Mar. 5, 2011

On a Cold Day in Late March, Near Easter

by Elizabeth Twiddy

I took the car through turns, down long roads,
along wood fences, and saw horses, just two,
far off, in a field. One turned its head toward me—
the other stood motionless so long
I began to wonder whether it was real or a fake
put there to keep the other company,
until finally it bowed its head
earthward. Farther on, I saw a flock of small birds
pulsing together as points over the brown grass,
like tiny buoys responding to air currents,
rising and dipping, the air moving
the smallest feathers on their bellies.

"On a Cold Day in Late March, Near Easter" by Elizabeth Twiddy, from Love-Noise. © Standing Stone Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy at (buy at now)

It was on this day in 1975 that the Homebrew Computer Club first met. It turned out to be an enormously influential hobby club: its existence made possible the personal computer.

Not so long ago, computers were not for personal use. For one thing, they were gigantic in size — a computer easily took up an entire room. And they were very expensive, costing about a million dollars each. So computers were owned by big corporations, or by government agencies like NASA — not by individuals. Not even computer engineers or programmers who made a living working on computers had access to their own personal computers. They just did not exist.

But many of these tech-minded people wanted to build personal computers for fun, to use at home. And they decided to start a hobbyist club to trade circuit boards and information and share enthusiasm. The first of its kind, the Homebrew Computer Club first met 36 years ago today — in somebody's home garage in the Silicon Valley, of course.

Among the early members: high school friends Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who would later co-found Apple Computers, as well as Lee Felsenstein and Adam Osborne, who would later create the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1. Other legendary figures in the computer world, including Bob Marsh, George Morrow, Jerry Lawson, and John Draper, were Homebrew members.

The Homebrew Computer Club began meeting many years before personal computers were a profitable venture, and the group's mission statement was "Give to help others." Every meeting began with a "mapping" period (in computer jargon, an exchange of data) where each person would stand up and talk about some new interesting thing that they had heard, and the group would discuss each person's contribution.

Then there was the "random access" period (in computer jargon, being able to access arbitrary elements of a sequence at once). During this part of the meeting, people got up and wandered around and talked and traded integrated circuits and other devices and information. There was a third part to the meeting too, when everyone traipsed over to the Oasis Beer Garden around the corner in Menlo Park.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designed the Apple I and II to bring down to the Homebrew Computer Club and show it off. They were hoping they might sell it to other members there at the Homebrew Club, and then they got their big break. A local store placed a $50,000 order with them. They were making the computers in their garage, and they didn't even have enough capital to complete the order, so they had to convince someone to lend them money for the month.

When they started marketing the product, an ad agency kept telling them that Apple was not a good name, that they needed to choose a name that "suggested technology, number crunching, calculations, data bases." But, as Wozniak wrote in a 1984 memoir article called "Homebrew and How the Apple Came to Be," "We took the attitude that Apple is a good name. Our computer would be friendly — everything an apple represents, healthy, personal, in the home. We had to hold our ground on that one."

The Homebrew Computer Club last met in December 1986. Since then, computer clubs — amateur and professional — have sprung up in large numbers all over the world. One of the best known is the German community of hackers Chaos Computer Club (CCC), which has about 4,000 members and is regularly making news for the German media.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Leslie Marmon Silko, (books by this author) born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and is best known for her novels Ceremony (1977) and Almanac of the Dead (1992). Her books are about the increasing disappearance of Native American cultures.

It's the birthday of a playwright and folklorist who was also W.B. Yeats's early patron, long-term and most loyal friend, a woman G.B. Shaw called "the greatest Irishwoman." Lady Gregory (books by this author) was born Isabella Augusta Persse on this day in 1852 (some sources say March 15) in Roxborough, County Tipperary, Ireland. She helped lead the Irish Literary Revival in the early 20th century and she cofounded, along with Yeats, the Abbey Theatre.

It's the birthday of Gerardus Mercator, born in Rupelmonde, Flanders (now Belgium) in 1512. He developed the world mapping technique that we still use today and call the "Mercator projection." He developed a method to accurately project the globe onto a flat surface so that longitude and latitude lines would always be at right angles to each other.

When he first published his world map in 1569, it revolutionized navigation. For the first time, sailors could plot a route between any two destinations in the world using a straight line, and then follow that route without having to adjust their compasses.

To project the globe onto a flat surface, Mercator straightened the vertical lines of longitude into parallel lines, and he added space between the horizontal lines of latitude. This distorted the distance at the North and South poles, which is why Greenland and Antarctica appear so large on flat world maps. The Mercator projection soon became the authoritative world map. Mercator was also the first person to use the word "atlas" to refer to a book of maps.

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