It’s tempting for many of us to date the origins of the “personal computer era” to IBM’s 1981 introduction of the PC. Of course, the concept of the personal computer is much older, dating to at least the early 70s. But what is lesser known to many computer enthusiasts is just how that concept came about, and even more compellingly, just what a product of its times the concept of “personal computing” really was.
In What the Dormouse Said, John Markoff, a veteran New York Times technology reporter, examines how the counterculture that emerged in the late 1950s and flowered in the 1960s profoundly influenced the nascent computer industry that would define Silicon Valley. Set primarily on and around the Stanford University campus, Markoff’s book paints a masterly portrait of the forces that converged on the mid-Peninsula towns of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Mountain View and inspired a succession of research groups to drive toward a computing paradigm that would push the glass-walled, white-coated mainframe crowd into the background and bring computing power to the people. And just what were those forces? Well, in no particular order, they included: bohemianism, radicalism, silicon integration, LSD, great computer-science programs, the Grateful Dead, the Whole Earth Catalog, and EST, among others. The mid-Peninsula was at the center of a cauldron of social unrest that, mixed with a bevy of great engineering minds, ultimately resulted in what venture capitalist John Doerr later termed “the largest legal accumulation of money in history.”
Markoff has demonstrated over the years a knack of writing about very technical subjects in a way that makes them extremely enjoyable to read; in this book, he concentrates less on the technology and more on the people. It’s impossible to understand the influence of the culture and the times on the development of the technology otherwise, and Markoff brings it all off to stunning effect.
A great deal of the book focuses on Doug Engelbart, a man who, sadly, is largely forgotten today but whose pioneering work at the Stanford Research Institute’s (SRI) Augmentation Lab in the 1960s had an inestimable impact on the shape of the computer industry of the 1980s and beyond. If Engelbart is associated with anything today, it’s the invention of the mouse. That, in and of itself, would have been a worthy accomplishment But Doug Engelbart had much bigger ideas than the mouse, and he delivered on many of them.
Six years before Gordon Moore formulated his Law in 1965, Doug Engelbart understood that the scalability of silicon circuitry would eventually lead to immensely powerful computing environments. Drawing his inspiration from a July, 1945 Atlantic Monthly article by the physicist Vannevar Bush, Engelbart had dreams of a device that could extend the power of the human mind. Engelbart’s concepts eventually coalesced into what he termed “augmentation,” meaning a system that would not replace or replicate human intelligence, but rather enhance and embellish it. By the early 1960s, Engelbart found himself at SRI working on what would come to be called the NLS, or oNLine System. Many of the concepts embodied in NLS would later be reworked and extended at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in pioneering PCs like the Alto.
Doug Engelbart’s crowning moment was the first public demonstration of NLS at the annual Fall Joint Computer Conference on December 9, 1968 at San Francisco’s Brooks Hall Auditorium. In that demonstration, Engelbart gave what has been termed “the mother of all demos” by Andries van Dam, a Brown University computer scientist. Those who were present saw what looked at the time like science fiction: a system that could edit text on a display screen, make hypertext links from one electronic document to another, and mix not only text and graphics but also video and graphics. At the same time, Engelbart sketched a vision of a experimental computer network that would be called ARPAnet. Engelbart’s demonstration is still viewable online at: http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html.
As Markoff tells the story of Engelbart’s work, as well as that of John McCarthy at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, he also describes the concurrent growth of grassroots computing movements borne of the counterculture, such as the People’s Computer Company, a storefront operation in Menlo Park that offered inexpensive access to time-shared computers to anyone and everyone who walked in. Much of the book examines the efforts of radicalized individuals and organizations who sought to wrest computing resources from “The Man,” i.e., corporations, academic institutions, and government, and deliver them to the man in the street. It was this ethos, a direct outgrowth of the Peace-and-Love movement, that led men like Alan Kay to push PARC toward personal computing.
The book concludes with a 1975 episode that foreshadowed today’s ongoing digital-rights management struggles. Someone—to this day, no one knows exactly who, although theories abound—purloined a copy of Altair BASIC, a language for programming the early kit computer, which was subsequently duplicated and distributed to members of the upstart Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrewers saw hardware as having inherent value, but didn’t ascribe the same quality to software, which they tended to freely copy and pass amongst themselves with little or no regard to the concept of intellectual property. The “owner” of Altair BASIC, though, disagreed vehemently. Bill Gates, then “general partner” of what was then called “Micro-Soft,” fired a broadside in the form of a letter that was published in the club’s newsletter. Thus, Markoff asserts, the seeds were sown for not only a bitter conflict that threatens to boil over today, but for what eventually became the open-source software movement that spawned Linux.
Even though some of the material in What the Dormouse Said is fairly familiar, much of it is not, and even the material that is familiar has rarely been framed in the context of the social ferment of the 1960s. So tie back your ponytail, put on a copy of “Surrealistic Pillow,” put on a tie-dyed T-shirt and enjoy.
If you’re interested in Silicon Valley history, you might also like these books: