When the Homebrew Computer Club met up for the first time in Menlo Park, they had no idea they’d be so instrumental in spreading awareness and enthusiasm for personal computers. This week, Chris and Faith dive into the history of the club, the inventions that came out of it, and why, as New Yorkers, they think NYC would have been the OG tech hub if Silicon Valley hadn’t come into play.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
Hey, how are you?
I’m good. I just fell down like, a very classic Thursday rabbit hole, which is like, the day I write The Wayfarer and get to like, just be on the internet for the morning. I’m like, typing out all my updates live in the random channel. So if you’ve been reading that, you know, but basically, I won’t name names, but there is one software company that has been, that we all use on the team at Gun, and it’s been super buggy for the last two months.
And I think a bunch of people are experiencing this. And I was like, hmm, I wonder if, you know, they’ve been tweeting about it from their support accounts or their regular account. And this company had, kind of like, a major bad press event last year towards the end of the year, and they have not tweeted since on any of their like, not on their support account, not on their status account, not on their regular account. So, I don’t know. I feel like they might be going outta business, which, I mean, I’m not gonna call myself an investigative reporter, but maybe I will break this story, ‘cause I think it’s happening.
There you go. Yeah, I mean that’s definitely like, a decision, right? Like, you know, we’re just not gonna do that anymore <laugh>.
We’re just gonna disappear.
Why risk it? <Laugh>.
Why risk it? They had like, such a strong social presence, too. I was like, maybe this is normal, and they’re just like, not in the Twitter game. No, they were in the Twitter game. They were like, an everyday-sharing-content Twitter user. So… <mouth popping> I don’t know.
You heard it here first.
You heard it here first. The anonymous…what’s great about this is when people listen, I could easily just be like, oh yeah, it was this company that ended up going outta business shortly. You know?
Yeah. <Laugh> Yeah, yeah. That’s how you do it.
Yeah. This is how I like, also start my second career, maybe, as like, a psychic, you know. (Chris: <Laugh>. Yeah.) Just tell everybody. Well, Chris, welcome back to the Frontier podcast. I’m thrilled to have you here with me.
Thank you. I’m excited for this one.
Yeah, these are really fun because, as I mentioned, I love going down rabbit holes and learning new shit, and so do you, that’s why you’re here. It’s like, something we screen for on the team. So <laugh>.
Yeah. And then we get to see the videos that Bill pulls to edit together.
Oh my gosh, they’re so much fun. I don’t know how he finds ‘em. Some like, Wayback Machine or something.
Yeah. I’ve been enjoying piecing them together into trailers too.
<Laugh>. Yep. Honestly, like there’s something about retro media that just like, I have an appreciation for all kinds of modern video techniques, et cetera. Like, of course, we’re doing a great job, but there’s something about retro media that’s just so good. Like, it’s so cringey, and I can’t, I simply cannot believe that in the moment, it wasn’t also cringey, right? Like the, I just love the shamelessness and people being like, no, this is just like, this is just how we design things, or this is just like what gets put on the TV. So I love it. I feel like I would love to get back to that place in media.
It’s really weird to think back, like, to view it now and to think back to a time when that like, looking at like, old like, Crown Vics or like, people wearing like suits, like double breasted, like three button suits with like huge shoulders. Like, to think back to a time that that was real and like, (Faith: Yeah.) oh yeah, like, that was totally normal.
And it was like, cool looking.
Yeah, (Faith: Yeah.) yeah.
This is also, I think, gonna be a really fun episode, because I’m under a tornado warning or watch.
Sweet. It could be a really fun episode.
Could be super fun. For context, listeners, I work out of a shed that…it’s definitely a shed. This is not a, not like, a well built building, so…whatever. One of my windows already has a hole in it, so, you know, I won’t be devastated if this place gets destroyed, but it would make for a really interesting YouTube watching. So (Chris: <Laugh>.) we’ll see what happens.
Steve Wozniak (04:33):
(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS). The first night of the Homebrew Computer club, when I went home, studied a data sheet and found out what a microprocessor was. Whoa, somehow I had missed out on this. I said, oh my gosh, the whole formula pops in my head.
So this week in tech history, the event we’re talking about is the Homebrew Computer Club. Lots of folks probably already know about this. I did not. So here we go. March 5th, 1975, a group of electronics and tech-minded hobbyists had the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in Gordon French’s garage in the Menlo Park area. Who’s Gordon French? We’ll find out. The original meeting commemorated the arrival of the first MITS Altair 88000 microcomputer, which the People’s Computer Company had sent over for a review. Steve Wozniak, we know that guy, credit’s the first meeting of the HCC with Altair as the inspiration behind Apple One, which is pretty rad. While Wozniak is likely one of the most recognizable names on the attendee list, along with his business partner, who we know is Steve Jobs, the original crew was a veritable who’s who of early Silicon Valley.
