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New York Times writer recalls his 30 years of covering technology

John Markoff

In the 1970s, a group of computer hobbyists, who called themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, gathered regularly in the Silicon Valley. Their meetings resembled a show-and-tell of the latest advances in technology, and they freely shared information and software.

During one of the meetings, 70 copies of Microsoft’s newest software, Altair BASIC, were distributed to its members.

As with all software and technology at the club, “the deal was if you got a copy, you shared it,” said The New York Times journalist John Markoff on Wednesday, March 19 at 7:00 p.m.

“This irritated the young Bill Gates,” Markoff said.

Gates wrote “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” which was published in the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter in February 1976. The letter contained the first accusations of computer piracy and initiated the first collision between priority and open source technology.

“That tension still exists today, and the spark that started it was the hacker culture,” he said.

Markoff has been writing about technology companies and the hacker culture since 1977, just after the founding of Apple Computer and two years after Paul Allen and Bill Gates began writing software.

“I may be the longest surviving daily reporter in Silicon Valley,” he told the audience of almost 100 students gathered in Neville Hall to hear his lecture, titled “From Woodstock to the World Wide Web: The evolution of the personal computer.”

Markoff recounted tales of the colorful cast of characters who contributed to the creation of the personal computer. He argued that their ideals of information exchange, free access to technology and even their involvement in drugs and antiwar politics have left traces on today’s computer.

Most the stories he told were taken from his recently published book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005).

Many components of the personal computer originated from two laboratories at Stanford University, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and the Augmentation Research Center or the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center.

Although they were in close proximity to each other, their philosophies were miles apart. SAIL was run by John McCarthy, an active communist, who sought to create a computer that would function without a human operator.

The founder of the Augmentation Research Center, Doug Engelbart, wanted to enhance the human mind. Computers, he believed, were one way to improve the human; the drug LSD was another.

“On one side of campus, Doug was trying to augment the human mind. On the other side, there was McCarthy trying to replace the human mind.” Although their goals were different, “both were significantly influenced by the counterculture,” says Markoff.

Engelbart’s passion to enhance the mind began when he, as a young sailor stationed in the Philippians, he discovered an article published in the July 1945 edition of Atlantic Monthly. The article, “As we may think” by Vannevar Bush described a machine that contained all available information.

“Doug decided that he would build that machine,” says Markoff. “Out of that idea came everything we know about computers today.”

Engelbart’s laboratory at the Stanford Research Institute gave birth to the mouse (then a large wooden block with three buttons), the cursor, hypertext links, word processors and windows.

The first internet message was sent from his laboratory. The message, which was an attempt to remotely access a computer, read “login.”

“It crashed on the ‘g’,” says Markoff.

Across campus, McCarthy not only designed the programming, which was widely used by artificial intelligence researchers, he coined the term “artificial intelligence.” He also created time-shared operating systems that enabled interactive computing, says Markoff.

McCarthy’s team of researchers created the first computer game, Spacewar!, which was later named Galaxy Game. Students at Stanford University could play the game for 10 cents, making it the first coin-operated video game.

“It was the first hint that these machines were going to provide future entertainment,” says Markoff. “It was my personal introduction to computers,” he adds.

During a time when computers were viewed as calculators, “McCarthy believed one day everyone would have a central mainframe computer in their house,” says Markoff.

Another person instrumental in the creation of the personal computer was Fred Moore. Like McCarthy and Englebart, Moore was embroiled in the 1960s counterculture. The draft resister and single parent viewed the computer as an efficient way of organizing his contact information for fellow political activists. In 1975, Moore began the Homebrew Computer Club, where hundreds of computer fanatics gathered.

Although Moore believed that club members should not use their knowledge for profit, over 20 companies, including Apple, were spun out of the Homebrew Computer Club.

“Moore lit the spark that led to the P.C.,” Markoff said. “It was a radically different world than that of the dot com era.”

Markoff’s lecture was sponsored by The New York Times Readership Program, a program that provides Lehigh students with free copies of The New York Times, U.S.A. Today and The Morning Call. Other sponsors include Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, the engineering honors society Tau Beta Pi, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Student Auxiliary Services department.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Friday, March 21, 2008

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