Last Update: April 20th, 2002
My first exposure to computers was at age 6 (1963), as a subject in
Patrick Suppes' accelerated mathematics experiment at Stanford. I was
taken to a small room with what I now know was a CRT display and an intercom.
I was asked to push some keys in response to some shapes on the screen.
Afterwards, they showed me around a large room filled with big cabinets,
some with lots of blinking white lights.
They said it was a "computer" and its name was the "PDP-1". A tall thin man asked me to hit a key on a console to make a "decktape". I had absolutely no idea what a "DEC tape" was at the time, but when I hit the key, a small pair of reels BEGAN TO TURN!! It was a moment I would never forget.
By age 10 I began constructing all kinds of electronic hobby projects,
and had also done some soldering of "Flip
Flop" boards (with my first cousin, Arnold Gold) for a friend of his
father's named Burt Libe (Some of these boards wound up as part of a "sound
tree" exhibit which is still in operation at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
A visitor would clap his hands or speak, and a colorful wave of light would sweep up the tree.) I also built model rockets (this was still the age of Apollo) and through that hobby learned of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems: MITS (they were selling flashing light kits for night launches of model rockets, but no Altair yet.)
Back in 1973 I was an energetic Palo Alto High School student who had
recently become a student System Operator for the PAUSD school district's
HP2000F 32-user BASIC timeshare computer system (under the direction of
Dr. Bruce Keepes), which was later upgraded to a prototype HP3000.
The HP2000F had a bank of 110 BAUD modems (10 characters per second) for teletype dial-ups, as well as "Fast Ports" at 300 BAUD. One afternoon I was at the People's Computer Center and used one of their ASR 33 teletypes with an acoustical coupler (you actually put the telephone handset into a cradle on the slanted face of the teletype) , dialed in, and had an online "chat" with fellow HP2000F system operator Greg Dolkas (who later went on to work at HP, I understand).
The People's Computer Center was a really cool place for computer hobbiests at that time -- as you see in the printout, they had a PDP-8/E, PDP-8/L, and 4 ASR 33 teletypes... the best public access for "real people"!
Posted on a bulletin board in the PALY terminal room (containing 6 noisy KSR-33 teletypes in the Palo Alto High School math-science office) was a notice that a computer group meeting would be held at the home of Gordon French. I jotted down the notice's announced date and location onto the back of an envelope (how appropriate!). Mike Fremont (another student System Operator) and I both attended this first meeting in Gordon French's garage. Ralph Campbell (also from PALY) attended as well. We were the three youngest ones there, and rather shy and quiet (as I still am today), but were absolutely astounded when Gordon let us step into his house and see his 8008 system using 16K of SHIFT REGISTERS (!) as memory and his very own teletype (unlike random- access memory, his system actually shifted the data in a ring and WAITED until the desired address came up for data read/writes! We were extremely impressed.).
The excitement at homebrew was electric, and during the period of '74 to '76 I constructed a working 12-bit microprogrammed minicomputer (see photo) using a 30-bit micro-control store entirely out of about 100 SSI/MSI TTL wire-wrapped chips, which (thanks to the understanding of my wife) I still have in the garage. My cousin Arnold Gold often sat in the freezing garage with me late at night helping with the wire-wrapping. No microprocessor chip was used initially because as a kid, using 4004's or an 8008 was prohibitively expensive. (I was working as a "soda jerk" at Edy's across the street from the Stanford Campus along with three lawn mowing jobs to pay for parts. One night, after returning home from Larry Page's with a tiny little bag of 256 bit (BIT, not K) ram chips my mother, in a shocked tone, said "That's what your month's pay went into??!!" ). The front panel has about 100 incandescent lamps (Gordon thought these were especially neat when he came over for a demonstration) and 56 toggle switches. It was hooked to an ASR-33 which I reconstructed from 3 junked teletype chassis given to me by a friend, David Bell. (This was a BIG improvement over the Model 17 teletype he pawned off on me earlier, which while indestructible, dimmed the lights in my garage, leaked blue sparks from its typing distributor, suffered from the handicap of 5 bit BAUDOT code instead of ASCII, and apparently was taken out of service by a newswire service in the 1930's.)
Gordon French recently reconnected with me (thanks to the Net!), and I was amazed to learn he technically still holds the position of Secretary of Homebrew! He is in the process of collecting up some of the early notes and newsletters for scanning, and sent me this page (click on excerpt below) from his notes about the meeting... it also announces that our next meeting would be held at Peninsula School:
Gordon is also still active as the Chairman of a model engine builder's group.
Remember those paper tapes? Well, with the right incantations, the ASR-33's balky paper tape reader could usually be coaxed to load the bootstrap: I wrote an assembler and compiler for it. The compiler was called FABOL, for "Fortan-Assemby-Basic Oriented Language". I later donated the Burroughs tape drive (which I inherited from homebrewer Carl Kelb - RC Engineering) to the Foothill College Electronics Museum.
