Crowd gathers for Homebrew Computer Club's 30th

Veterans of the PC-pioneering Homebrew Computer Club gather to remember old times at the Vintage Computer Festival. Photos: PC pioneers

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--If you've never seen a couple hundred bona-fide geeks sitting on the edge of their seats with excitement, you should have been on hand Saturday for an appreciation of the 30th anniversary of the Homebrew Computer Club.

The celebration, which was part of Vintage Computer Festival at the Computer History Museum here, was a lovefest for several mavericks of technology. And amid tales of building some of the world's first personal computers, the adoring audience of Silicon Valley elders got to hear a series of nostalgic stories about the history of one of the most influential computer users' groups of all time.

Founded in 1975, the Homebrew Computer Club boasted a series of very well-known technologists. Among them was Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer and a man known for his particular skill in putting together rudimentary, yet powerful, personal computers.

Photos: Homebrew's 30th anniversary

"It was the most important thing in my life and every two weeks I lived for it," Wozniak told CNET News.com, speaking of the Homebrew Computer Club. "I was too shy to even speak at all. The only two times I ever spoke were to introduce the Apple I and the Apple II."

Throughout the afternoon panel session, Wozniak and fellow club pioneers Lee Felsenstein, Bob Lash, Allen Baum and Michael Holley regaled the audience of several hundred--at least 100 of whom were standing along the walls of the overcrowded meeting room--with tales of the Homebrew club's history.

Felsenstein, who moderated many of the club's meetings, talked at length about how it served as a nexus of computer fanatics eager to meet likeminded people, exchange ideas and find project partners.

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Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recalls his years in Homebrew.

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He said the club often would invite guests. Sometimes, though, they wouldn't show up and so he discovered that by asking the gathered participants if anyone knew anything about the subject the speaker was supposed to talk about, a discussion would quickly ensue that progressed from idea to idea as it moved around the room.

"So several times we created a lecture from the audience," Felsenstein said.

To some on hand Saturday, the Homebrew Computer Club was emblematic of the unique atmosphere made possible in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s.

"There were computer clubs at the time all over the country and the Homebrew Computer Club was one of the most famous and the most successful," said Liza Loop, who attended some of the club's meetings. "Two things made the (club) so successful. One was where it was, because it was in Silicon Valley...The other thing was the California counter-culture which encouraged the free exchange of ideas."

It was through the club's meetings that several members of the group created the machines that would become world famous. In particular, Wozniak's work on the Apple I set the tone for the future of personal computers that could be cobbled together from specific parts bought piecemeal from computer stores and at computer shows.

And it was during the meetings that the participants grew to know each other and appreciate each others' work.

"The significance of it for me was that it was where I met Woz," said Loop, who has spent much of her life advocating for the advancement of computers in education. "That's how I got the first Apple I."

Throughout the session, the panelists kept the audience laughing with anecdotes illustrating the lighthearted nature of the club and of the community of computer hobbyists in mid-1970s Silicon Valley.

"We had a lot of humor in the club," Wozniak said. "Any time you did technical work, you had to have humor or it just wasn't enjoyable."

Indeed, Wozniak related a story about figuring out how he and fellow Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had broken into the digital user group account of John Draper--the inventor of the blue box, a device that allowed its user to make illegal free long-distance calls from any phone.

"We found his resume," Wozniak remembered, "and we were going to add something about his arrests, but we didn't."

Saturday's session at times had much the same feel of one of the club's meetings, veterans said. At first, the event's organizers tried to get a computer hooked up to a projection system, a process that took much longer than planned. Then, the only method anyone could think of to pipe in Len Shustek, another club veteran who was unable to attend the event Saturday, was to call him on a Treo and turn on its speakerphone. Predictably, the results were only mildly successful.

"This is really a lot like a club meeting, I guess," said Bruce Damer, whose Digibarn computer museum organized the panel. "Complete chaos."

In any case, the panel itself was only one piece of a weekend of events for the Vintage Computer Festival.

After the panel, the crowd moved upstairs to an exhibit hall where Wozniak signed autographs and hundreds of computer enthusiasts prowled around a room full of vintage equipment, much of which was for sale.

Among the featured items were original Macintoshes, stacks of Commodore 64s, Atari 2600s and dozens of its game cartridges, a complete Apple IIe system for $50, and an original copy of Borland's Turbo Pascal for DOS.