Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computerby Paul Freiberger, Michael Swaine
First released in 1984, Fire in the Valley remains one of the most sought-after and widely revered testaments to the dynamic visionaries of the PC era. Now updated and expanded, the second edition contains more photos and new chapters, revealing how the PC came to transform the world today and will shape the century ahead. The authors look at recent developments at Apple, Microsoft, and IBM and convey the exciting development of other companies such as Sun, Netscape, Lotus, and Oracle in the Internet age. Itself a milestone in the fascinating history of the personal computer, Fire in the Valley is the definitive account of how it all happened and why.
- McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 4: Homebrew
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, whatever.
Flyer promoting the Homebrew Computer Club, 1975
It had its genetic coding in the '60s . . . antiestablishment, antiwar, pro-freedom, antidiscipline attitudes.
Microcomputer industry pioneer
Power to the People
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 with which these machines were greeted, you have to get inside the minds of the people who bought them, and who soon thereafter founded computer companies of their own. And you have to remember the social and political milieu into which these first microcomputers emerged. Although the Altair was released in 1975, it was largely a product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Lee Felsenstein had dropped out of engineering school at the end of the '60s 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, as a true child of the '60s he rebelled at pouring his efforts into projects for the benefit of corporate America. He left Ampex in 1969 towrite 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.
When internal politics split the Barb staff, Felsenstein went to another underground publication, The Tribe, where he was employed for his "technical knowledge." That was vague enough to leave his job definition flexible: he functioned as a combination business manager and layout artist. Eventually, coming to see The Tribe as "an exercise in applied adolescence," Felsenstein cut back to part-time and 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 unify - via computer - the switchboards 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.
Resource One had a computer - a large, $120,000 XDS 940, 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 had seen service running 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, those 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. Bob Albrecht had left Control Data Corporation in the '60s 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...
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