bare minimum of what an operating system should do. Unfortunately, PT-DOS was slow to reach the market because of what came to be called “the drive fiasco.”

Incompatible Formats

In 1976, when the Sol was released, disk drives posed an alluring challenge. Although they were heavily used on mainframes and minicomputers, mounting disk drives on microcomputers was prohibitively expensive. Drives typically cost $3,500 or more. So Marsh was intrigued when George Comstock, Bob Mullen’s partner at Diablo Systems, announced at a Homebrew meeting one night that he wanted to develop a disk drive for microcomputers. Comstock thought that a drive, complete with a controller board and software, could be sold for around $1,000.

But Diablo was not yet involved in the growing microcomputer industry, and Comstock felt that close consultation with microcomputer companies was crucial. He proposed a joint effort to Marsh. Diablo would develop the drives, the physical mechanisms that read and write information from and to disks, and Processor Technology would write the software and develop an S-100 board to control the drives. He also proposed that Proc Tech could market the board on its own.

Disk drives were so clearly destined to be a part of any serious microcomputer system that engineers were already vying to develop a low-cost disk-drive system with software and a controller board. Shugart’s 1 1/4" disk drives seemed attractive, but they had one drawback. IBM had been using 8" disk drives and had established certain standards for the devices. No standards existed for small disk drives, and no one could guarantee that disks written on one brand of machine would be readable on another.

North Star, Grant and Greenberg’s company that had shared garage space with Proc Tech and Lee Felsenstein, had selected the Shugart disk drive and sold it for under $800. Using an idea borrowed from Eugene Fisher of Lawrence Livermore Labs, both George Morrow and San Francisco engineer Ben Cooper had begun developing relatively low-cost 8" disk drives. Cooper had perhaps the first commercial 8" disk-drive controller for microcomputers. Morrow, shortly thereafter, had the first one available for the $1,000 price Comstock was aiming for. He then negotiated with Digital Research and Microsoft for an operating system (CP/M) and BASIC to distribute free with the disk-drive system. Both Morrow and Cooper continued to develop disk products, and Cooper created the first hard-disk controller for microcomputers.

Disk storage, including hard-disk storage, was coming to microcomputers, a big step in making them truly useful, but as yet there was no standard for disk storage systems.

Meanwhile at Processor Tech, the disk-drive plans were crumbling. Diablo encountered trouble with the drives and dropped the project, leaving Proc Tech so far into development of the disk-drive controller that it had to continue with the work. Marsh and Ingram raised the price of Proc Tech’s disk-drive subsystem for the Sol to $1,700, substituting for the inexpensive Diablo disk drive the more expensive one offered by Persci. The price was too high, and worse, Proc Tech’s disk-drive systems didn’t always work. Customers could find better deals from Cooper, Morrow, and North Star.

A Room with a View

Despite such problems, Proc Tech still seemed to be thriving. The executives were recycling their profits into the company. (Lee Felsenstein was investing his in the Community Memory project.) The Proc Tech staff in Emeryville now numbered 85, not counting nonemployee/consultant Felsenstein, and the company’s headquarters was growing crowded. Proc Tech moved south to the bedroom community of Pleasanton. The new offices boasted a spacious executive suite with large windows looking out over the valley.

But the competition was heavy. As 1977 came to an end, Proc Tech found itself part of a more seriously run industry. The open trading of information, the shirt-sleeve management, the flashes of idealism, and the lack of detailed planning that had characterized the industry from the start still existed. But there was a growing belief that professional management might have its advantages. Still, scarcely anyone outside of IMSAI considered it the time to put such a radical idea into practice. The chief users, designers, and company presidents were still hobbyists at heart, and most of the world knew nothing of the revolution that was afoot.

New companies were sprouting like mushrooms overnight. Among the computer and computer-related companies in business at the end of 1977 were Apple Computer (which some insiders thought had great promise), Exidy, IMSAI, Digital Microsystems, Alpha Micro Systems, Commodore, Midwest Scientific, GNAT, Southwest Technical Products, MITS, Technical Design Labs, Vector Graphic, Ithaca Audio, Heathkit, Cromemco, MOS Technology, RCA, TEI, Ohio Scientific, The Digital Group, Micromation, PolyMorphic Systems, Parasitic Engineering, Godbout Engineering, Radio Shack, Dynabyte, North Star, Morrow’s Microstuf, and, of course, Processor Technology.