I’m gonna pause here really quick. I have been very patiently waiting for a Silicon Valley documentary. Not Silicon Valley like the show, but I want a full robust reporting on how Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley. So that’s just a…somebody’s listening who’s a producer, just know that. Okay. In addition to the meetings, the Homebrew Computer Club put out a monthly newsletter that more or less cemented Silicon Valley as well, Silicon Valley. The newsletter, which only lasted a couple years, introduced the idea that computers could be personal tools as opposed to something exclusively available for business use. That seems important. They also provided tips for people to build their own machines and introduced the idea of intellectual property rights in software, courtesy of Emissive, by none other than Mr. Bill Gates. The meetings, themselves, were fairly formal in nature. That seems awkward. Imagine inviting somebody into your garage and being like, this is a formal meeting.
We’re taking minutes. Okay, here we go. Here’s the agenda. Occasionally, they’d continue at the Oasis, which is a bar and grill that was often referred to as Homebrew’s other staging area. Clever. While the bar closed in 2019, Its location is a designated historical landmark in Menlo Park and is home to a seed and pre-seed VC that has backed some small brands you may have heard of like Gusto, DoorDash, and Solvvy, which was recently acquired by Zoom. Meetings of the original Homebrew Computer Club continued until 1986, though it has lived on in other forms since then with its newsletter and monthly meetings promoting an exchange of ideas. The club has been described as the crucible for an entire industry, as it pertains to personal computing. Wow. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT). This, I mean, I don’t wanna, let me pause. I’ve been talking for a long time. Chris, what are your thoughts? How does this historical event strike you?
I mean, it’s obviously pretty crazy, right? Like, I think it’s such a rare occurrence, in time, to get like, so many people together that are like, capable of like, creating so much change. And it’s, obviously, like, fascinating what came from it.
The way it strikes me is like, okay, “crucible for an entire industry” feels dramatic, you know? And I feel like, I mean, I don’t wanna get too far on my soapbox, but like the stories we center, when we are like, retracing steps to get to some something that we think of as a historical event, the stories always center the Steve Jobs and the Bill Gates, right? And my question is always like, yeah, but whose like, shoulders were they standing on? But just like, the concept of a club, I think, today, there’s very little motivation to have any sort of like, non-business related meeting like that, especially in the tech world, right? Like, we’re hyper focused on the exchange of things. Like, what do we get for doing this? (Chris: Yeah.) Right? Am I getting paid? Am I getting equity? Am I getting media attention? And it just, it feels interesting to me that this club started as a hobbyist club. Like, let’s just get together and be nerdy. You know?
I think it speaks, a little bit, to a point in time and place, and I think like, hopefully, a little bit, we’re like, getting back to that. And, you know, this whole idea of like, right now everybody’s trying to like, monetize their side hustle, right? (Faith: <Laugh>.) And I think like, more and more, I hope, at least, I’m seeing that people are like, getting into like, hobbies and side hustles for like, the sake of like, fun and enjoyment. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) Like, let’s create things for the sake of creating things. Silicon Valley started in Silicon Valley, because it had to be Silicon Valley, and it’s like, look at where it’s located and what was going on at that time that wasn’t related to technology. Look where the beats were. Look where like, look what was going on with like, the Buddhists and like, the Soto Buddhist in San Francisco, and like, the music scene out there, and like, that kind of like, westward like, freedom of like, thought and creativity. Like, I think this like, departure from the like, East Coast like, old school like, focus on like, money and like, institution allowed for this like, club to form to like, these pirates to get together and like, make computers for everybody. It was really awesome.
I hadn’t thought about that. About, you know, escaping the rigidity of New York would allow for that creative thinking. Abbey included some tech that was originated here at the Homebrew Computer Club, which includes the back button, cell phone touch screens, game cartridges, and these are all, you know, to us, obviously, we take them for granted today, but at the time, it’s the result of obvious like, big creative thinking outside of the realm of what was possible at that time. And so I think that’s an interesting take is like, okay, well, it was because that was just the environment, right? Like, that’s the expectation and, kind of, who you’re surrounding yourself with. And I think there’s also something to be said for, you know, the nature of a club where the purpose is just tinkering <laugh>, you know? (Chris: Yeah.) And being surrounded by like-minded folks. My question is like, who’s doing that today? Right? Like, outside of the context of doing it for a particular business or a problem space, who’s just thinking, broadly, okay, what’s something that nobody actually thinks is a problem yet, but we can make infinitely better? Right?
There’s this show on Netflix, actually, called The Abstract that focuses on the intersection between art and science. And this kind of makes me think of that, that the, like, you know, so much of what we think about and like, as much of a like, capitalist society as we have as like, how can we capitalize on like, everything that we’re doing? And there’s like, one specific episode of it that focuses on the MIT Material Sciences lab, and this lady, Neri Oxman, that is in the biodesign lab, that like, the entire purpose of this lab is creating new materials. Like, instead of creating a new material that we can build things out of, it’s how can we grow new buildings? How can we just grow a building? The goal being, how can we set out to solve really big problems that we probably can’t ever solve? And, maybe, along the way, solve some other problems that we don’t know exist yet.
