Introduction (2)

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However, it has been debatable about how many of these dreams had come true. Some, if not all, of them seemed to diminish soon. When the famous Apple II hit the market in 1977, it had already become a mandated commodity. Its advertisement warned consumers: “You’ve just run out of excuses for not owning a personal computer.”[11] Instead of creating a new home environment integrated with new ways of computing, the advertisement showed the Apple II as a perfect addition to the young, middle-class household. As the husband leisurely explored why a personal computer was a “must-have,” the wife worked in the kitchen.

Fig. 3. Apple II's First Advertisement in Byte, June 1977. It tells consumers that, "You've just run out of excuses for not owning a personal computer."

While the innovation of personal computers in the 1970s was full of fascinating events and people, historians have not yet settled in interpreting its historical origin. In Computer: A History of the Information Machine, historians Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray pointed out two aspects to consider: “computer liberation” and computer hobbyists.[12] Admitting that it “would, perhaps, be overstating the case to describe computer liberation as a movement,” Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, nonetheless, asserted “there was unquestionably a widely held desire to bring computing to ordinary people.”[13] Campbell-Kelly and Aspray analyzed the historical contexts of computer liberation and and its relationship to the origin of personal computers:

Computer liberation sprang from a general malaise in the under-thirty crowd in the post-Beatles, post-Vietnam War period of the early 1970s. There was still a strong anti-establishment culture that expressed itself through the phenomena of college dropouts and campus riots, communal living, hippie culture, and alternative lifestyles sometimes associated with drugs. Such a movement for liberation would typically want to wrest communications technologies from vested corporate interests.[14]

Further, Campbell-Kelly and Aspray claimed that “the somewhat technologically fixated vision of the computer hobbyists was leavened by . . . the advocates of ‘computer liberation.’” Among these advocators, Campbell-Kelly and Aspray named Ted Nelson, who frequently spoke at computer hobbyist gatherings, as “the most articulate spokesperson.”

If it was overstating to call computer liberation a movement, then it was equally problematic to assume that the innovators of personal computers shared “liberation” as a common goal. The 1970s was, indeed, a period that numerous young, self-taught computer hobbyists pulled together their enthusiasm and talent for computing, and they built from scratch a brand new industry for personal computers. However, Campbell-Kelly and Aspray failed to provide direct evidence to prove that these founding fathers of the personal computer industry were devoted to the idea of computer liberation. Ed Roberts, for instance, had read Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machine, but he developed the Altair 8800 in order to save his business.[15] Moreover, what exactly was the vision of computer liberation that Ted Nelson could have provided the innovators of personal computers, such as Ed Roberts?

Steven Levy claimed a different origin of personal computers in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Levy called the computer hobbyists in the 1970s “hardware hackers,” and thus implied that they were part of the “true hacker” tradition beginning at the Tech Model Railroad Club of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s.[16] He used Lee Felsenstein and Bob Albrecht, co-founders of PCC, to illustrate the connection between hackers and the momentum of developing personal computers in the 1970s. However, Levy’s assessment on this connection was also ambiguous. While crediting Felsenstein for “spread[ing] the Hacker Ethic by bringing computers to the people,” Levy also stated that this was a battle that “the MIT hackers had never considered worth fighting.”[17] What, indeed, was the role that hackers played in the innovation of personal computers? More precisely, was it proper to call the innovators of personal computers in the 1970s “hackers,” as Levy did?

As an effort to clarify the questions raised by the studies of Campbell-Kelly and Aspray and Levy, this essay will reinvestigate the mutual relationships among hackers, the visions of computer liberation provided by Ted Nelson, and computer hobbyists. It is also an attempt toward answering what sociologist Manuel Castells has called the unwritten “social history of the values and personal views of some of the innovators of the 1970s Silicon Valley revolution in computer technologies.”[18] In contrast to Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine’s Fire in the Valley: the Making of the Personal Computer, which focused on the novelty of the technological revolution, its key players and major events, this study emphasized the cultural impacts of hackers and computer hobbyists to the origin of personal computers in the 1970s.[19]

In most cases, this essay will refer to the “minicomputer,” “microcomputer,” “personal computer” and “home computer” that appeared in the 1970s as “personal computer.” There have been attempts to make technical definitions for the minicomputer (in comparison to the big, time-sharing, mainframe computer) by its speed or memory capacity. However, no consensus has been reached for such definition. On the other hand, regarding the social impact of computers, this study focuses on the affordability of a computer to the individual. In the technical aspect, this study stresses the contrast between sharing the time and resources when using a mainframe computer and personally owning a whole yet much less powerful computer. Therefore, the term “personal computer” will be used in this essay unless following the usage in primary sources. The choice of the term “personal computer” also reflects the individualism in the hacker culture and computer liberation, which will be presented in the rest of this essay.

11. "Introducing Apple II." Byte, June 1997, 43.
12. Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, “The Shaping of the Personal Computer,” in Computer: A History of the Information Machine (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 237-40.
13. Ibid., 238.
14. Ibid.
15. Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, Second ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 2000), 442.
16. Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 20, 153.
17. Ibid., 158.
18. “There is still to be written a fascinating social history of the values and personal views of some of the innovators of the 1970s Silicon Valley revolution in computer technologies. But a few indications seem to point to the fact that they were intentionally trying to undo the centralizing technologies of the corporate world, both out of conviction and as their market niche.” See Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, vol. I, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Massachusetts: Balckwell Publishers, 1999), n. 5, 6.
19. Freiberger and Swaine updated the 1984 edition Fire in the Valley into the 2000 edition with three more chapters, including one entitled as “Fire and Ashes” and Epilogue “After the Revolution.” While Freiberger and Michael Swaine did not change the focuses of Fire in the Valley through these two editions, their updates signaled the end and failure of the computer revolution.