By Matt Spergel
On the night of November 11, 2013, a very special event took place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View; it was the Homebrew Computer Club Reunion celebrating thirty eight years since its founding. If you haven’t heard about the Homebrew, they were the ones whom were so enthusiastic about the prospects of personal computing they built their very own computers – in the 1970s – before the general public even knew what a personal computer was. Some members started companies based around their creations. There was one company in particular which made an indelible imprint on our world, but that story is for another time.
My father was at the very first meeting. Indeed, my history is tied to the club: when I was born he brought cigars to a club meeting in celebration of the birth of his son. And, I grew up listening to stories about the club from its members. A few of them became family to me.
But what was different about this reunion, versus prior ones at SLAC, was that Lee Felsenstein asked of help from me: in a very real way, that reunion took me thirty eight years to pull together. But since I was so busy keeping everything moving during the event, I didn’t have a chance to say some things I would have liked to. I’m taking that time now.
My intuition is telling me that in the future the video we recorded will be seen as an important artifact for personal computing’s history. But it was much more than that: it was an undertaking which came from my heart. And in many ways I was born to produce it. So I’d like to share a few stories from the reunion and what it meant to me.
How I Became Involved
You can point your finger at Lee Felsenstein.
You see, Lee and I have a small history of adventures together. He’s been involved in Hack the Future – a hackathon for middle and high school aged students I started with some friends. And, we get together every once in a while over lunch or dinner. He’s also witnessed some of my reality bending antics (yes, I bend reality, ’tis true). I was even involved in his not-so-fun adventure at the hospital, but I digress.
’Twas the night of the Jobs movie…
I moved back to Silicon Valley from Chicago a couple of weeks before the Jobs movie premiered and planned a night out to see it. It was with Al Alcorn, Allen Baum and his wife Donya, Daniel Kottke and his son Ryland, Lee and his wife Lena, Chuck Colby, and a few others. Al was in an especially jovial mood: when his character appeared on screen he stretched out his arms and blurted out, “And there I am!” I couldn’t help but crack up. There was also a funny scene with Daniel and Steve Jobs in a field on LSD. I think Daniel’s face turned a very strong shade of red. Perhaps he was a tad embarrassed. We all love ya, Dan.
And, just so this never happens again, let me tell you, Al Alcorn never – I mean NEVER – wore a suit to work. They got that all wrong. Same with Woz. It’s not like both of them made a point telling me that they never did and never would wear a suit to work. Got that world? Good. Just don’t let that happen again, please.
After the movie, we met up at a thai restaurant in Palo Alto. It was after dinner when Lee pulled me aside. For the most part, our conversation went a lot like this (edited for brevity).
“Matt, we have a little situation with the reunion.”
You don’t say, Lee. “Is there money?” I ask.
“Well, no,” Lee replies.
“Is there a contact list?”
“Do we have anything?”
“Woz is going to speak and we have a date at the CHM.”
“What’s the date?”
“Isn’t that kind of soon?”
I think it was ten weeks before the event. How could I say no to that? Lucky I just moved back from Chicago and had some time on my hands.
“Sure, Lee, I’ll take care of it.”
And off we went.
See, Lee knows I can’t say no to him; kind of sneaky if you ask me. And it is touching: my father nominated Lee to head the club decades ago and Lee asked for me to produce the reunion decades later. Talk about coming full circle.
Stories People Likely Missed
There were some extraordinary moments that evening– and some fun stories in preparation for the event. I’d expect some people would enjoy hearing some of them so here goes.
The Hunt for a Working Altair
An idea which Lee voiced was to recreate Steve Dompier’s Fool on the Hill demo (I think he and Steve were planning for it?). But where could we find a working Altair?
I reached out to Bruce Damer on Facebook. “Do you have one at the DigiBarn, Bruce?” I asked. No, not one that’s in working condition. I guess barns aren’t great places to keep forty year old computers. Want to come to the reunion anyway? Sure.
How about the Homebrew Robotics Club? There were already a few representatives whom were planning to staff a table or two (in fact, the lineage of the robotics club is tied to the computer club). As I recall, they said they had access to a couple of Altairs, but neither were in working condition. Argh.