Like, those are the types of people that are, kind of, the artists that involve science like, in their art like a Da Vinci type thing that like, are the ones that are, I think, that are doing that today. If that makes sense.
That’s such an interesting framework to think about this, like innovative like, getting yourself into an innovative mindset, right? Like, starting with a problem that everyone agrees is probably unsolvable and saying, “Well, screw it. We’re gonna try to solve it anyway,” takes the pressure off of actually solving the problem, you know, or takes the pressure off coming up with solutions that are realistic when you…one of the questions that Abbey, kind of, posed for us is, do we think Silicon Valley would’ve been Silicon Valley, as we know it today, without the Homebrew Club? And I think it’s an interesting question, because, I mean, I hadn’t thought of it from your standpoint, which is it had to be regardless of whether or not this like, old club of dudes had come together to nerd out, because of the freedom of thinking and creativity that San Francisco offered at the time. My take on this question when I read it was like, no, it would’ve just happened in New York, <laugh> because I just, to me, like, New York is everything, you know? (Chris: Yeah.) It’s a tech hub. It’s an arts hub. It’s like, grungy and edgy, but it’s also like, people in suits doing suit shit. So I was like, I thought like, no, it would’ve happened in New York, but I don’t know, what do you think? Like, without the Homebrew Computer Club, would it have been New York?
I’ll admit that I’m biased and like, as a New Yorker, totally. And like, yeah, (Faith: <Laugh>.) for sure. You know, we had Basquiat, and we had Warhol and like, you know, we like, for sure, we could have done it. But I’m not sure, I think there’s like, there’s something to be said for being on the West Coast and the like, proximity to Japan and the tech markets there. There’s something to be said for the like, liberal West Coast culture, you know? I also went down a rabbit hole of like, you know, maybe it was like, Gates would’ve just like, carried on in Albuquerque, and all these VCs would’ve just been like, ripping around the desert in Albuquerque, (Faith: <Laugh>.) and that would’ve been really, really entertaining. What’s the other like, interesting question that comes from it is like, what if we just like, dropped the bag and it like, everybody leaves Silicon Valley, and like, it’s not the U.S. anymore. Like where is it? Like, is it Singapore? Is it Vancouver? Like, that’s a really interesting like, option. Does everybody just go north?
And, you know, getting back to your, kind of, your initial thought, which was San Francisco makes sense, because of the freedom of thinking, and being able to extract yourself from the obsession of profit. That is just always gonna be true in New York. But I feel like that cultural reality has, kind of, slowly inched its way out west, and now, I can’t really think of an area in the United States that’s more obsessed with capitalism and profitability than Silicon Valley. (Chris: Oh, yeah.) You know, and I wonder how, what kind of impact that’s had on our rate of innovation. I mean, obviously, we are not stagnant in that area, but what could have been true without that pressure?
I think there’s generational change afoot. I think it depends who you listen to when you look at the change from like, the baby boomers to like, as it like, carries on to millennials now, kind of like, really having like, taking control of solving a lot of like, the big problems that we’re really faced with. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) And like, I’m hopeful that some of that focus on profitability at all costs will be set aside to solve some of these like, really big problems. Like, kind of like, the G.I. Generation was faced with solving (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) like, all these like, climate change problems and like, things that we’re going to be faced with. And I think the tech industry is very like, uniquely suited to do that. So we’ll see. But I, you know, I’m hopeful.
Yeah, me too. I’m hopeful that we have a generation of Gen Zers who create whatever the next Homebrew Computer Club is destined to be. Clearly, there was some magic happening in that garage on this day in tech history.
I keep seeing like, speaking of Gen Z like, you know, every generation like, talks poorly about the generation that’s coming like, after them. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) Like, they don’t wanna work, blah, blah, blah. I keep seeing all of this information about Gen Z being just like this, like, kind, and like, (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) smart, and like, thoughtful generation that I’m super hopeful for, so…
One-hundred percent. The number of times that I have felt inferior to a 14-year-old eloquently explaining some global issue on TikTok, I mean, if I had a dollar for every time, I’d be a millionaire. So I’m with you. I buy that about Gen Z. Guys, if you’re listening, please help us <laugh>. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Chris, well, this has been so much fun. Thank you for joining and being game to just shoot the shit about the Homebrew Computer Club. Thanks for listening to the Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @thefrontierpod, and we’ll see you next week.
(THE FRONTIER THEME STOPS). I haven’t thought about that. What did you say the show is called?
It’s called Abstract, and it’s amazing.
Okay. I need to watch it.
It’s absolutely incredible. Every episode of it is amazing. I highly, highly–
Maybe Netflix can sponsor the Frontier podcast <laugh>.
Yeah, <laugh> that’d be great.
For the record, we’re not sponsored by Netflix. (Chris: <Laugh>.)