Timothy Leary's archives: Bridge from '60s to '90s

A day with the massive collection of artifacts from the late psychedelic researcher reveals that he went from proponent of LSD to proponent of the PC. And back again.

Timothy Leary became a fan of the personal computer, and used them until his death in 1996. This is the famous psychedelic researcher's Macintosh LC III. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

OAKLAND, Calif.--The phrase is probably about as familiar to anyone who lived through the '60s as any other: "Turn on, tune in, and drop out."

That, of course, was Timothy Leary's exhortation to the world to embrace counterculture, and more specifically, to embrace the many benefits he saw of LSD, or acid.

Leary, as you probably know, was famous for his decades of experimental research into and promotion of the effects of hallucinogens, and over the years became as well known as many of the celebrity artists, writers, thinkers, and performers he hung out with.

Less well known, however, is that Leary, who died in 1996 of prostate cancer, became a serious techie in his later years. He put up a very early Web site, co-produced a late-'80s video game for Electronic Arts, worked on a series of the latest and greatest computers, and, it is said, updated his era-defining catchphrase for the digital age to reflect a newfound belief that computers were the LSD of the '90s: "Turn on, boot up, and jack in."

Today, addiction to technology is probably even more prevalent than devotion to drugs was in the '60s, and most people probably can't even imagine what the physical archives of someone like Leary would look like. After all, isn't everything digitized and online these days?

On Thursday, however, I had the chance to spend some time with a small piece of Leary's 400-carton-large archives--which is housed in a storage facility here--and I was in danger of getting seriously sucked in. In box after box, I found a true treasure trove of letters, photographs, posters and yes, computer equipment and discs.

My visit was in advance of an event on Sunday in San Francisco to celebrate Leary's life, bring together some of his friends and family, and show off some of the contents of the archives.

Several months ago, Bruce Damer, who, among many other things, runs the DigiBarn Computer Museum, told me he was helping Leary's estate try to sell the archives, and that, if possible, I might end up with a chance to go through the countercultural bounty.

Time slipped away, though, and only a couple of weeks ago, Damer alerted me to the fact that this Leary celebration was happening. And, it turned out, I could go and spend some time with the archives before the event.

And, it seems, the photographs I took on Thursday would be among the first of the archives to be publicly seen.

Damer promised me that Leary had been a "true-blue nerd," and that, of course, was catnip to my internal geek culture radar. I was eager to see the physical evidence of the impact the LSD era had had on the development of the modern era of technology, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

Man of mystery
It turns out that it may be a little harder to trace that evolution through Leary than one might think.

I got in touch with John Markoff, The New York Times reporter who wrote What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, to ask him about Leary's role in that shaping.

Surprisingly, Markoff told me that while he had met Leary--at the West Coast Computer Faire--and knew that he had dived deep into technology in the '80s and '90s, he didn't have any real sense of how much Leary's LSD experimentation had affected the Silicon Valley world. Indeed, Leary hadn't arrived in the Bay Area until the '70s, and by then the culture of engineering, drugs, and anti-war sentiment was well established here.

Yet, Markoff said, there is little doubt that psychedelic culture had played a significant role in the development of the modern Silicon Valley, whether or not Leary had anything to do with it.

"I've seen social theorists argue that creativity happens around the edge of chaos," Markoff said. "I have no direct proof of that, but it seems that many early people in a variety of places like the Stanford Research Institute and the Stanford AI Lab and Xerox PARC were deeply immersed in (psychedelic culture and the anti-war movement), besides being engineers."

Even more prominent in tying the psychedelic culture to the emergence of modern Silicon Valley was the experimentation of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

"Steve talked about it, and so has Bill Gates," Markoff said of experimentation with LSD. Jobs said it was "one of the two or three most important experiences of his life, and as a result of those kinds of experiences, he (feels) set apart from some of the more buttoned down corporate America (types) that he deals with."

Ultimately, then, the question of whether Leary himself directly helped birth the modern Silicon Valley with his research and experimentation is besides the point: if it wasn't him, then it was others who were following a similar path.

There's value in archiving
Back at the storage facility, I met Denis Berry, a trustee of the Timothy Archives, and she spent the day with me, taking me through some of the thousands of items tucked away in those cartons, pulling out little gems and helping me find others that I'd heard of.

My impression was that to Berry, the archives meant two very different things. On the one hand, she sees them as a friend and fan of Leary's, someone who can recognize the immense cultural value of the incredible number of artifacts contained in the 400 boxes. On the other, as a trustee tasked with selling the archives, I could see that she was a bit wearied by them.

She explained that after negotiating to sell the archives to a buyer who Damer had sourced up, she had engaged an appraiser to determine their value.

After spending several months going through the boxes, the appraiser declared that the entire collection was worth in excess of $1 million.

To Leary's family--he had made it clear he wanted the archives sold so his family could reap a bit of a windfall--this seemed like very good news.

But after two years of negotiations, Berry said, the buyer pulled out.

"So we're regrouping and looking for a home for the collection," she said.

The value of these boxes is immense, Berry said, when considering what they contain and what they mean to people interested in the history of the 1960s.

"Really, the history of the psychedelic movement is in here," Berry said. "So while it's Tim's archives, it's really much more than that."

Ideally, she told me, Leary's family hopes to find a buyer who will, once taking ownership, donate the the archives to an institution like the Library of Congress.

Times being what they are, however, it may be difficult to find a buyer willing to part with seven figures for something they won't even take possession of. But Berry thinks that the message contained in Leary's life of work is still very current.

She recalled how she had been talking with someone about Leary's work, and had said that, "Kids really related to what he said."

The friend responded, "Of course. He talked about drugs."

But, Berry said, it was really about much more than that. "He talked about fresh ideas and thinking for yourself."

A counterculture treasure trove
Going through the boxes was something I wish every student of the counterculture could do. I didn't see everything, of course, and even missed out on some of the best stuff, like correspondence between Leary and, say, William S. Burroughs.

But I did find letters to Allen Ginsberg, Leary's old Mac, a badge for entry into a John F. Kennedy for president event, and much more.

Berry said she was worried that some reel-to-reel tapes in the collection would soon deteriorate and that she wasn't sure how to digitize them. I told her surely there was a way and that perhaps someone reading this article would know how to achieve such a thing.

Then, upon discovering a box full of Leary's old 5.25-inch floppy disks, I said I had the same worry about those, and that it would be good to find someone who could back up that data before it disappeared forever.

The archives are mainly from the '60s, '80s, and '90s. During the '70s, of course, Leary spent several years in prison for a series of offenses, and before that, he spent a fair amount of time in Europe trying to elude capture.

That's why, despite Leary's being better than almost anybody I've heard of at holding onto the documents and artifacts of every day life, Berry said, there isn't much in the archives from the '70s.

"It's hard to carry boxes with you when you're on the run from country to country," she said. "He was meticulous (though) and I think he did understand the importance of what was going on."

 

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