As a last resort, I reached out to the Living Computer Museum. I probably wouldn’t have contacted them if I didn’t get together with Dave Freeman while out in Chicago. Dave is an old electronics supplier whom I’ve known since I was a kid. He told me a little about his trip to Seattle for its opening. I thought to myself I’ll give it a shot; maybe they can help.
I used their standard contact form on their website and received a brief, almost cryptic message back from a guy named Bob Barnett. I think I cc’ed Lee after that. I remember telling Bob he and any friends are welcome to join us too. Things went silent on my end after that.
“Bummer,” I thought to myself, “this isn’t going to happen.” Usually on my third strike in search of something that’s noncritical to an event I’m working on I give up. So I did. But the day of the reunion, while I was setting up, a surprise walked up to me.
“We’re here from the Living Computer Museum. We have the Altair.” What? Huh? You can’t be serious. The guy’s name was Bruce Sherry, and he reminded of a bearded Will Wright.
“You guys flew down from Seattle?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Oh my, we have the Altair! There was elation in the air (for me at least).
It appears as though Lee continued the email exchange with Bob Barnett, but I was kept out of the loop. The demo gods were kind to us that day.
Thanks for flying down with the surprise Altair, Living Computer Museum. Surprises can make things more fun. And you most certainly did.
A Spreadsheet Needs 80 Columns, Too
Who knew Bob Frankston and John Wilbur would walk up to me at the same time? What many people know is that Bob programmed VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet. What many people may not know is John Wilbur and Andy Hertzfeld were the engineers behind the Sup ’R’ Terminal, the first 80-column card for the Apple II. And it was the Sup ‘R’ Terminal which gave VisiCalc its 80 columns across for the very first time.
John was over the moon to meet Bob. And in a way they worked together over thirty years ago, but never met until that moment.
How very lovely.
On a side note, I regret not reaching out to Andy Hertzfeld. Andy didn’t really pop in my head as someone from that era and with Homebrew connections, but the truth is he is (I think the Sup ‘R’ Terminal code may have been his first commercial project after college). I was just pushing myself and a few things fell by the wayside. Sorry, Andy.
I’ve also heard Andy wanted to bundle the Sup ‘R’ Terminal with Crunch’s EasyWriter, but that never came to fruition (Crunch isn’t a super genius businessman). That would have been interesting to have bundled in VisiCalc too.
Maybe during the next microchip revolution we’ll get it right.
My Dad’s New Wheels
How could it be that my father, Marty Spergel, wasn’t able to make the reunion? Well, after Lee asked for some help, the first person I went to tell was my father. Unfortunately, he and my mother had already planned to travel to Las Vegas for that week. See, my mom rules the home (it’s a matriarchy in Jewish households, okay?) and she wasn’t willing to change the date of the trip. I mean, not in a million years.
They sure gave me an earful. Talk about being upset. “Why don’t you change the date?” they asked. It was already set at the CHM and Woz’s schedule is compacted. “Oh, since it’s Steve they’ll work around him? I don’t think that’s right, do you?” Well, it’s not a big deal to me.
Okay, how do I fix this one? I need a way for my father to be there without him being there. The answer lay in Steve Cousins.
Steve is a remarkable guy: he’s not only the former CEO of a robotics incubator called Willow Garage, but he always seems to do the right thing. He would even bring a PR2 (a highly sophisticated robot for research) for the kids to program at Hack the Future. I believe he’s a hidden gem in Silicon Valley and sense in time the world will discover more about him, hopefully.
One of the projects that was being developed at Willow Garage was a telepresence robot called the Texai. I thought we may be able to utilize it.
I reached out to Steve and asked for some assistance. As usual, he was there to help. He told me the Texai was spun out into a company called Suitable Technologies and was productized; it’s now called the “Beam”. Steve put me in contact with the right people at Suitable and guess what they told me? There were two Beams at the CHM which we could use. Doh.
My father went through some training with the help of a representative from Suitable and everything worked out just fine. In fact, it worked out better than fine: since the Beam receives an unusual amount of attention, he was recognized afterwards at the Apple Store in Valley Fair due to an article in which he was photographed. Yes, Apple employees wanted to take pictures with my father that day. A little PR can go a long way.
