Stewart Brand responds

[From Walter Isaacson: For the full excerpt about Brand and the birth of the personal computer, see: . For another excerpt, on the birth of The Well and AOL, see Please feel free to put comments and corrections as notes in the margin.]

Stewart Brand:

Nice to see this, Walter. Thanks for a chance to help with accuracy.

Leary came way later. He was irrelevant to PCs. I knew him when he was still at Millbrook, never liked him much (but Dick Alpert was great, still is).

Questionable bits are in red. Better info follows each paragraph…


Brand was born in Rockford, Illinois, where his father worked for an ad agency and, like so many fathers of digital entrepreneurs, was a ham radio operator. After graduating from Stanford as a biology major, Brand was drafted into the Army, where he served as a photographer, and then began a joyful life journey meandering among different communities and communes at that exciting juncture where art and technology intermingle.

My father co-ran (partnered) an ad agency—-Cummings, Brand & MacPherson.

I took Army ROTC at Stanford and served two years active duty as an Infantry officer, including Airborne training. I mostly taught Basic Training at Ft. Dix, NJ. I did serve half a year at the Pentagon as the Army’s senior photographer. (The draft didn’t exist in 1960.)

Not surprisingly life on that techno/creative edge led Brand to become one of the early experimenters with LSD. After being introduced to the drug in a pseudo-clinical setting near Stanford in 1962, he became a regular at Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster gatherings. He also became a photographer-technician-producer at a performance art commune called the US Company, which produced what became known as “happenings.” These involved psychedelic drugs, acid rock music, technological wizardry, strobe lights, multimedia shows, projected images and words, and performances that required audience participation. Occasionally they would be accompanied by talks by Marshall McLuhan or Timothy Leary. A promotional piece on the group noted that it “unites the cults of mysticism and technology as a basis for introspection and communication.” It was a credo that could have been emblazoned on the posters of the personal computer pioneers. Technology was a tool for expression. It expanded the boundaries of creativity and, like drugs and rock, could be rebellious and socially transforming.

US Company was known as USCO. We did “multi-media,” not happenings (none of which involved drugs, nor did our public stuff). There was a tiny bit of intersection with Leary, more with Alpert.

For Brand, the Sixties protest slogan “power to the people” also applied to computers. This meant that computers needed to be democratized. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” he wrote in Rolling Stone. “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” Invoking the spirit of Vannevar Bush, Brand hailed “the youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science.” For too long computers had been the “province of rich and powerful institutions, who, understandably, have developed them primarily as bookkeeping, sorting and control devices,” he wrote. That would be upended by the hackers, he pledged. “Until computers come to the people, we will have no real idea of their most natural functions.”

I worked some with New Left at San Francisco State and grew to dislike them. Hence no politics whatever in the Whole Earth Catalog. Power to the People was a romantic lie. What the two Steves did, with no reference to the New Left, was deliver power to people. A world of difference. One worked, the other didn’t.

All of these experiences led Brand to become the impresario and techie for one of the seminal events of the Sixties counterculture: the January 1966 Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. After the fun of the Acid Tests — which had been held weekly throughout December — Brand proposed to Ken Kesey that they throw a blowout version that would last for three days. It opened with Brands’s own troupe, “America Needs Indians,” performing a “sensorium” that included a high-tech light show, slide projectors, photographic images, music, and Native American dancers. It was followed by what the program described as, “revelations, audioprojections, the endless explosion, the congress of wonders, liquid projections, and the jazz mice.” And that was just the opening night. The next night was kicked off by Ken Kesey in person, sort of. In hiding because of a drug arrest, he sat in the balcony wearing a shiny plastic Mylar space suit and helmet. Using a public address system, he addressed the crowd, but without revealing where he was. Performing that night were The Merry Pranksters and their Psychedelic Orchestra plus the Grateful Dead, the beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. The writer Tom Wolfe capturedthe technodelic essence in his seminal work of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “Lights and movies sweeping around the hall; five movie projectors going and God knows how many light machines, interferrometrics, the intergalactic science-fiction seas all over the walls, loudspeakers studding the hall all the way around like flaming chandeliers, strobes exploding, black lights with Day-Glo objects under them and Day-Glo paint to play with, street lights at every entrance flashing red and yellow, two bands, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company and a troop of weird girls in leotards, leaping around the edges blowing dog whistles.” The final night celebrated technology even more. As the program said, “Since the common element of all shows is ELECTRICITY, this evening will be programmed live from stimuli provided by a pinball machine.”

Kesey in hiding came at a later event that I also organized, called “Whatever It Is,” at San Francisco State. That’s when his ghostly voice was part of the show. In Jan. ’66 he had been arrested on my North Beach roof just before Trips, but he was very public up on the command scaffold in the very middle of Longshoreman’s Hall, with Ken Babbs and me and occasional others.

