Electronics Hobbyists (2)

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Besides advertisements that offered necessary materials to hobbyists, electronics magazines had another important characteristic—they were full of advertisements for education and career opportunities (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Home-study courses advertised
in Electronics World, June, 1974.

These advertisements often used descriptions such as “college level course quality” and “a career in engineering.” Apparently, the advertisers were assuming their readers were different from those of the engineering journals, who probably already had more than a college degree and held prominent academic or industrial jobs.

To some extent, this reflected the difference between hackers and hobbyists. On the one hand, hobbyists and hackers were similar because both were fond of machinery. The hobbyists’ enthusiasm for electronics projects certainly qualified them as hackers. This was also the reason why Steven Levy treated hobbyists as part of the hacker tradition in his Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. On the other, the hobbyists who developed the earliest personal computers were not in the same elite status as hackers, who were largely affiliated with the research institutions at universities. Despite the control of the computer priesthood, hackers already had access to computers. Most hobbyists, however, had to build themselves computers because they did not necessarily have the formal qualifications that the computer priesthood sought.

The story of Steve Wozniak further illustrates the difference between a hobbyist and a hacker. Wozniak was well known as “Woz” for his prodigiously engineering talent in personal computers.[61] However, Wozniak did not have a college degree when he co-founded Apple Computer Co. with Steve Jobs in 1976 in Jobs' family garage.[62] At that time, Wozniak was only a junior technician at Hewlett-Packard.[63] There was no computer that Wozniak was allowed to access at his workplace, and Hewlett-Packard had denied his request for a transfer to a computer-related division. If Wozniak was serious about his hobby, he had to begin by building a computer for himself. Fortunately, Wozniak was indeed serious. Moreover, because the Altair 8800 was still too expensive for Wozniak, he designed a new personal computer, called the Apple I, based on a cheaper processor—the Mostek 6502 at $20 apiece.[64] In two years, Steve Jobs had successfully transformed this hobbyist’s project into a popular consumer product, the Apple II.

Although nobody will deny that Wozniak is one of the best personal computer hackers, the classic hacker community was suspicious about personal computers, their hobbyists and users. When Steele edited THD in 1983, he was concerned about the threat of personal computers to the hacker culture. He predicted:

hackerdom might be dying—killed off, ironically, by the spread of knowledge about computers. As programming education became more formalized, as the personal computer atomized hacker communities previously knitted together by timesharing, and as the lure of big money in industry siphoned off some of the best and brightest, it seemed as though hackerdom’s unique values might be lost.[65]

Steele’s negative evaluation of personal computers was not a singular event among classic hackers. When Raymond tried to restore the hackers’ reputation in the 1990s, he not only emphasized the difference between hackers and the users of personal computers, but also implied that crackers originated from personal computer users. As Raymond wrote in the 1993 third edition of TNHD:

From the late 1980s onward, a flourishing culture of local, MS-DOS-based bulletin boards has been developing separately from Internet hackerdom. The BBS culture has, as its seamy underside, a stratum of pirate boards in habited by crackers, phone phreaks, warez d00dz [sic]. These people (mostly teenagers running PC-clones from their bedrooms) have developed their own characteristic jargon, heavily influenced by skateboard lingo and underground-rock slang.

Though crackers often call themselves ‘hackers’, they aren’t (they typically have neither significant programming ability, nor Internet expertise, nor experience with UNIX or other true multi-user systems). Their vocabulary has little overlap with hackerdom’s.[66]

Moreover, while Steele’s prediction “didn’t survive an editor’s objections” and was not published until Raymond’s TNHD in 1991, it is noteworthy that hackers did not have an entry for “priesthood” in THD either.[67] According to TNHD, “priesthood” could be traced back to the TMRC at MIT in the 1950s. It was not a phrase limited to the TMRC or MIT hacker community because other writers such as Nelson also used this term in their descriptions.[68] Why, then, was “priesthood” not included in THD or Jargon Files until the 1990s? Steele and other editors said at the very beginning of THD: “This, we warn you, is supposed to be a fun book [sic]."[69] Hackers, and the editors of THD included, probably were so indulged in the image of hackers happily working in a computer laboratory that they half-consciously ignored the restrictions that the computer priesthood had placed upon them. In this vein, the classic hackers portrayed themselves as an elite group, which happily worked with the mighty time-sharing computers, in contrast to the technically insignificant and sometimes evil-intentioned owners of personal computers.

The fact that classic hackers did not view personal computers as a challenge to the computer priesthood but to the hacker culture shows that the tradition of electronics hobbyists, instead of hackers, was more important to the innovation of personal computers in the 1970s. Surely the hackers and hobbyists communities had some overlaps. However, most of the important personal computer innovators—Steve Woz, Steve Jobs, Ed Roberts, etc.—did not have connection to the university-based hacker community. Furthermore, hackers suspected personal computer users for damaging their reputation and culture. Therefore, electronics hobbyists should be distinguished from hackers when analyzing the origin of personal computers in the mid-1970s.

61. Al Luckow, “Short Bio for Steve Wozniak,” Personal website for Steve "The Woz" Wozniak, 4 January 2000, <http://www.woz.org/wozscape/wozbio.html> (April 28, 2003).
62. Ibid.
63. Stephen Segaller, Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (New York: TV Books, 1999), 151.
64. Levy, Hackers, 251.
65. Guy L. Steele, “Confessions of a Happy Hacker,” in The New Hacker's Dictionary, 3d ed., Eric S. Raymond (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999), xiv.
66. According to Raymond’s explanation of the cracker culture, “phreak” is an intended misspelling of “freak” and crackers referred to themselves as “warez d00dz.” Raymond, The New Hacker’s Dictionary, 24, 478.
67. Steele, The Hacker's Dictionary, xiv.
68. Nelson, Computer Lib, 2.
69. Steele, The Hacker’s Dictionary, 7.