Joyful (Ed)Tech Pioneers
I had to shepherd the telepresence robot my father was operating into the auditorium so we were a few minutes behind almost everyone else. We took a spot in the front left where I plunked down adjacent to the robot on the floor. But I remember turning my head to the right and seeing Terry Winograd, Ted Kahn, and Bob Albrecht all kind of huddled together–and they were just glowing!
To me, it was an unbelievable scene: these were a few people I admire and respect to the utmost and they were overflowing with joy. It was stunningly beautiful. And I was the one that gave that to them. What a gift for me.
Just ‘Wow’. Anything is possible.
Gordon French’s Son, Allan
One of the most moving moments – for me at least – was when Gordon French’s son, Allan, spoke in the auditorium. Do you remember it? I saw how much he loves and admires “dad” that night. I wish Gordon was there to see it. I know God witnessed it.
And, that almost didn’t happen. It almost slipped. I’m glad we didn’t forget about Allan. I guess we got lucky, again.
(I also regret not reaching out to Woz’s sons, Jesse and Gary. Sorry guys. Please forgive me. I was too overloaded on this one.)
We’re Young Again
Do you remember when you were a teenager and you’d be standing around with your friends and talking about technology or some other quasi-intellectual topic, and there’s a unique innocence to it? But, for some reason, that special purity is lost over the years? I saw it reappear that night in front of the museum.
After the caterer boxed up the food and the museum employees ushered me out (we were running late) I walked outside to my car, right by some stragglers. They weren’t causing that much trouble. It was Allen Baum, Harry Garland, Roger Melen, and a few others. But what I noticed about them was their energy: it reminded me of that innocent period in my life. They were all so jubilant, as if they were teenagers again– and it amazed me.
John and Kevin
I was super pleased to see both John Markoff and Kevin Mitnick at the reunion (Indeed, John told me he’d been to a few of the Homebrew meetings. Who knew?). I was uncertain how that was going to work out, but everyone came together and it was an amazing time.
And Kevin, thanks for the acknowledgements in your books. You didn’t have to do that, but you did. That was really kind and generous of you.
See, if you really put your heart into something, good things can come out of it. Just believe … in something.
Things I’d Like to Say to a Few People
I didn’t have the opportunity to say a few things to some people I would have liked to, so I’m doing that here. A lot of the inspiration for that night came from them.
Where should I begin, Steve? Lasers. Jokes. Shoreline. Tetris. Travel. Technology. Education. In many ways, you’re responsible for the direction I’ve taken in my life–it’s all your fault. The ed-tech business. The creative thought. Bob Dylan. Why did you believe in me? Why did you open up your life to me? Why did you teach me how to live a fulfilling life?
You brought so many of us together over the years whom are my family now.
I remember you telling me to say yes to things. It’s a magic word, isn’t it? So many good things can come out of it. I said yes when Lee asked for me to help with the reunion. I said yes to many things which brought wonder into this world. That was due to you.
Squish squish squish, Steve. I’m your number one fan. Always have been.
Thank you for everything you have given me.
Let’s face it, Dan, for better or for worse (mostly for worse) we have a bond that is unbreakable. You and Steve have been a couple of my best friends.
When it came to Woz’s stuff, you were always so generous with me. Letting me borrow Steve’s NSX in high school even though you knew I’d push its limits. Allowing me access to Steve’s video editing equipment for a project or two. You even turned the other cheek and let me use Steve’s die-sub printer to make my fake ID on. And then you’d let me buy you dinner at La Foret. Thanks, Dan.
Don’t ever change, Sokol. I know you never will.
‘The easiest way to make a small fortune is to lose a big one.’
You really should be more careful with those interactive technologies, Ted. They may alter the way people learn.
Your history amazes me: The PCC. Lawrence Hall of Science. Xerox PARC. CUE. The Children’s Discovery Museum. IRL. Media X. Matt Spergel.
Lee remembers you from years back too. He said you were part of the “underground.” Happy to see everyone make it above ground.
It brought me a great deal of joy to bring you and Bob Albrecht back together. That was one of the greatest gifts for me that night. Maybe we should have invited your brother. I didn’t have a chance to meet him at your bar-mitzvah, either.
You know me, Ted. I’m all heart. That’s how I really get by. Try not to tell too many people about that though. It could be used against me; in a court of love.