I co-organized the event with Ramon Sender and, later, Bill Graham.

Ginsberg was at other events but not at Trips. Hell’s Angels were on hand as friends, is all. Tom Wolfe’s account is wholly invented; he wasn’t there. It’s impressionistically correct, but not at all in detail, except strobe lights and Da-Glo. The fantasized pinball machine didn’t happen, though other things did.

Yes, it was weird. But it was, significantly, the quintessential display of the fusion that shaped the personal computer era: technology, the counterculture, entrepreneurship, music, art, and engineering. From Stewart Brand to Steve Jobs, those ingredients fashioned a wave of Bay Area innovators who were comfortable at the interface of Silicon Valley and Haight-Ashbury. “The Trips Festival marked Stewart Brand’s emergence as a countercultural entrepreneur—but in a deeply technocratic mold,” wrote the technoculture historian Fred Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

A month after the Trips Festival, in February 1966, Brand was sitting on a gravelly rooftop in San Francisco’s North Beach enjoying the effects of 100 mg of LSD he had just dropped. Staring at the skyline, he ruminated on something that Buckminster Fuller had said: our perception that the world is flat and stretches indefinitely, rather than round and small, is because we have never seen it from outer space. Abetted by the acid, he began to grok the smallness of the earth and the importance of other people appreciating it as well. “It had to be broadcast, this fundamental point of leverage on the world’s ills,” he recalled. “I herded my trembling thoughts together as the winds blew and time passed. A photograph would do it—a color photograph from space of the earth. There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift, and no one would ever perceive things the same way.”

100 MICROgrams—-big difference.

He resolved to convince NASA to take such a picture from space. So with the goofy wisdom that comes from acid, he decided to produce hundreds of buttons so people in the pre-Twitter age could spread the word. “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” they read. His plan was simple. “I prepared a Day-Glo sandwich board with a little sales shelf on the front, decked myself out in a white jump suit, boots and costume top hat with crystal heart and flower, and went to make my debut at the Sather Gate of the University of California in Berkeley, selling my buttons for twenty-five cents.” University officials did him the favor of throwing him off campus, which prompted a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, thus helping propel his one-man crusade. He took it on the road to other colleges across the country, ending at Harvard and MIT. “Who the hell’s that?” asked an MIT dean as he watched Brand give an impromptu lecture on the planet earth while selling his buttons. “That’s my brother,” said Peter Brand, an MIT instructor.

In November 1967, NASA complied. Its first ATS-3 geosynchronous satellite took a picture of earth from 21,000 miles up, which served as the cover picture and title inspiration for Brand’s next venture, the Whole Earth Catalog. As its name implied, it was (or at least dressed itself in the guise of) a catalog, one that combined the sensibilities of hippie communalism with technological empowerment. Its subtitle was “access to tools.” As Brand wrote on the first page of the first edition: “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.” Buckminster Fuller followed with a poem that began: “I see God in the instruments and mechanisms that work reliably…” The first edition included items such as Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics and an HP calculator along with buckskin jackets and beads. The underlying premise was that a love of the earth and a love of technology could coexist, that the back-to-the-earth commune dwellers should make common cause with tech geeks.

Norbert WIENER. The HP calculator was, importantly, programmable.

Shortly after the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog came out, Brand helped to produce a happening that was, in many ways, similar to his techno-choreography of the January 1966 Trips Festival. Dubbed “the Mother of All Demos,” the December 1968 extravaganza became the seminal event of the personal computer culture, just as the Trips Festival had been for the hippie culture. It happened because, like a magnet, Brand naturally attracted and attached himself to interesting people. This time it was an engineer named Douglas Engelbart, who had taken on as his life passion inventing ways that computers could augment human intelligence.

My role with Engelbart was fun but was a tiny bit part.

Part of my response to Brand:

One thing I will be happy to change, if need be, is the info about Ginsberg not being at Trips and the Hells Angles not performing, however I’d ask you to look over this program for the event that lists them all as part of the Saturday show. Please let me know if the program was incorrect. Here it is: []


Good fact check. I wrote that program before the event, based on hopes. I don’t think Allen made it, though he did to other events. Some Angels were there and were conspicuous but were not performing—-except in the sense that everybody was part of the show.

I’m glad to see the bottom of the program mentioning the event was not a “self-conscious happening”. Though Henry Jacobs did do one, which bombed.

[For full excerpt, see: . For another excerpt, see ]



CEO of the Aspen Institute. Author of The Innovators & bios of Steve Jobs, Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Henry Kissinger. Former editor of Time, CEO of CNN

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