In writing about the history of the personal computer, the author finds some threads that run through the whole yarn.
Everything is deeply intertwingled.–Ted Nelson
Paul Freiberger and I are currently writing the third edition of Fire in the Valley, our history of the personal computer—to be published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf, naturally—and I’m struck by how often the same names and ideas recur, weaving in and out of the story.
I thought I’d try pulling out some of these threads and examining them in the pages of PragPub. I extricated two threads here. If this seems to work, I may tug on another thread next month.
The last time we were revising this book Paul was working at Paul Allen’s thinktank, Interval Research. One of his colleagues there was Lee Felsenstein. Lee gave us great interviews and insights for that revision, but that was no surprise, because he’d been hugely helpful to us when we were writing the first edition, including posing for a picture with all his inventions.
One reason Lee was so helpful is that the thread of his contributions to personal computing is long and is woven through some of the richest fabric of personal computer history.
The personal computer revolution caught fire with the Popular Electronics cover story on the MITS Altair in January 1975. But lots of revolutionaries were already loading their metaphorical muskets, and the revolution already had its Tom Paine and his Common Sense. (Ted Nelson and Computer Lib, respectively.)
Increasingly, the revolutionaries were getting together in clubs to exchange knowledge about computer technology, and the most famous of these clubs was the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. The club had no official membership or dues, but it soon had an official master of ceremonies: Lee Felsenstein.
Lee proved to be quite adept at the job. “He kept order, he kept things moving, he made it fun to go to the meetings,” Homebrew member Chris Espinosa said. “There were 750 people in that room at one time, and he worked it like a rock concert.... [T]o see him work a crowd like a Baptist preacher.... He was great.”
Lee as master of ceremonies made perfect sense. Since moving to California for college he had spent his time at the intersection of social action and technology, looking for ways to connect people. He’d worked for The Berkeley Barb and another underground publication, The Tribe, where he combined counterculture goals and technical know-how. In 1972, three years before the Altair, he went to work as chief engineer for Resource One, an attempt to unify the switchboards of the Bay Area using a $120,000 XDS 940 from SRI they’d somehow got their hands on. A Resource One offshoot that Lee helped start, Community Memory, was trying to install public terminals in storefronts, where anyone who came in the door had access to a free computer network. Felsenstein was a connector and he was connected in both the tech and the social action communities: he’d been to Xerox PARC to see the innovations there before Steve Jobs got his famous peek.
The tech projects that Lee was pursuing fit right in with his activist agenda. His Pennywhistle Modem and his Tom Swift Terminal, needed to improve the user experience over the terminals used for Community Memory (putting it less delicately, the terminals broke down regularly), were both intended to empower people to connect. Appropriately, when Lee opened public discussion of the design of a better terminal, he did so on Community Memory.
That invitation to community design led to his producing what was for its time the coolest personal computer: the Processor Technology Sol. Bob Marsh manipulated Lee into designing a computer by telling him he’d pay him to design that terminal he kept talking about.
And designing the Sol set Lee up for his big gig: designing the Osborne 1.
The Osborne 1 debuted at the West Coast Computer Faire in April, 1981. IBM hadn’t thrown its PC into the market yet. Graphical user interfaces were years in the future. This was still the age of command-line computing and CP/M, and the Osborne 1 was a hit. For the first time, a computer came with all the software you needed. And it was portable—in the sense that you could carry it around with one hand and you could fit it under an airplane seat. All for $1795.
At that price, and considering that the bundled software would cost more than that if bought separately, you could overlook a lot of interesting design decisions. Squeezed by technological and budgetary limits, the screen was tiny. A pixel was bigger in those days, too, so all the screen would hold was 52 characters on a line. The off-the-shelf software bundled with the machine assumed a wider screen. Lee overcame that problem by making the screen a window on a larger virtual screen and giving users system-level ability to scroll the screen horizontally and vertically. Because it was to be portable, Lee made it tough, cushioning the picture tube. There wasn’t much precedent for any of this, so he made it up as he went along.
The company and the idea for the computer were the creation of Adam Osborne. Adam stood out in an industry of scruffy hippies with his precise diction, British accent, natty wardrobe, erect posture, and authoritative and dogmatic pronouncements. Adam would dismiss the leaders of this nacent industry with comments like, “Early personal computer companies were managed by amateurs who deluded themselves into believing that their transient success had something to do with good management or foresight.” Not that he was wrong, but he was also one of those early personal computer company managers.
It turned out that Adam’s most notorious pronouncement was “adequacy is sufficient.” It was a directive he gave to Osborne Computer Company (OCC) employees, and was ironic because months before OCC formed he was writing a column called “From the Fountainhead” in which he berated manufacturers for shoddy work. But for his computer, for his company, good enough was good enough.
And it looked for a while like he was right. OCC was the big overnight success story for the young personal computer industry, climbing more vertically than Apple or any other personal computer startup had. In a few months it was doing a million dollars in sales per month, which for the time was impressive. Within two and a half years it flamed out as spectacularly as it had blazed into prominence, but it was a bright light while it lasted.
Adam Osborne didn't come from out of nowhere. He was also a founder of the personal computer book industry. He got that started by selling his own book out of a box at the back of the Homebrew meetings. From this he was able to start a book company that was later purchased by McGraw-Hill. Osborne’s first big seller other than his own book was a book on Gary Kildall’s CP/M operating system by my friend Thom Hogan. That book helped Thom get hired as editor of InfoWorld, which is particularly meaningful to me since he then hired me. Thom later left InfoWorld to become director of software for OCC.
Osborne’s own books sold well, and his cred for writing them was substantial. When Intel was developing the microprocessors that hobbyists would use to launch the personal computer revolution, Osborne was the engineer they asked to write up the documentation for the chips. In truth, the Fountainhead in the title of his later magazine column referred to Intel and Silicon Valley, not to Adam himself, but if you knew him or read his writing, it was an easy mistake to make.
Closing the Loop
Adam also hired my friends Roger and Roy, who had worked with Thom and me at Data Domain, one of the first personal computer stores. That would be just a personal detail unworthy of mentioning, except that it lets me link back to the quote at the top of this article.
Because the founder and owner of the Data Domain, Ray Borrill, also started a company called Itty Bitty Computers. And his partner in that venture was none other than Ted Nelson.
About whom I think I may write next issue.
The photo of Lee Felsenstein is by Levi Thomas.