Mitch altman

Computing Has Always Been Personal

The Homebrew Computer Club’s crowdfunded reunion, Brittany Shoot says, is the future’s past.

The Magazine
Nov 19, 2013 · 5 min read

I roll up to the Computer History Museum a little before 7 p.m., the time at which the main event is supposed to start. Even if I’m not an interloper, I still feel like one — one who paid $64 via Kickstarter for a golden ticket to a historic event of unprecedented significance to a tiny but powerful gathering of architects and dreamers.

A linguistic irony: the original Homebrew Computer Club, whose members included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Lee Felsenstein, was a garage gathering of hackers and hobbyists who kickstarted the personal-computing revolution. Now, we’d elected to crowdfund their 38th reunion in public. (The club has reunited privately many times over the years.)

Even the parking lot demonstrates where we are and how far we’ve come: a noticeably Silicon Valley convergence of fuel efficiency, style, and sharing economy. I steer my ’87 Mercedes Benz 300D to a spot between a Prius and a Zipcar Hyundai. There’s a convertible SL-class two stalls over, the top down, as if anyone would try anything.

In the lobby, my inner right wrist is stamped with a happy face after I’m handed a drink ticket. A man is arguing about his right to buy a ticket at the door, even though the Kickstarter campaign ended weeks ago. He claims to know more about computer history than anyone. I wander upstairs, retrieve my free glass of wine, and strike up a conversation with one of the few other women in the crowd. We seem unusually relieved to have a pal and, wandering past a geeky boy sleeping at a round banquet table and clusters of aging scientist types, we mosey into the auditorium together.

Felsenstein and Processor Technology co-founder Bob Marsh

Everyone settles into folding chairs as the evening’s emcee, Felsenstein, is introduced by the museum’s chairman. The mic is passed around a few times to a few key players, who hop on stage for a moment to say something profound and witty. Someone refers to “that whole maker movement.” The crowd laughs appreciatively. Joël Franusic, one of the event co-organizers and one of the organizers of long-running SF hackathon SuperHappyDevHouse, enthuses that the event will be a place to hear stories not on Wikipedia. He’s right.

The father of hypertext, Ted Nelson, who does actually know more about computers than anyone, takes the lectern. “Computing has always been personal,” he jokes. He speaks for a long while about model trains, a time he met Isaac Asimov, and how Homebrew, “that era of hope and joy, was our Arab Spring!” Someone behind me chortles Huh-huh-huh!

Bob Albrecht hops up to encourage everyone to fantasize. “Reality expands to fill the available fantasies,” he enthuses. Pumping his fist in the air three times, he chants, “Fantasize! Fantasize! Fantasize!”

Weeks ago, those of us who backed the Kickstarter received an email stating that Steve Wozniak wouldn’t attend. Yet suddenly, Woz bounds onto the stage over shouts and cheers. “I love that idea of being part of a revolution,” he enthuses. “I wanted to be a giving person — my whole life — as much as I wanted to be a programmer.” He wrote and shared, he explains, “Because that’s how I learned.” Later, he understates his role in transforming personal computing for the masses: “I wanted a machine ready to use.”

I’m keen to snap a photo of his animated gesturing. As I look for a spot to place my lens cap, I realize, for the first time ever and embarrassingly in the midst of such function-forward folks, the utilitarian purpose of the dress shirt breast pocket. In front of me, a young man twiddles a glowing pen and scrolls through his iPhone the entire time anyone of historical significance is speaking.

Allan French stands to speak on behalf of his father, Gordon French, who hosted the first club meetings in his Menlo Park garage. “I’ve been an iPod owner; I’ll get an iPhone soon,” Allan says, not really joking. Like many others, he thanks Woz, as well as acknowledges his own dumb luck that he had a front row seat to the birth of the Valley. Then, in quintessential Bay Area style, he quotes the Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

There are so many and so few people who can understand half of what’s happening in this room. Someone gets up to ask a question and begins, “This year, at Maker Faire,” before talking about Canon Cat. Someone joked about Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists, which no one refers to by name.

There is some talk of what myth is, and from one man, how the myth of Homebrew has actually lived on. He spends too long at the mic but makes up for it by using insider terms like tailsniffers — journalists, VCs, people you keep out of your secret society — and calls the decade of my birth the “creighties,” which seems to mean the 1980s in which people were creating and/or creative.

Another audience member waiting patiently finally gets his turn. “What’s it like living in the future?” he asks the original Homebrewers. “Very frustrating because you can’t get the parts,” Felsenstein sighs.

Everyone cheers. We stand, smiling and nodding, agreeing it was all we’d hoped. I glance at my new pal. “Well, so long as we women keep outnumbering the people wearing Glass, I feel like the world will be okay,” I say. We laugh and make some gendered jokes about STEM and public restroom lines before shaking hands and parting ways.

I grab a lemon bar from the dessert table and make my way toward the parking lot, overhearing someone saying, “He was employee number three at…” I don’t catch the rest. It doesn’t matter.

Banner photo by Mitch Altman.

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