What is the Homebrew Computer Club: Complete Explanation
The Homebrew Computer Club was a group of computer hobbyists who met in Menlo Park, California between March 1975 and December 1986. It was an informal meeting of the minds for electronics enthusiasts who gathered to trade parts, circuits, and build information for personal computing devices designed around microprocessors.
The club is famous for the heaviest hitters in history in its ranks. Steve Wozniak famously stated that the Apple I came into existence because of the club’s first meeting. Among the members of the Homebrew Computer Club were:
- Steve Wozniak – Co-founder of Apple Computers
- Steve Jobs – Co-founder of Apple Computers
- Harry Garland
- Lee Felsenstein
- Roger Melen – Cromemco
- Thomas “Todd” Fischer – IMSAI Division in Fischer-Freitas Company
- George Morrow – Morrow Designs
- Paul Terrell – Byte Shop
- Adam Osborne – Osborne Computer
- Bob Marsh – Processor Technology
- Lee Felsenstein – developer of Sol-20 and Osborne 1
- John Draper
- Jerry Lawson – creator of the first cartridge-based video game system
- Li-Chen Wang – Palo Alto Tiny Basic and graphics software for Cromemco Dazzler developer
- Steve Inness – primary designer of early cell phone touch screens
- Dan Werthimer – extraterrestrial intelligence researcher
- Gordon French – Co-founder of the Homebrew Computer Club
- Fred Moore – Co-founder of the Homebrew Computer Club
- Ted Nelson – Inventor of the back button, creator of Project Xanadu
The meetings were said to be “formal”, but followed by an informal swap meet. During the formal period, members would present ideas and information to each other as well as discuss potential projects. The swap meets afterward allowed the hackers to get together, trade parts, and perform “show and tell” which was actively prohibited by campus rules. After a few times meeting at a Safeway parking lot off-campus, the group decided it was better to meet in a bar known as The Oasis in Menlo Park. The bar became known as “Homebrew’s other staging area”.
Throughout the club’s active history, the group developed new ways to keep in touch as well as better venues to host their meetings. At first, they meet in French’s garage. Later, they were able to secure the auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), until 1978 when they moved to the Stanford Medical School. They also began a newsletter to keep members informed on the group’s activities and meetings.
The Homebrew newsletter, written by Fred Moore, became a heavy influence on the formation of the Silicon Valley culture. The newsletter introduced the idea of personal computers and even detailed instructions for its members to build original kit computers. The newsletter was printed from March 15, 1975, until December 1977. There were only twenty-one issues published.
It could be said that the Homebrew Computer Club was the birth of Silicon Valley.
The Founding of Homebrew Computer Club: How It Happened
On March 5, 1975, the Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems or MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer arrived at Menlo Park, California. It was a review unit sent by People’s Computer Company. Gordon French and Fred Moore decided to host a gathering in French’s garage to discuss the new technology and invited anyone they thought would be interested. It was this first meeting that Steve Wozniak credits as the inspiration for the Apple I’s design.
The excitement and enthusiasm behind the technology and possibilities made the meeting a success. The group moved the next few meetings to a larger space in a home in Atherton, California which was previously used as a preschool. It was here that the newsletter came into being. After some time, the group moved their meeting spot once again to an auditorium at SLAC. The newsletter continued in print until December 1977. The next year, the club moved meeting spots one more time to the Stanford Medical School.
The meetings continued until December of 1986. For some time, the group was disorganized and considered to be non-existent until 2009 when many of the club’s original members formed a new group named the 6800 Club after the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. The group sometimes renames the club after new microprocessor releases and continues to meet monthly in Cupertino, California.
Homebrew Computer Club: An Exact Definition
A Homebrew Computer Club is a group that meets to discuss their shared interests in tinkerer with computers and computing technology. However, The Homebrew Computer Club was a group of computer enthusiasts who met in Menlo Park, California. They are largely responsible for the Silicon Valley culture. This groups members have also had a massive impact on computer technology innovations from software to hardware.
How Do You Create a Homebrew Computer Club?
No one will ever be able to bring back the original Homebrew Computer Club. You can create your own enthusiast/hobbyist club that functions as Homebrew Computer Club. All you will have to do is invite like minded individuals to a meeting space.
How Does the Homebrew Computer Club Work?
The Homebrew Computer Club is a loosely organized collective of computer and electronics experts and hobbyists. The meetings were held much like any other organization. They got together at a specified location and discussed their shared interests. As a group of tinkerers, their interests just happened to be electronics and personal computing devices.
The first meeting was around testing and reviewing the release of the MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer that just arrived in Menlo Park. Steve Wozniak often attributes the design of the Apple I to this meeting of the minds. From there, meetings expanded into further avenues of potential computing technology and software. They swapped ideas, circuits, and switches as they each pursued their computing developments. The group helped America’s hacker community to do the same by releasing a newsletter with detailed information on building personal computing devices like the Altair 8800.
