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The Homebrew Computer Club and the Dawn of the Personal Computer

November 28, 2023 by Robert Keim

Major advances in personal computing can be traced back to a 1970s group of hobbyists and aficionados who shared knowledge, circuits, and good times in Menlo Park, California.

Just half a century ago, the worldwide, multitrillion-dollar personal electronics industry was gaining momentum among a small, informal network of hardware and software enthusiasts who believed that personal computers just might change the world.

 

Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were active participants of the Homebrew Computer Club

Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were active participants of the Homebrew Computer Club. Image used courtesy of Arkive and Apple
 

They were right, and some of them managed to successfully make the transition from tinkerer to entrepreneurial superstar.

 

Hobbyists, Engineers, and Entrepreneurs

The Homebrew Computer Club first gathered in 1975. In true electronics-hobbyist fashion, the inaugural meeting took place in a residential garage. The participants were motivated by an interest in computing technology and the desire to make this technology more available and more widely understood; they saw computers as a potentially powerful force in the lives of ordinary people at a time when large companies such as IBM and CDC (Control Data Corporation) were doing business primarily with one another and the government.

The club was not composed of leading professors and researchers, but they generally weren’t computer novices either. It seems that they had enough electrical engineering and computer science expertise to engage in meaningful discussion and development but not enough to interfere with the dynamic, experimental environment that tends to accompany a group of dedicated hobbyists and amateurs. Notable participants of the group include Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and Processor Technology co-founder Bob Marsh.

Perhaps the Homebrewers’ energetic mixture of enthusiasm, curiosity, and skill was just what the personal computer industry needed to catalyze the persistent innovation and rapid growth that began in the late seventies. 

 

Altair 8800

The Altair 8800, a personal computer first released in the mid-1970s, has a prominent place in the history of the Homebrew Computer Club. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public domain) 
 

Though not overtly political, the Homebrew Computer Club did have some anti-capitalist currents circulating in the early days. These currents ended up creating a bit of internal and external turbulence as members clashed with the intensely commercializing tendencies of the burgeoning personal computer market.

These tendencies were perhaps best exemplified by an ambitious young software developer in the club by the name of Bill Gates, whose strongly-worded repudiation of software “theft” by computer hobbyists was not well received by some members of the club. But the Homebrewers themselves were by no means immune to the opportunities offered by the business world: a group initially animated by the hobbyist ethos ended up with quite a few members that became founders of large corporations, the most notable being the consumer-tech empire now known as Apple.

 

From Homebrew to Silicon Valley

There was a time when “silicon valley” might have been interpreted as a cryptic reference to a geological feature filled with sand. The phrase became a recognizable toponym in the 1970s, and the region’s gradual ascent to technological superiority, immense wealth, and worldwide significance owes much to the Homebrew Computer Club. The club was most active in northern California during the crucial decade of the personal computer's revolution.

The Homebrew Computer Club was not particularly large. The meetings never had more than about 400 attendees, and the club’s newsletter, though culturally influential, had a conspicuously “indie” flavor and was distributed in relatively small quantities.

 

Homebrew Computer Club’s newsletter

The Homebrew Computer Club’s newsletter was an important part of the group’s activity. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Public domain) (Click to enlarge)
 

However, the spirit of innovation was strong, and personal microcomputing was in its infancy. This was a time when progress depended more on perseverance, creativity, and collaboration than on doctoral dissertations, corporate research budgets, and large labs filled with expensive test equipment. 

“Hobbyists drove a significant portion of the early development of personal computers,” historian Elizabeth Petrick remarked in her article on the club (login required for full text). "Some early experiments in home computing would lead to the first personal computer start-ups.”

The current availability of high-quality electronic components was nonexistent in the era of the Homebrew Computer Club. Members built computers on the cheap using hardware (and code) obtained from fellow Homebrewers, scavenged materials, and low-cost items from surplus stores. Though this approach was consistent with their limited personal funds and their appreciation for do-it-yourself engineering, it also contributed to the relentless pursuit of cost reduction common in the personal computing industry today. Affordability was one of the keys to making the personal computer a common household product.

Homebrewer exchanges weren’t limited to hardware. Perhaps more importantly, the members exchanged ideas. The club was a place to talk, observe, brainstorm, and show off new creations. Stephen Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, saw his experiences at the club as instrumental in his entrepreneurial success.

 

Steve Wozniak presented the Apple-1 prototype at the Homebrew Computer Club

In 1976, Steve Wozniak presented the Apple-1 prototype at the Homebrew Computer Club. Image used courtesy of Computer History
 

Wozniak explains that the first Apple PCs, the Apple I and Apple II, “were designed strictly on a hobby, for-fun basis, not to be a product for a company. They were meant to bring down to the club and put on the table.”

 

Does the Homebrew Spirit Live On?

It’s been almost fifty years since the Homebrew Computer Club first convened, and the personal computer industry has transformed drastically since then. Smartphones have partially replaced computers, and advanced computational functionality is present in everything from dishwashers to wristwatches. I think we have to admit that the role of transistor-scavenging hobbyists and amateurs is not what it used to be. 

Nevertheless, the Homebrewers also engaged with deeper issues—for example, the distinction between software as product and software as information—that continue to resonate. They were thoughtful, active participants in the computing culture of their time, and now that the tech world is facing new controversies and ethical questions, we would do well to follow their example.