Breaking 'bytes' and 'bits' together

Sharon Noguchi
Palo Alto Times

April 28, 1976

Every other Wednesday evening, about 300 people gather in the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center auditorium in Menlo Park to "share a byte with a friend."

The fare consists of bits, circuits, memory boards, paper tapes, hexidecimal loaders and other computer components. It is a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, a collection of computer hobbyists gathered to exchange information on the machines they invent, assemble, modify, program, run and play with at home.

A byte is a unit of memory capacity having eight data bits.

Homebrew, begun in March last year, may be the oldest computer club in the U.S., its founders said. Its members range from high school students to accountants to physicians to physicists.

Riqhard Delp of Sunnyvale, a computer engineer, is assembIing an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer to experiment with algorithms.

Gary Fariss, also of Sunnyvale, has a true "homebrew" model he put together from scratch. Fariss, a system programmer for Control Data Corp., is also an amateur radio buff and has programnied the computer to decode Morse code.

Homebrew meetings begin with a "mapping period" where people advertise problems or advice. Announcements sound like, "Has anybody put together a Pennywhistle 103?" Or, "I don't have any hardware but I would like to cooperate with someone and write some share (programs)."

"I have three extra Star Trek tapes that will produce a galactic map," is a typical offer.

Then, during the "random access" period those calling for help try to match up with those with more expertise. Spare tapes, manuals and program listings are  placed on a table at the front of the room for those needing them.

"It's great," Robert Baer of Palo Alto said. "There are a lot of guys from computer companies. They'll spend hours and help you with your problems."

"Since this is a technical hobby, all people can't be programmer and technician for themselves," according to Gordon French, Homebrew librarian, in whose Menlo Park garage the club began.

At the first meeting 22 people showed up; by the second meeting people were out in the driveway and members began searching for a larger meeting hall.

Such cooperation is viewed dimly by part of the computer industry. Herb Grosch of Computerworld magazine said in a recent editorial, "What disturbs me most is (this) counterculture attitude: private property is an obsolete idea."

Is that the idea behind Homebrew?

In the "great software debate," hobbyists are sometimes accused of stealing programs.

Software refers to programmed instructions that allow the computer to run. It includes paper tapes, pin-out charts (a map of the computer's contents), computer languages and compilers. Hardware refers to the computer parts themselves.

Many hobbyists think computer manufacturers should provide software at reproduction cost, according to Robert Reiling, editor of Homebrew's newsletter. Several companies do. Other companies charge from $75 to $500 for it.

"You've got to realize the investment of the average hobbyist is going to run from $1,000 to $1,500. It's absolutely absurd to ask $500 for a manual and programs to operate the computer. It's like selling a stereo system and then asking $500 apiece for records," said French.

William Gates, a software writer, said in an open letter to hobbyists, "Is this fair? ... No one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software."

Yet French stressed the U.S. copyright laws allow people to copy materials for their own use. Homebrew members may check out materials from the club library to duplicate. The club itself does not duplicate materials.

Homebrew publishes a monthly newsletter of new developments, library listings, reports on mailorder and other companies and clubs.

Editor's Note

The electronics revolution is taking the computer out of the business office and into the consumer marketplace. Before long there may be a computer in every car, every home and most coat pockets.

Times reporter Sharon Noguchi reports in today's Business Focus on clubs and shops that have arisen to serve the Midpeninsula computer hobbyist.

Copyright 1976