The second meeting of Homebrew was held in an old school house, and Steve Dompier brought in his Altair, and put a transistor radio on top of it. To everyone's utter amazement, it actually played "Fool On The Hill" by picking up buss harmonics and running a clever timing loop. I was astonished! Not long after I used this idea, and hooked a speaker directly to an open-collector driver that was on an incandescent monitoring lamp of the LSB of one of my machine's registers. After toggling the timing loop in, it was playing tunes (although a bit off key). It was cool!
Ralph Campbell constructed an early Altair (#220218) and humorously placed an "OBSOLETE" sticker on it's front panel. Tiring of toggle switch flips, he wire wrapped his own CPU board with EPROM monitor and video display. Ralph later contributed to the creation of RISC I & II architecture at Berkeley (which led to SUN's SPARC architecture, among others) and went on to become one of the principal developers of Berkeley UNIX (BSD 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4) and BIND (DNS).
John Draper (a.k.a. "Captain Crunch") attended meetings regularly, and was working for Call Computer.
Homebrewers were treated to free copies of the Silicon Gulch Gazette.
In 1976 Steve Wozniac
gave me a copy of his 6502
floating point math routines which I laboriously typed byte-by-byte
onto paper tape late into the night. I had by then added a 6502 chip to
my system to function as its floating point processor(!). The thrill of
actually seeing it all work was indescribable.
Marty Spergel (M&R Electronics) was talented at getting parts for other homebrew members, and helped organize some group purchases. He was a really nice guy, as I recall.
Gordon French was always warm and sincerely interested in what everyone was doing. I suppose I viewed him as a sort of "father figure" (the age difference was great, and his silvery hair contributed to the effect), even though in terms of building systems, we had become peers.
Lee Felsenstein, who designed the Pennywhistle Modem and later developed the SOL computer (along with Bob Marsh) at Processor Technology, led the later meetings. We became so big we had to use the auditorium at SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). My cousin Arnold Gold eventually purchased a SOL, and I had the opportunity to write code for it -- a scheduling program for a (fully legitimate) Mushroom Farm! It was a really nice machine, and I am convinced if they had the capital to have put it into an industrially-designed plastic case (rather than the stereo-like woodgrain case) they might have become another Apple Computer. Here is a schematic from the SOL, that was checked by Lee and approved by Bob Marsh.
The only member of Homebrew I remained in touch with was Mike Fremont (Mike later authored a program called MemoryMate for Broderbund, has 2 kids (I have 1) and worked together with me for a number of years at WebChat).
Mike and I occasionally "snuck in" to the Stanford AI lab, where invariably someone would let us play lunar lander on a big graphics terminal, or watch a simulated robot arm stack geometric shapes. The "cart" robot never seemed to be running. One night a student very proudly showed us a large rack mount cabinet that contained "one million words" of memory for their PDP-10. We were completely wide-eyed. (Attention PDP-10 enthusiasts: Paul Allen has obtained a TOAD-1 PDP-10 architecture machine, and is giving out free telnet accounts to anyone who wants to run their PDP-10 code on it!)
We also were able to get onto the ARPANET using a "TI Silent 700" thermal paper terminal at HP (we met there at night as part of an Explorer Scout post), playing chess via telnet to a computer in LONDON! In those days you had to either be at a defense contractor's office or an educational institution to get on to the net (times have certainly changed much for the better!).
We also would frequently go down to Tressidor student union to play Space War (it was rumored, to our utter amazement, that it actually had a REAL PDP-11 inside) and get a soft drink and chips.
In 1974, Mike and I got gypped
by ordering parts at prices that were "too good to be true". This ad for
"ECS" appeared in the September 9th, 1974 Electronic News, which stated
"The Catch: ... On teensey orders (under $500.00) we expect payment in
advance." Mike ordered an 8080 chip (costing hundreds of dollars) which
never arrived, and I ordered some 2602B 1K X 1 static RAM chips, which
DID arrive, but in dip packages with bottom painted part numbers and the
WRONG NUMBER OF PINS! I understand the "proprietor" left town.
I entered UC Berkeley in 1975, and wound up attending homebrew meetings less and less frequently. It became harder and harder to spend long nights writing code and building more "projects" to add to the system. By the time I was in medical school at UCSD, I had lost touch with this treasured part of my life. My last conversation with Gordon French was about '79 (until we reconnected in 1999, that is!). Apparently he was approached by someone at US Magazine writing a story about young computer buffs and gave them my name. But it turned out they were only looking for buffs still under 21.
In '82 I wrote a TINY LOGO interpreter which was published by a Canadian based software house, for the ill-fated TIMEX/SINCLAIR computer. I thought that this $49 computer that could run BASIC would really be a hit, but it became clear that the average buyer wasn't really interested in programming at all. (I took some inspiration from Tom Pittman who wrote TINY BASIC back in homebrew, and demonstrated that you could run a nice little interpreter in a tiny amount of program space).