The Homebrew influence was still strong. Many of these companies were located in the Bay Area and were associated with the Homebrew Computer Club. The club had grown large and by 1977 tended to assemble in fairly predictable clusters. Up front, performing for everyone, was Lee Felsenstein. Bob Marsh and the Proc Tech group usually assembled along one wall. Steve Wozniak and his protégés and the other 6502 processor fans sat in the back. Jim Warren of Dr. Dobb’s Journal sat on the aisle three seats from the back, stage left, ready to rise during the Mapping session and do his Core Dump, an extemporaneous outpouring of all the news and rumors he had heard. The front row always had Gordon French, who maintained the software library, and Bob Reiling, who wrote the newsletter.

In December 1977, Reiling wrote, “The development of special-interest groups has probably been the biggest change during the past year. At the beginning of the year, the 6800 group was holding regular meetings. At the end of 1977, the groups include not only the 6800 group, but also the P8 Users, North Star Users Group, Sol Users Society, and PET Users.” At that time, the Homebrew attendees (the club did not have members) included key people from Apple, Cromemco, Commodore, Computer Faire, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, IBEX, Itty-Bitty Machine Company, M&R Enterprises, Mountain Hardware, Mullen Computer Boards, North Star, PCC, Proc Tech, and the Bay Area computer stores. The most prominent of them all was Proc Tech. Marsh had, to some extent, realized his dream. The company seemed golden.

Taking Over the Bus

Most of these companies were producing machines or boards that used the S-100 bus, the interface standard developed at MITS for the Altair, the same bus whose naming rights Roger Melen and Bob Marsh usurped from Ed Roberts on a transcontinental plane flight. The bus was becoming a problem, though, because no matter how disorganized and unprofessional the companies may have been, they couldn’t compare to the anarchy that prevailed among companies using the S-100 bus. The bus was the channel over which third-party boards communicated with the 8080 microprocessor in the Altair. Without clear specifications for how the bus worked, all such communication with the brain of the machine was unreliable, to say the least. MITS wasn’t eager to publish such specifications for the benefit of “parasitic” board makers.

In late 1977, Bob Stewart called a meeting to do something about the S-100 bus problem. A consultant in optics and electronics and a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Stewart had bought an Altair and was frustrated with it. He called together some microcomputer-company presidents: Harry Garland of Cromemco, Howard Fulmer of Parasitic Engineering, Ben Cooper of Micromation, and George Morrow of what he then called Thinker Toys. Byte’s editor, Carl Helmers, was there, too. The idea was to cure the obvious problems of the S-100 bus and to establish common standards so that one company’s board could work with another’s.

Garland explained the virtues of his and Melen’s shielded bus, but Morrow thought he had a better approach. No immediate agreement was forthcoming. Stewart suggested petitioning the IEEE to make the group an official standards body charged with creating an IEEE standard for the bus. The petition won approval, and the group was now official.

Ed Roberts was invited to participate in the microcomputer standards subcommittee, but declined to send a representative or even respond directly. He did say in print that he felt MITS had the sole right to define the bus. The subcommittee ignored him. At first the meetings addressed the group’s contention with Intel, which fought standardization. Morrow got the impression that Intel wanted no standards unless Intel could set them. But when the subcommittee decided to formulate standards whether Intel liked them or not, the chip manufacturer acquiesced.

This was bold. A bunch of hobbyists-turned-entrepreneurs had simply ignored the biggest microcomputer company of that time and had faced down the leading chip manufacturer—and not been struck by lightning.

Despite its solidarity, the subcommittee had no guarantee that it could really create standards. It had 15 assertive, opinionated people disputing an issue about which they held legitimate and conceivably irresolvable differences of opinion. Each of the members had a product that would be incompatible with anything likely to be proposed. As the meetings progressed, Roger Melen came in for Cromemco. Alpha Micro was represented. Elwood Douglas appeared for Proc Tech and judged the standard against the memory board he was designing. George Millard spoke for North Star. Someone arrived from IMSAI to read its formal position, which resembled Ed Roberts’s. The subcommittee ignored that position, too. Most of its members had written off IMSAI as a place where training in est mattered more than training in engineering.

At times, whatever fondness the subcommittee members had for each other wasn’t apparent. They argued for hours, with no one yielding an inch. They would then return to their respective companies and discuss how they might compromise on their own designs to achieve a single standard. At each meeting, they would find themselves inching closer to an agreement. Little by little, these creative, independent people subordinated their egos and any short-term economic gains for the good of the entire microcomputer field.