Do you have any other dreams, Ted?
Do you know what people say about you, Terry? Behind your back? They say you really care about your students.
And in a way, that’s why I reached out to you.
Twenty years ago I read your books. I thought about contacting you then. I should have.
You’ll never guess who I think of seeing when I hit rock bottom and need a dose of guidance, Terry. You just won’t. Trust me.
You more than anyone would know what education means. I think you pulled something special out of me. We’re going to find out soon. I’m almost there.
A friend whom was at the reunion asked about you afterwards. He said, “who is that Albert Einstein looking guy?” Oh, you must mean Terry.
I’ve been fooling you Lee. You think I don’t know you’ve been trying to help me.
Come on, Lee.
A long time ago you had a special relationship with my father and made a little history. Glad we were able to make a little bit of history together too.
Your community is in my memory. I’ll whistle a song through a modem to you. I’ll only charge you a penny for it.
You know, an IBM 360 is portable too, if the room is on wheels.
We all need each other, don’t we?
Do you think you’re misunderstood, Ted?
Shouldn’t put literature on screens and connect all those dots. That could move the world up-ward.
I had to trek down that big hill for lunch by the dog park at Tommy’s Wok. They have a great lunch special. How is Ashök at Avatars? Marlene loves pumpkin.
I had some documents in the red barn too. Wish they could have been friends with yours.
You zig. I’ll zag.
You cross-literature with you eh-ny day. <jump-sentence>
Simple —- sometimes
It all makes perfect sense to me.
You saw me at the Fairchild event at Stanford. Gordon Moore seemed so funny and down to earth. Thanks for integrating circuits. He told me he appreciates it.
Did I stand out because my hair wasn’t silver? That’s changing very soon.
Didn’t you know about me, Allen? Now you know I’ve always honored those that came before me.
Grateful Dead shows at Shoreline. Steve’s super parties. I had a Chomsky book. You went to MIT. He’s a bit overrated, if you must know. Not Steve, Chomsky.
Shouldn’t you be playing football, Al? How can it be that a big guy like you is so gentle–and kind. You said the magic word to me too. You really should be more careful with that; it may bring more joy into your life.
Fixing TVs in high school. Building a video game. Developing video compression technology. Teaching kids how to solder. It’s all meant to be, Al.
I love the story of Ivan Sutherland and Dave Evans reporting to you at Apple. You know, you’re right: that really doesn’t make a single bit of sense.
You don’t know, Harry, but I’ve been scheming. I know about the Jewish High Tech Community. I’ve known about your support of Silicon Valley nonprofits. I know about your leadership here. I’m just running late with things.
You won’t be able to out Medici me though.
When I first spent time with Len I asked him why he cared (well, it was a bit more colloquial than that). He said he got that from you.
Maybe we should inspire some more people to care and see what happens.
Let’s find out.
Len, you also don’t have a clue. Not one. I admire you so greatly for what you’ve contributed to our community and how you’ve supported our heritage. The Computer History Museum holds the legacy of many people I deeply love.
Well, I just gave you a clue.
Harry inspired you to care in a special way. And Steve inspired me to care in a special way too.
I think you and I have very similar hearts and aspirations.
Don’t you think it’s bizarre that you walk around everyday and nobody knows you started Apple? Must make life easy.
You said the magic word too, Paul. It was simple to do, yes? The world is different due to it. I bet you’ve used the magic word other times. Just to see what would happen.
Maybe Apple’s logo was really inspired by you. It’s a pleasing thought, isn’t it? A Byte out of an Apple.
Paul, you’re too easy to like. If I’m in Florida I’ll ring you up. Beers on me.
Margaritas on you.
I wish I had more time speak with you, Bob. I don’t think I really did. Maybe I was too exhausted. Maybe a little nervous, too.
Would you believe me if I told you I’ve known about you for almost thirty years? I wouldn’t. But it is true. Your name has echoed in my life for that long.
You know, I helped Woz with his after school computer class for a few years on and off when I was young. I started an ed-tech business too. And even started a hackathon for kids. Al and Lee were involved.
I guess I’m pretty lucky, aren’t I? See, we really are blessed.
Have you had a chance to read Fred Turner’s book on Stewart Brand? As I recall Brand is kind of credited for turning the computer into a symbol of liberation from one of oppression. I wonder if that thread was originally spun from you. (By the way, I invited both of them but neither could make it.)
“Reality expands to fill the available fantasies.” I did fantasize that night, Bob. And you were a part of it.
P.S. Whoever reads this … you mustn’t … whatever you do … don’t download these free math worksheets by George Firedrake and some other computer guy. End of days, I tell ya.
Do you enjoy teasing me on Facebook? I think that means you really like me. I know about psychology. I’m a scientist. And I read about it on the Internet.
Admit it, Diane.
Don’t roll your eyes at me, Bill. You think you can design an amazing user interface? We’ll see about that.
Great that you could make it. At first I thought you weren’t going to. Things changed. It really wouldn’t have been the same without you.
And now you have a great photo on CNET.
See, dreams really do come true.
See you in New Mexico.
Or maybe Japan.
We met at a “house” party in San Francisco twenty years ago. It was hard for me to believe you were on the dance floor. It didn’t make much sense.
It makes sense to me now, John.
I grew up listening to stories about you. Woz loved to tell me about the first time you both met. He thought you were going to be like a James Bond figure. All the ladies adored you. And you had a van that was your hi-tech control center, chock-full of electronics.
You shattered Steve’s dream, Crunch.
I finally was lucky enough to have some energy work done by you at Kottke’s.
I’ll never do that again.
Work Different, Chris.
Sorry, I just had to use it.
Saw you “check-in” at Chromatic Coffee. It was April 1st. I regret not calling in and ordering 20 espressos for you.
I hate living with regret.
Did we end up smoking cigars at the Bohemian Club? I bet we fit right in.
A private symphony just for us that night.
A sunny walk in Palo Alto. Off to lunch we go.
Preferential to middle eastern. Indian, a very close second. Sprinkling something interesting onto our conversation. Just a typical weekday.
You hopped a train to come see Alan Kay. We talked about bit slicing over a slice of pizza. I’m still trying to figure out what you meant.
Sorry to hear that you got kicked off the train on your way home.
Yes, there is a very big market for bright lights, Daniel. There most definitely is.
Thanks for helping my dad out when he was starting out. It was a good bet, wasn’t it?
Sup ‘R’ Fantastic that terminal project worked out. I agree that it needed those extra columns too. It’s a nice, peaceful home. Air tight. Possibly.
On the way back from Pine Mountain Lake. Chasing a sunset above the clouds.
I didn’t know there really was a heaven.
We met at the MakerBot party at CES. I knew who you were. You didn’t know who I was. I haven’t invented a world changing application – yet.
That was very gracious of you to invite me to hang with Bricklin and yourself. You know, I could see if RMS would like to join us. Maybe Richard can make us feel guilty about selling software over Chinese food.
Glad my dad and his friends were able to give you those extra columns for your spreadsheet. That probably helped in some way.
By the way, it takes about 30 minutes to get to SFO from the CHM. That is if there’s no traffic.
Yes, Bob, you were right: at least my life isn’t boring.
So you were the one Steve talked about. You have the very first one. That must mean something.
Why would anyone want to bring a computer into a classroom? That doesn’t make much sense. Does it?
Liza, if I’m near the Russian River, I’ll drop you a line. Maybe we can program a few lines of BASIC together – by the river.
Had fun working on some parts of the reunion–with you.
1975 was a very bad year for computing. I was born.
I kept this post free of any kind of harmful and toxic scents, just for you.
I was happy with the invitations. Weren’t you?
I wish we had more time to talk, Domp (love saying Domp) but I was busy just keeping things moving. I’m going to make a promise to you though: I will never say anything to anyone about where Sokol got his hands on that BASIC tape. That’s between us ‘till end of days.
If you’re ever in Seattle, drop by the Living Computer Museum. Bob Barnett and a couple of others were the ones who flew down with the working Altair. Maybe you’ll program their Altair to transmit a melodic frequency.
Chuck, if you want a really professional sounding name, name your technology company by your first name, not your last.
As an example, turn to my father. Nothing sounds more professional than M&R Enterprises. It stands for my parent’s first names: Marty & Rona. See? It rolls off the tongue.
The market has told me it makes you look small-ish if you name your company with your last name. So, name it after your first.
I think I’ll name my next company Matt Enterprises Inc. I think it sounds very professional. Nothing can really stop me then.
Pong in a briefcase. It probably could be big. One day.
Are you sure that if I ever need anything from the Living Computer Museum I should ask? You should know, Bob, that could lead to a lot of trouble.
I remember speaking with you and watching you drool over the prospects of some Control Data machine. I felt like I should get you a napkin. You’re legit to me, Barnett.
I was thinking of setting up a little trip to Seattle with Dave Freeman, Paul Terrell, and my dad (no one is getting any younger). Of course we’d come see you. Maybe you can persuade Paul Allen to give us some free passes.
You’re not an original homebrewer, but you’re still an original to me. And so I’m including you here, Mitch.
We met at the Maker Fair soldering tent. You wouldn’t remember me from then. I volunteered to help – connecting up a blinky circuit with your creative board and teaching others.
But the way you went about teaching kids stunned me.
You think you tricked me into a campaign to Invent. Now we sit next to each other on Wikipedia. See, I tricked you Mitch. I’m the original prankster.
Follow your heart, Mitch. But I know you already do that.
John, you have been entrusted with the legacy of some of these people during your tenure at the CHM. When we first met you were kind and generous to me. You personally took my friend and I around the museum showing us the exhibits. I remember turning the corner and seeing a replica of the first transistor and how I excited I was, “there’s the beginning of the modern world!” I said. I think you were surprised to hear that.
You have my full support as the leader of the Computer History Museum. If I can ever be of assistance, please reach out.
Kitting the Mark-8? The Hal Singer User Group? The world’s first affordable modem? The Sup’R’ Mod? You were a titan of the PC industry before there even was an industry.
Is there salt in this coffee? How could that be? You’re the one that paid for the bar-mitzvah. Don’t you remember?
Mom and you gave me so much grief about the date of the reunion. It wasn’t my fault. That couldn’t be changed.
But now you’re famous-ish because you weren’t even there. Glad that worked out for you. It really wasn’t that easy.
See, we don’t have problems, just temporary situations. Things will turn around. All the world really needs to do is believe. Just be one of the first ones.
I’d create new markets for you – just for you – dad.
You’ve been there for me when I’ve needed you most. No one else really has. I’m dedicating that reunion, and all the work I put into it, to you.
P.S. Doesn’t Lee owe you a thank you card by now?
A Few More I’d Like to Recognize
I had a brief encounter with Harry Garland. I think he was asking about my father. And I think I spoke with Bob Marsh for a small bit. I would have liked to have met Roger Melen and Bob Lash. And I think there may have been a small contingent of Homebrewers that was connected to Lash whom I didn’t have a chance to connect with except via email. (As a side note, when I visit Terry Winograd at Stanford there’s a Cromemco display I think on the first floor of the CS building. Roger and Harry pop in my head when I visit.)
I’d also like to thank Wendell Sander for coming out and bringing his Apple I replicas. And I would have liked to have been able to track down Dennis Allison, Jim Warren, and Li-Chen Wang. I had difficulties finding them.
I also must thank Bill Allard and his crew for coming through at the last minute to record the video for the event.
I’m sure I’ve missed some others. Please forgive me if I have.
So long. Farewell. It’s time to say goodbye.
I worked pretty hard on that reunion and it was extra special for it to be at Len’s and Gordon Bell’s place. It was my opportunity to show you how much I care about so many of you and our heritage. Maybe we’ll make history at the museum again someday.
There’s a famous quote from Steve Jobs about his kids. He said, “our children are our hearts running around outside our bodies.” I don’t think it necessarily has to be your children for your heart to be outside your body, but I do think whatever it may be it needs to be born from love. My heart was on display that night. I hope you felt that.
That evening was for all of you to enjoy and relish. For the ones I’m close to, I think you know how much I love you. I always will. And that door will forever be open to each one of you (even Crunch).
No one is richer than me in Silicon Valley.
Producer of the 2013 Homebrew Computer Club Reunion, entrepreneur, and sometimes steward of this little community
This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Marlene Mallicoat Nelson and Jef Raskin.