After medical school I wound up as a medical device developer at a company which I formed in 1984 with another young physician who was also an engineer. We raised initial capital and developed a number of innovative computer based medical devices in the areas of laparoscopic general surgery as well as plastic surgery. In 1989 the company licensed its patent for a female condom device to a spinoff company, and I left to become its President to pursue the development of this product. We raised additional capital and successfully completed the first two phases of FDA studies, however we were unable to raise the capital for the final phase of testing.
I then became the proud owner of a PDP 11/23-PLUS, running RT11 and MACRO-11. If you enjoy the PDP-11, you can show your support by joining the PDP Unix Preservation Society.
I subsequently joined a company founded by Mike Fremont called Fun University
Network (which changed its name so many times, I thought it would be amusing
to list them all here: Learning Things, Gecko Learning Products, Brainstorm
Software, Fun University Network (FUN), Springboard, Internet Roundtable
Society, WebChat Communications, and finally WebChat
Broadcasting System (WBS) !) and have been involved in the development
of innovative online applications and services since that time. We went
on to operate one of the largest community web sites in the world (WBS),
which was then acquired by Infoseek and subsequently integrated into Disney's
GO.com. Mike started a new company which I joined, called Zorch,
to develop an educational gaming web site. Two years later I joined
a company founded by Dave Morse (who founded Amiga Computer) called Driving
Media, where I served as its VP of Engineering.
In mid-1999 Mike Fremont and I acquired an inoperative Digital PDP-8/I, and with the help of Mike Fox we restored it to working order (notice the machine happily blinking its lights here!). About 22 burned-out incandescent lamps were replaced, along with damaged power cabling, a cracked back plane power bus, and a flaked out power supply. It has 8K of CORE memory, and can run at nearly a blazing 1 MIPS. We are now working on establishing a "PDP-8/I Public Access Project" so that anyone from the net will be able to telnet to a Linux box, and from there connect to the 8's teletype console. Watch here for future announcements. The machine now runs 4K Chess (!) along with FOCAL 1969.
Even though the Homebrew Computer Club disbanded in 1986, the spirit of Homebrew lives on! You can still see the same excitement in the eyes of young folks today when they begin to explore the wonders of computers and the Internet, stretch their imaginations, and look to the future.
A Homebrew Computer Club reunion was held on March 5th, 2001 at SLAC (thanks to the efforts of the Stanford-Palo Alto Macintosh Users's Group) and many of the "Homebrew 3/5/75 Originals" attended (see the program and Gordon French's guest list here).
(Photo of "Homebrew Originals" courtesy of Henry Polard. Special thanks to Fred Balin of SMUG.
From left to right: Front Row: Len Shustek, Gordon French, Marty Spergel, Bob Lash (myself), Ralph Campbell, Mike Carlisle, Walter Bryant, George Oetzel, Harry Garland, Allen Baum, Lee Felsenstein, Dennis Allison (head turned), Gene Wallace. Back Row: Roger Melen, Bob Marsh, Fred Balin [who is mostly hidden]) .
Gordon French (second from left) is conversing with Lee Felsenstein
(far right in white shirt), both armed with wireless microphones. Len Shustek
co-founded Network Associates and is now chariman of the Computer Museum
History Center. Here is a larger version of the photo (342K
(Photo courtesy of Susan Bradley).
John Draper (a.k.a. "Captain Crunch") joins in. To the left is Lichen Wang, who is highly respected for his graphics work on the Dazzler Altair color display. Ralph is holding an Altair CPU board he constructed in Homebrew. Here is a larger version (1.2 MB JPEG).
Marty Spergel and Gordon French reunited.
(Photo courtesy of Susan Bradley). Larger version (1.2 MB JPEG).
It was really wonderful to see Gordon and so many other familiar faces again. Ralph Cambell is now at SUN, and John Draper is involved in Firewall security products.
If you are nostalgic about the great computers of the past, be sure to visit the Computer Museum History Center at Moffitt Field, California. Here are some photos from my visit there in July of 1999 along with Mike Fremont and Mike Fox, which included a PDP-1, PDP-10, CRAY-1, CDC6600, HP2100, IBM360, a later (solid state) UNIVAC, a section of the Whirlwind, and even some of Lee Felsenstein's "Community Memory" machines!
Leonard Tramiel invited me over recently to see his original ATARI
ST design verification prototype, which was hand built. This
unit was constructed
in 1984 (on general purpose wire-wrap breadboards which appear to have been etched in 1983). He is planning on donating it to the Computer Museum
If you are hankering to get into some really challenging hobby computer projects, and are interested in astronomy, there is a new homebrew group of sorts, called the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers. Mike Fremont and I are both members, and have constructed our own amateur radio telescope called Project BAMBI (Bob and Mikes' Big Investment).