How the Homebrew Computer Club revolutionised computing

Mar 05, 2015, 08:00 IST | A Correspondent

On this day, March 5 in 1975, several very high-profile hackers and computer entrepreneurs met at the Homebrew Computer Club, an early computer hobbyist group in Silicon Valley. It was hosted by computer engineers and programmers Gordon French and  Fred Moore at French's garage in Menlo Park, San Mateo County, California.

Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs pictured in an article from an issue of the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter. Pic/YouTube
Apple co-founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs pictured in an article from an issue of the Homebrew Computer Club newsletter. Pic/YouTube

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was one the attendees says he was inspired to design the Apple I after the first meet.

The members of the Homebrew Computer Club were hobbyists with an electronic engineering or computer programming background. The inaugural meeting was held on the occasion of the arrival in the area of the first MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer. The Altair 8800 a microcomputer designed in 1974 based on the Intel 8080 CPU, is widely recognized as the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution. The computer bus designed for the Altair was to become a de facto standard in the form of the S-100 bus, and the first programming language for the machine was Microsoft's founding product, Altair BASIC.

The MITS Altair 8800. Pic/YouTube
The MITS Altair 8800. Pic/YouTube

The meetings were held with the aim to maintain a regular, open forum for people to get together to work on making computers more accessible to everyone. Other technical topics were also discussed and schematics and programming tips were exchanged at these meets.

The meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club have been fictionalised in the Hollywood films 'Pirates of the Silicon Valley' (1999) and Jobs (2013). 'Pirates of the Silicon Valley' describes the role the Homebrew Computer Club played in creating the first personal computers, although certain artistic liberties were taken during the interpretation.

Bill Gates. Pic/AFP
Bill Gates. Pic/AFP

The Homebrew Computer Club's newsletter, which was published first on March 15, 1975, and continued through several designs, ending after 21 issues in December 1977, initiated idea of the Personal Computer, and helped its members build the original kit computers, like the Altair. In one of the newsletter's issues, Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously wrote Open Letter to Hobbyists, which lambasted the early hackers of the time for pirating commercial software programs.

Subsequent meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club were held at an auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. After the more-or-less "formal" meetings the participants often reconvened for an informal, late night "swap meet" in the parking lot of the Safeway store down the road, as SLAC campus rules prohibited such activity on campus property. Others would convene at The Oasis, a bar and grill on El Camino Real in nearby Menlo Park, recalled years later by a member as "Homebrew's other staging area". These meetings were held regularly until December 1986.

Many of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club continue to meet (as of 2009), having formed the 6800 Club, named after the Motorola (now Freescale) 6800 microprocessor. Occasionally and variously renamed after the release of the 6800, 6809, and other microprocessors, the group continues to meet monthly in Cupertino, California.

Notable members
Steve Wozniak (Apple Computer)
Harry Garland and Roger Melen (Cromemco)
Thomas "Todd" Fischer, IMSAI Division, Fischer-Freitas Company
George Morrow (Morrow Designs)
Paul Terrell (Byte Shop)
Adam Osborne (Osborne Computer)
Bob Marsh (Processor Technology)
John Draper
Jerry Lawson (creator of the first cartridge-based video game system, Fairchild Channel F)
Li-Chen Wang, developer of Palo Alto Tiny Basic and graphics software for the Cromemco Dazzler
Lee Felsenstein

Homebrew Computer Club member Paul Terrell, started Byte Shop, the affordable computer store in Mt. View California and bought the first 50 Apple I Computers from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak after they did a demonstration of the Apple I at a meeting at SLAC.

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