Homebrew Computer Club reunion lights up Silicon Valley

Thirty-eight years after the famous club had its first meetings, spawning Apple and many other companies, many of its members got together to share stories of the beginnings of the PC era.

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
5 min read
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (right) talks to fellow original Homebrew Computer Club member Len Shustek at the club reunion in Mountain View, Calif. Monday night. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- In this corner, it's Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. In that corner, it's phone phreaking pioneer Captain Crunch.

Over there, it's Apple employee No. 1 Bill Fernandez, and across the room, there's Lee Felsenstein, the creator of the world's first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne.

Welcome to the Homebrew Computer Club reunion, an extremely rare gathering at the Computer History Museum tonight of dozens of the earliest home computer makers. Thirty-eight years after the first meeting of one of the most famous groups in the world of technology, nearly 100 of its original members got together to celebrate the club, themselves, and perhaps most important, the dawning of the personal computer revolution.

PC greats come out for Homebrew Computer Club reunion (pictures)

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"Everybody here is [among] the founding fathers of the home computer industry, the people who started the home computer industry," said John Draper, aka Captain Crunch. "This is amazing. Never have I seen so many prominent [technology] people together in my life."

Draper should know. After all, said Homebrew member Roy Nordblom, Draper "is a wizard."

For those that didn't attend one of the original meetings, which began in the garage of computer engineer Gordon French in March 1975, it's hard to know what the dynamic was like in those days. But walking among the giants of the computer world that came out for the gathering tonight, what seems evident is that what mattered most to these people is their shared interest in what at that time was an extremely nascent pastime.

Though Wozniak was predictably mobbed, many of those waiting to talk to him were young people well aware of his legacy. Among the Homebrew members that came out, though, there was a much less deferential attitude. That is to say, these were contemporaries, people who have passed 38 years watching the industry they helped create grow into one of the world's most important. And for them, it seemed much more like a family reunion than a place to gawk at all-star talent.

Then again, it was also a place to recount famous stories. Woz, for example, told how he had drafted the drawings for the Apple II himself, by hand, but original Apple CEO Mike Scott "prettied them up." Or how, once when he went to an auction and found himself holding documents that were created by famous computer scientist Alan Turing, his reaction was "Whoa, I was just shaking to touch them."

Later, Woz recalled of hearing about the first Homebrew meetings, he thought, "I'll go down and I'll be a hero. [But] they're all talking about this thing called a microprocessor. They're talking 8080, and 8008 [chips] I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I got so scared, I'm not one of these people that knows what's going on. This is not for me.'"

'Still vertical'
How important was it for living Homebrew members to make it to the reunion? Judging by the fact that original member Marty Spergel couldn't get himself physically to Silicon Valley but made sure he was still there via a telepresence robot, it was pretty important.

With the virtual Spergel rolling through the meeting, members would walk up and greet him almost as if it was actually him. As the robot came up to three members, Spergel asked how they were doing. One, Harry Saal, joked, "We're still vertical, so that's good."

Homebrew Computer Club member Marty Spergel greets fellow club members via telepresence robot at the reunion. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Indeed, there was a lot of white hair in the room tonight. And not surprisingly. It has been 38 years since the club began. Attending the reunion, said Terry Winograd, a famous computer science professor at Stanford who taught, among others, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, was a "chance to see a lot of them, how grey and old they've gotten, like me."

Winograd actually wasn't a Homebrew member himself. Because he was at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, at the time the club was founded, he had his own access to "big computers" and didn't need to join. But he was friends with many of the members. These days, he said, he's been seeing a resurgence of the do-it-yourself culture on which the Homebrew Computer Club was founded. It's the "notion that [if] you get a few of the right tools, you can build something interesting."

Unfortunately, Winograd added, though that DIY culture was in evidence in the 1970s, and is again today, there was a long period in the interim when the maker energy was beaten back by the giant companies that came along to dominate the computer industry. "You couldn't compete with Intel," he said.

But perhaps that's exactly why the people who founded the Homebrew Computer Club are such heroes to those for whom computers and technology are as important as breathing.

Though a reunion, tonight's event was open to the public -- via a Kickstarter campaign -- and there were dozens of people far too young to have known the club except as the basis of an origin story. Others, though, simply had a geographic disadvantage.

One of those was Bob Roswell, the owner of a Baltimore computer store and a small vintage computing museum who flew to Silicon Valley for the chance to meet so many of the luminaries he has spent decades looking up to. "Just to meet some of these guys is kind of a dream of a lifetime for me," Roswell said. "I'm in awe to see all the people here."

But if Roswell had been in Silicon Valley in 1975, he could very easily have been part of the group. It was a regular gathering of equals, people who loved computers, and who knew what the advent of these machines could mean.

To Spergel, the club and its members was about establishing "this thing called camaraderie. Looking forward," Spergel added, speaking via the telepresence robot, "it still exists to this day."

And that makes sense. Maybe Woz put it best, speaking to the hundreds of people who came out for the reunion. He recalled the club meetings in the mid-1970s, even before Apple was getting off the ground: They were "the most important day of my life...every other Wednesday night."