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The History of Computing

199 EpisodesProduced by Charles EdgeWebsite

Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to th… read more

11:38

St Jude, Felsenstein, and Community Memory

Lee Felsenstein went to the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. He worked at the tape manufacturer Ampex, where Oracle was born out of before going back to Berkeley to finish his degree. He was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club, and as with so many inspired by the Altair S-100 bus, designed the Sol-20, arguably the first microcomputer that came with a built-in keyboard that could be hooked up to a television in 1976. The Apple II was introduced the following year.

Adam Osborne was another of the Homebrew Computer Club regulars who wrote An Introduction to Microcomputers and sold his publishing company to McGraw-Hill in 1979. Flush with cash, he enlisted Felsenstein to help create another computer, which became the Osborne 1. The first commercial portable computer, although given that it weighed almost 25 pounds, is more appropriate to call a luggable computer. Before Felsensten built computers, though, he worked with a few others on a community computing project they called Community Memory. 

Judith Milhon was an activist in the 1960s Civil Rights movement who helped organize marches and rallies and went to jail for civil disobedience. She moved to Ohio, where she met Efrem Lipkin, and as with many in what we might think of as the counterculture now, they moved to San Francisco in 1968. St Jude, as she became called learned to program in 1967 and ended up at the Berkeley Computer Company after the work on the Berkeley timesharing projects was commercialized. There, she met Pam Hardt at Project One. 

Project One was a technological community built around an alternative high school founded by Ralph Scott. They brought together a number of non-profits to train people in various skills and as one might expect in the San Francisco area counterculture they had a mix of artists, craftspeople, filmmakers, and people with deep roots in technology. So much so that it became a bit of a technological commune. They had a warehouse and did day care, engineering, film processing, documentaries, and many participated in anti-Vietnam war protests.

They had all this space and Hardt called around to find the computer. She got an SDS-940 mainframe donated by TransAmerica in 1971. Xerox had gotten out of the computing business and TransAmerica’s needs were better suited for other computers at the time. They had this idea to create a bulletin board system for the community and created a project at Project One they called Resource One. Plenty thought computers were evil at the time, given their rapid advancements during the Cold War era, and yet many also thought there was incredible promise to democratize everything. 

Peter Deutsch then donated time and an operating system he’d written a few years before. She then published a request for help in the People’s Computer Computer magazine and got a lot of people who just made their own things. An early precursor to maybe micro-services, where various people tinkered with data and programs. They were able to do so because of the people who could turn that SDS into a timesharing system. 

St Jude’s partner Lipkin took on the software part of the project. Chris Macie wrote a program that digitized information on social services offered in the area that was maintained by Mary Janowitz, Sherry Reson, and Mya Shone. That was eventually taken over by the United Way until the 1990s. 

Felsenstein helped with the hardware. They used teletype terminals to connect a video terminal and keyboard built into a wooden cabinet so real humans could access the system. The project then evolved into what was referred to as Community Memory.

Community Memory
Community Memory became the first public computerized bulletin board system established in 1973 in Berkeley, California. The first Community Memory terminal was located at Leopard’s Record in Berkeley. This was the first opportunity for people who were not studying the scientific subject to be able to use computers. It became very popular but soon was shut down by the founders because they face hurdles to replicate the equipment and languages being used. They were unable to expand the project. 

This allowed them to expand the timesharing system into the community and became a free online community-based resource used to share knowledge, organize, and grow. The initial stage of Community Memory from 1973 to 1975, was an experiment to see how people would react to using computers to share information. 

Operating from 1973 to 1992, it went from minicomputers to microcomputers as those became more prevelant. Before Resource One and Community Memory, computers weren’t necessarily used for people. They were used for business, scientific research, and military purposes. After Community Memory,  Felsenstein and others in the area and around the world helped make computers personal. Commun tty Memory was one aspect of that process but there were others that unfolded in the UK, France, Germany and even the Soviet Union - although those were typically impacted by embargoes and a lack of the central government’s buy-in for computing in general. 

After the initial work was done, many of the core instigators went in their own directions. For example, Felsenstein went on to create the SOL and pursue his other projects in personal computing. Many had families or moved out of the area after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The economy still wasn’t great, but the technical skills made them more employable. 

Some of the developers and a new era of contributors regrouped and created a new non-profit in 1977. They started from scratch and developed their own software, database, and communication packages. It was very noisy so they encased it in a card box. It had a transparent plastic top so they could see what was being printed out. This program ran from 1984 to 1989.  After more research, a new terminal was released in 1989 in Berkeley. By then it had evolved into a pre-web social network. 

The modified keyboard had brief instructions mounted on it, which showed the steps to send a message, how to attach keywords to messages, and how to search those keywords to find messages from others. 

Ultimately, the design underwent three generations, ending in a network of text-based browsers running on basic IBM PCs accessing a Unix server. It was never connected to the Internet, and closed in 1992. By then, it was large, unpowered, and uneconomical to run in an era where servers and graphical interfaces were available. A booming economy also ironically meant a shortage of funding. The job market exploded for programmers in the decade that led up to the dot com bubble and with inconsistent marketing and outreach, Community Memory shut down in 1992.

Many of the people involved with Resource One and Community memory went on to have careers in computing. St Jude helped found the cypherpunks and created Mondo 2000 magazine, a magazine dedicated to that space where computers meet culture. She also worked with Efrem Lipkin on CoDesign, and he was a CTO for many of the dot coms in the late 1990s. Chris Neustrup became a programmer for Agilent. The whole operation had been funded by various grants and donations and while there haven’t been any studies on the economic impact due to how hard it is to attribute inspiration rather than direct influence, the payoff was nonetheless considerable.

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