Social Media Technology

I went into my explorations seeking answers to the question “what kind of technology would make it possible and easy for people to restructure societal institutions and relationships so as to minimize the influence of large, hierarchical institutions and allow maximum diversity and creativity?”

Having experienced the real revolution that was the Free Speech Movement, I had seen the difference in the environment – it was the beginning of what came to be called the counterculture. I knew that we had opened new information channels among students (and some non-students) and wanted to understand how to make this situation the norm rather than the exception.

Ever the engineer, my approach was to discover what tools I could create that would bring forth the desired result. I explored journalism and publishing, telephone referral services, and “instant directories”. I moved into a “warehouse community”, an attempt to create a community within a building, and saw what worked and what didn’t.

I was directed towards a group who had reached many of the same conclusions I had and had set out to secure a computer adequate to the task. This was Resource One, Inc. and as a group (including Efrem Lipkin, a systems programmer I had met and introduced to the project) we developed and put into service the first “social media” system open to the public.

The amount of work involved in setting up and running a mainframe computer was daunting – the more so when my designated trainer disappeared at the moment of need. Much later I realized that the correct answer to the question “what did the Resource One experience teach you?” should be “that it was a bad idea to rely on a mainframe computer to do what an up-to-date minicomputer could have done simply because it was available”.

The cost of CRT display terminals and their maintenance also presented a problem for a group that ran on a minimal budget with intentions to place public terminals widely around the region, and I began to explore in the embryonic computer underground centered around People’s Computer Company, an underground-style publication that addressed those who wanted to combine kids and computers.

Out of this milieu I developed the idea of a computer terminal that invited experimentation and customization, thereby “grow(ing) a computer club around itself” – a human structure that would keep it safe and working. This I called the “Tom Swift Terminal” and true to form, I refined it into an engineering specification, which I self-published and sold for 50 cents in 1974.

The design, based upon Ivan Illich’s concept of “convivial” technology, placed memory at the center and did not rely on microprocessors – they were far too expensive in those early days (nobody in those circles thought in terms of mass production, and the single-unit cost of Intel’s new 8080 microprocessor was $350). The Tom Swift could be expanded up from a terminal to a full minicomputer in theory – a mini that contained its own terminal.

In January of 1975 the “Altair 8800” was announced as a build-it-yourself “minicomputer” available for less than $300. This electrified nearly everyone who was involved in electronics as a hobby, and orders poured in to the surprised company offering the kits. While they scrambled to meet demand with a minimal product others realized the incompleteness of the Altair and set up garage industries to meet the demand for expansion technology so that purchasers could put together a usable system.

I was right there in one of those garages and had the specs all drawn up. In April of 1975 I was offered the opportunity to “build the Tom Swift Terminal”, albeit the way my client (and garage co-renter) wanted it, and I mucked in to the task.

The VDM-1 that resulted transformed the Altair “minicomputer” – a box requiring a terminal to be used by a human – into what became known as a “personal computer” with a display orders of magnitude faster than any terminal and at a very reasonable price. The fast update speed of the VDM-1 made computer games possible, spawning that industry, and the elimination of the cost of a terminal did wonders for boosting the new personal computer industry.

Building a computer around the VDM-1 design produced the Sol-20 computer, which for some years was the most reliable personal computer in the field. When the order book was opened at the PC-76 show in a dingy Atlantic City hotel Apple was showing its Apple-1, without the high-speed display they later incorporated into the Apple-II. By 1979, of course, the Apple-II dominated the field and the amateur management of The Sol’s makers caused it to languish without upgrade and the company closed its doors.

In June 1977 I became West Coast Editor of ROM Magazine – an attempt to publish “the New Yorker of personal computer magazines”, an effort at least 15 years ahead of its time. I contributed a number of articles as well as helping wherever I could to raise advertising revenues, and tried to bring some of the experience from my youth, learning electronics from do-it-yourself articles, to this forum. One example is an article on building an “absolute-time clock” from a chip built for use in desktop electronic clocks. I am happy that I managed to incorporate the same drawing style that had captured my imagination when in 1956 I saw a Popular Science article showing how to wore up a one-transistor radio.

By 1980 I had been tapped as the engineering talent in creating the Osborne-1 portable computer, and offered a sizable piece of the new company in exchange for the design and, of course, my total commitment. That, of course, is another story.

National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History