Hardware Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 2)

Hardware Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 2)

2021, Feb 12    

Power to the People

The MIT hackers cultivated an environment in which the Hacker Ethic could thrive. Dozens of MIT students and Boston natives were introduced to the creative and imaginative creations made capable by the likes of the TX-0 and PDP-family computers in the 9th floor of the school’s AI lab. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, the environment they created was not the most welcoming. Outsiders had to prove themselves, and if you couldn’t prove yourself, you were dubbed a “loser”, a term that unfortunately could stick like glue. As some members of the AI lab began to part ways for bigger and better things, the Hacker Ethic spread across the country. Uncle John McCarthy made his way to SAIL, the Stanford AI Research Lab. Stanford and the Palo Alto area became the breeding grounds for the next iteration of hands-on hacking: hardware hacking.

Initially, the hardware hackers adopted much if not all of the ethos of the MIT hackers. The permeating effect of the Vietnam War played a huge part in the culture of the hardware hackers in Northern California. They created the perfect marriage between obsessive hacker and hippie. A man by the name of Lee Felsenstein was such a hippie, and it turns out he was most interested in getting hardware into the hands of “the people”. To Lee, the government and large academic institutions had monopolized computing for too long - it was time to share the magic with the average American. He set out to create Community Memory, a way for people to pop in off the street and access a computer terminal for some cents on the hour. Another similar company was the People’s Computer Company. However, these companies more or less fell to the wayside with the introduction of the MITS Altair machine - an “accessible” (comparatively ) computer up for the low price of under $400.

The Altair allowed hardware hacking communities to thrive. Since it was a bit of a hassle to obtain all the parts to make it work, and since many hardware hackers had lived through the “sharing-is-caring” culture of California in the ’60s and ’70s, it was almost imperative that hardware hackers shared designs, algorithms, and hardware itself. One such place for this sharing of hardware and ideas was The Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrew Club was a true “power to the people” organization. Individuals arrived with parts to trade, ideas to present to other members, and gossip about local high-profile Silicon Valley companies and people. It was a true hardware hacker’s paradise. The hacker ethic was spreading rapidly.

Hackers or Entrepeneurs? Losers or Winners?

As the personal computer industry was born through the work of many of those attending hacker groups such as the Homebrew Club, so did the prospect of a capitalistic industry providing access to these computers (for a cost, of course). For example, in the chapter dedicated to “The Woz”, we learn about Steve’s earnest adherence to the Hacker Ethic. He attended the Homebrew Club meetings regularly with the free time he had from his job at HP. He shared circuit designs with the club, his all in one “motherboard”, and swapped parts with others. Steve joined forces with his high school buddy, the “other Steve” (Jobs), to make their own commercial personal computer - the Apple. Woz began hacking in Jobs’ garage as a simple extension of his passion for hardware hacking. However, as he got more involved and as Jobs expanded the size of the company, which included bringing investors and a President on board, Woz was faced with a decision. He could quit Apple and continue his job at HP, or he could quit his job at HP and turn what was once a fun passion of his into a full-fledged job. After some pressure, he ended up going full-time to Apple. Woz knew, however, his work might never feel the same to him, saying “there’s no way I would associate Apple with doing good computer design in my head. It wasn’t the reason for starting Apple. The reason for starting Apple after the computer design is there’s something else - that’s to make money”. The Apple II computer that Woz largely designed took off. Apple was a billion dollar company within a few years. However, was Woz no longer a hacker? Were those hacking on machines for RadioShack and the like also no longer True Hackers? I personally argue no. In the end, everyone involved in the hardware hacking of the ’70s came out a winner. To me, the means do justify an end in this case. Sure, you’re charging money for a computer the size of a desk pumped out one by one on assembly lines, but the end result is the mass democratization of computing. If I were a kid in the ’70s, I would beg my parents to buy me an Apple II so I could see the color screen in person and try some Apple BASIC out myself. Had the monetization of hardware hacking never come, I don’t think I would have gotten that chance, and perhaps I wouldn’t be using a laptop made by a billion+ dollar company to write this blog post.

In the end, the goal of the original Hardware Hackers was met - Power to the People, point (1) of the Hacker Ethic. In fact, I’m not sure what parts of the Hacker Ethic have been totally broken by the advent of personal computers. Definitely point (2), but beyond that I see no issues with the commercialization of hardware. Point (2) definitely still lives in terms of software - we just need to look to open source entire world benefits from.projects and communities as examples. Hackers such as Woz started a Revolution, one that I argue the entire world benefits from.



This post is in response to Reading 2 of the Hackers in the Bazaar course offered at the University of Notre Dame.