After the group was able to secure meeting space at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, they adopted new rules around technology swaps and trades due to campus rules that prohibited the practice. The meetings were split into two. The first was a “formal” meeting held in the auditorium at SLAC and later at Stanford Medical School. Members would openly discuss ideas and present new findings, but could not actively trade parts. After the formal portion, members began to meet at secondary locations to trade. They met in a Safeway parking lot. Then they moved to a more appealing location, The Oasis, a bar local to Menlo Park.
Where Did the Homebrew Computer Club Originate From?
Homebrew Computer Club originated in Menlo Park, San Mateo County, California in Gordon French’s garage. French and Fred Moore, who had met at the Community Computer Center in Menlo Park, decided to host the meeting to hold an open forum on the MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer. The two were already interested in creating an open forum to promote the advancement of computing technology and make it accessible to everyone. Their goal was to “put a computer in every home”, one might say.
The club grew organically from there. The interest in computing technology and its applications was growing steadily. Thus, interest in what the group discussed and meeting its members grew as well. The group helped to foster innovations and new ways to think about utilizing technology towards their goal. They also traded custom components to help each other work on different designs. It was an early form of open-source research.
Homebrew Computer Club Through the Timeline
The first three years of the Homebrew Computer Club were the most “wild west” of them all. The group met in a loosely organized way. They worked on computing software and hardware both individually and together. Then, they published their findings and instructions through a newsletter. The club formed ideas around potential breakthroughs and helped its members to achieve success in their careers. The group championed the idea of bringing a PC to every home. At the time the club had begun tinkering, home personal computers were as expensive as vehicles. With the Apple I and other advancements, members of the club had helped to make personal computers more accessible for everyone.
In 1978, the group had found their home at Stanford. Stanford research in microprocessors helped the members to learn more about their craft. It also gave the group an academic platform to educate others and expand the reach of personal computing in everyday life. With the Stanford auditorium at their disposal, they were able to invite hundreds more to be a part of the club and witness presentations from its members like Steve Jobs, Ted Nelson, Lee Felsenstein, and others.
The club persisted until the members became too busy with their own companies and projects to find time to meet. Surviving members of the group have made reunion meetings since then and in 2009 some members decided to gather again to discuss new microprocessor releases.
Homebrew Computer Club: Notable Contributions
While the Homebrew Computer Club is not a company or stakeholder in any technology, its members are. The club was used as a way to educate people on and advance computer designs from software to hardware. The club may not be directly attributed to a specific technology, it can be given credit for spreading culture and education around computing.
The Homebrew newsletter was short-lived but profoundly influential. It was one of the first openly accessible publications on personal computer creation. It was also a forum for the ideas that came from the group’s meetings. The newsletter inspired homebrewers nationwide to begin tinkering themselves.
The newsletter also showcased the early form of ideas around “intellectual property” arguments with Bill Gate’s “Open Letter to Hobbyists”. At the time, Gates was upset with the piracy of the BASIC software meant to be sold for the MITS PC kits. The growing computer user community decided that they would rather download the software for free. The letter was published in the Homebrew newsletter as a way to spread the message to hobbyists, hackers, and tinkerers. Some felt this was an attack on the open-source community. The battle between open source software and proprietary software continues to this day. A primary example is Windows versus Linux.
While the group was hosted at Stanford, they had to take to meeting off-campus to trade tech as Stanford has rules against swaps on campus grounds. However, this split of the wild nature of the group’s members from the professional portion of the meetings helped to create the culture of Silicon Valley. It also allowed more open access to the meetings which meant anyone who wanted to come, could.
As stated multiple times in this article, Steve Wozniak credits the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club with the inspiration for the design of the Apple I. He thought so highly of the group that when the first prototype of his machine was ready, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak presented the computer to the Homebrew Computer Club first.
Homebrew Computer Club: Controversies
Homebrew Computer Club has seen very little controversy in its own name, but the members have seen quite a bit themselves. The early years of Silicon Valley were rife with intellectual property theft and sabotage. The club itself only saw one true controversy when the concepts of open-source development and proprietary development began to meet.
Bill Gate’s “Open Letter to Hobbyists”
MITS had grown successful in selling hardware personal computer kits, but the BASIC software created to go with it was seeing much less success. As BASIC was a requirement to truly operate the kits, Bill Gates quickly surmised that most users were stealing software. He then attempted to address the issue by drafting a letter explaining the costs of software development to convince the early software pirates that they were stealing. Unfortunately, this was not well received. Early pirates argued that software should be free.
This argument continues today but in the form of intellectual property rights. For the most part, the world has come to agree with Gates’ assertion that software should not be stolen, but piracy still exists on a large scale. However, the Homebrew Computer Club was not engaged in piracy that Bill Gates sought to address. This was a group of early hackers whose concern with the letter was the overarching ideology of open source versus proprietary software and hardware for PCs. This battle is still going on today in many forms from decentralized systems to open-source operating systems and productivity applications. Though, the battle may be considered a “cold battle”.