The committee was trying a form of “guerrilla” design. In mainframes and minicomputers, the bus was always whatever the bus designer said it was. Independent companies were not about to get together to redesign something as complex as a bus. Timing parameters and other features were dictated by the designers. In fact, IBM and DEC worked this way. But the S-100 committee members dug into the Roberts bus, figured out how it worked, and scrapped it in favor of a new, independent bus that was open to all. This was a populist revolt against the tyranny of big business, with MITS, although hardly in the same league as IBM and DEC, held up as a symbol of the Big Company.

The revolution was here.

Homebrew Legacy

That’s where the source of this industry has been. It hasn’t come out of TI, IBM, or Fairchild. It’s come from people who are on the edge, who have an alternative vision.

-Fred Moore, founder of the Homebrew Computer Club

In 1979, Proc Tech was in deep trouble. Marsh and Ingram, caught off balance by the Commodore and National Semiconductor threats and worried about competition from the promising Apple Computer, had become uncertain about where to go with their product line. Their worries clearly showed. Felsenstein made frequent visits to their offices to talk about new products, but Marsh and Ingram seemed unable to decide on any. At last Felsenstein asked, “Look, what the hell do you guys want?” They replied that they wanted to see what Felsenstein could come up with. He finally understood that they really had no product planning.

Proc Tech also lacked the flexibility that more money would have provided the company, but Marsh and Ingram (being the green executives that they were) suffered, like Bill Millard, from “entrepreneur’s disease.” Adam Osborne had talked with them about accepting investments, but by now the investors were the ones who were reluctant to talk. Proc Tech was not developing any new products, and the Sol was an aging 8080 machine in a bold new world of computers built around the Z80.

Was the Sol out of date? Not really. But because technology was developing rapidly and Proc Tech had nothing new in the works, it was hard to see a future for the company. When potential investors asked Felsenstein how much work the Sol needed to keep it technologically advanced, he told the truth: quite a bit. That didn’t help.

On May 14, 1979, the wolf came to the Pleasanton factory door and found nobody home. The Proc Tech principals had cashed in their chips and gone on to other ventures.

Theories abounded as to why Processor Technology failed: too many revisions of the basic product, too much reliance on one product, failure to develop new products, and failure to keep abreast of new technology. Steve Dompier held that the company looked inward too much and tried to deal with all its problems as though they were simply organizational ones. Proc Tech did shuffle people around, however. According to one story, the company had hired a full-time employee merely to relocate phones in the Pleasanton plant.

Felsenstein has always contended that Proc Tech’s boat sank because it was full of small holes and management tended to puncture even more holes in the vessel. Or maybe it was Gary Ingram’s desk.

When Proc Tech held its bankruptcy auction, Parasitic Engineering founder Howard Fulmer drove to Pleasanton to check out the defunct enterprise. He walked through the building and passed small, slapped-together cubicles, a sign of a company on the skids. On the top floor of the building, Fulmer found what could only be called the penthouse suite. He’d never been there before and was impressed. There, in the middle of a huge room with large windows, stood Gary Ingram’s fine French Provincial desk. Fulmer glanced over his shoulder to check that he was alone in the room, then went over to the desk and sat down behind it. Nice chair, he thought. He settled back, put his feet up on the beautiful desk, looked out across the valley, and sighed contentedly. “I feel rich,” he murmured. “Everything must be fine.”

Despite its ultimate failure as a company, Proc Tech and companies like it—ones that operated in ways that baffled seasoned executives—were constructing the microcomputer industry. Soon that industry was shifting its orientation from the hobbyist to the consumer. Market niches were being established. By 1979, Cromemco was known for its square steel boxes full of solidly engineered boards that were sold primarily to engineers and scientists. Vector Graphic was selling business machines that started with the turn of a key and immediately ran a business application program. Apple’s computer, in its plastic case, was the premier game machine. And encroaching on the territory of the minicomputers was Alpha Microsystems, offering microcomputer systems that could support several users simultaneously.

Over the years to come, the Homebrew legacy continued to influence product designs and marketing principles. Homebrew was both a catalyst in the creation of the microcomputer and an active entity that fed its continued development. But because computers were becoming affordable to large numbers of people, another kind of creative effort was needed to make the hardware useful to the average person. Computer power to the people, the dream of computer revolutionaries like Felsenstein, required software. User-friendly, powerful, and affordable programs and the means for producing them were essential to turn the microcomputer into the personal computer.

The newborn microcomputer industry now needed a software industry. But already differences of opinion were emerging that would shape that industry—such as the question of whether the code should be shared or proprietary.

Copyright © 2014, The Pragmatic Bookshelf.