The Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop and the Billion Dollar Toilet Seat

David Laws
Aug 7, 2018 · 10 min read
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AMW 44 group photograph, April 2018, Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, California

What Is the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop?

Large-scale integration of silicon devices, the ability to put thousands of transistors on a single chip, had made the microprocessor computer-on-a-chip a practical system component by the early 1970s. Inspired by the MITS Altair, the first popular microprocessor-based personal computer, a group of pioneers from the semiconductor and burgeoning personal computer industries of Silicon Valley organized a workshop at the conference center at Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove, California, in 1975. Their goal: to explore the unique characteristics of microprocessors and identify ways of enhancing their capabilities.

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AMW sweatshirt logo

Early Meetings and Participants

By late 1974, microcomputers, the contemporary name for low-cost computers built around microprocessor-based central processing units, were beginning to appear in small businesses applications and hobbyist gatherings such as the recently founded Home Brew Computer Club. Recognizing their potential importance, four enthusiasts from the San Francisco Bay Area (Fred Clegg, Fred Coury, Ted Laliotis, and Don Senzig) organized a technical workshop sponsored by the Western Area Committee of the IEEE Computer Society. They met at the state-owned Asilomar Conference Center overlooking the ocean in Pacific Grove for its proximity to the Bay Area, yet isolated from the immediate demands of business.

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Hearst Social Hall, Asilomar

An Iconic Toilet Seat Cover

Founder of MicroDesign Resources (MDR), Michael Slater attended AMW for many years and was a member of the organizing committee from 1985 to 1996. At the April 1987 gathering he announced his plans to begin publishing the Microprocessor Report newsletter. The first edition appeared in September 1987. The newsletter and associated events such as the Microprocessor Forum became widely respected as independent sources of information on this highly competitive and fast-changing sector of the semiconductor industry. Although Slater sold the business in 1990, the newsletter continues in publication today. CHM holds a run of the report from 1987 through 2011.³

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John Novitsky with seat in 2018

Spy Satellites, Umbrellas, and Hacker Culture

A National Securities Studies graduate, Robert G. Kennedy III presented his first scholarly paper “Technological Threats to Civil Liberty” at AMW in 1989. His treatise on potentials for a surveillance state enjoyed a standing ovation from the audience, an invitation to attend Hackers, and a personal visit from the FBI. This validation gave him confidence to embark on a mission to hire a Soviet spy satellite to take a group picture on the beach at AMW ’95.

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AMW and the Future

Microprocessor architecture is now the province of giant corporations and nation states, rather than the dreams of long-haired nerds in Silicon Valley garages. But as they continue to invade every facet of modern life, microcomputer applications will provide new opportunities for AMW participants to explore for decades to come.

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Speakers on technology in Africa and Creative Computing at the 2018 workshop. Photo: Taeyoon Choi.

References

1. Fred Coury, “A Short History of Asilomar” in Programs from the Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop (1975–2017)

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Sharing stories, ideas, and insights from CHM in Silicon…

David Laws

Written by

David A. Laws photographs and writes about California Gardens, Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country from his home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Core+

Core+

Sharing stories, ideas, and insights from CHM in Silicon Valley.

David Laws

Written by

David A. Laws photographs and writes about California Gardens, Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country from his home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Core+

Core+

Sharing stories, ideas, and insights from CHM in Silicon Valley.

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