The Homebrew Computer Club: Birthplace of the PC Revolution

Imagine a world where computers are solely the domain of large corporations and government agencies. Where managers bring in inefficient terminals for employees, but no average consumer can afford their own machine. That was the reality until a humble Menlo Park computer club changed everything.

The Homebrew Computer Club spearheaded the microcomputing movement starting in 1975. Their community of engineers, students, hackers and entrepreneurs collaborated in garages and swap meets to put the power of computing into the hands of the masses. Homebrew members like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates pioneered breakthrough technologies still impacting us today. Read on an insider history into this pivotal crucible of innovation.

How It All Began

In 1975, computers filled entire rooms yet lacked many capabilities we now take for granted. But that year two Bay Area visionaries met to discuss a device set to change everything — the MITS Altair 8800. One of the world‘s first personal computers made for hobbyists.

Gordon French had acquired an early Altair model in January 1975. Excited by its potential, he contacted Fred Moore proposing they gather local enthusiasts to form a club exploring this breakthrough technology. On March 5th, 1975, around 30 computing fans crowded into French‘s Menlo Park garage for the first "Homebrew Computer Club" meeting.

Among the pioneering attendees that night were 21-year old engineer Steve Wozniak and his friend Steve Jobs. The two Steves were destined to found Apple just a year later, partially inspired by ideas first sparked at Homebrew‘s openings sessions.

As word spread, the club quickly outgrew French‘s garage as more enthusiasts joined. They soon relocated to auditoriums in Stanford University‘s Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to accommodate over 100 participants by the second year. Here an informal, intensely collaborative ethos formed that propelled waves of innovations about to transform the world forever.

YearLocationAvg. Attendance
1975Menlo Park residential garages30-32 members
1976SLAC Auditorium130 members
1977SLAC Auditorium187 members
1978Stanford Medical Center Auditorium250 members

Hackers, Hobbyists and Pioneering Members

The Homebrew Computer Club attracted members spanning aspiring engineers, high school hackers and entrepreneurial visionaries. Many pioneered breakthrough technologies still changing the world today. Let‘s explore some prominent attendees:

Steve Wozniak first demonstrated the Apple I prototype computer he built along with Steve Jobs for fellow Homebrew hobbyists in 1976. Wozniak directly credited the Altair 8800 and collaborative club meetings for inspiring and enabling his efficient computer design on a shoestring budget.

"I came up with a design for a computer that I could build to show off at Homebrew Computer Club…I was so excited. It was the first time in my life I felt I could put something together that other people would care about.”

Steve Jobs frequently attended meetings with Wozniak up until founding Apple in 1976 the day after showing off the Apple I. Jobs soaked in all the latest ideas and innovations bubbling up within the computer hobbyist world in Homebrew‘s open sessions.

Bill Gates, still a relatively unknown 19-year old Harvard dropout, wowed members by demoing his BASIC programming language for the MITS Altair at a 1975 gathering. Club attendees awarded the prodigy a presentation slot at the next meeting to showcase this efficient software to more members. Gates went on to found Microsoft shortly after, with early traction buoyed by the enthusiast community Homebrew cultivated.

Adam Osborne previewed prototypes of his Osborne 1 portable PC to Homebrew before unveiling it commercially in 1981 as of one of the first successful "luggable" computers. Members provided substantial design feedback that majorly shaped the final groundbreaking release.

Bob Marsh, founder of early CPU startup Processor Technology, regularly presented new hardware innovations and schematics to the club and contributed pieces to the Homebrew newsletter during its peak from 1975-1977. His insights proving pivotal in boosting early hobbyist adoption of personal computing devices.

Lee Felsenstein built the pioneering SOL-20 — one of the world‘s first terminals tailored specifically to hobbyist developers — based on suggestions and feedback from Homebrew meetings. The SOL-20 became a must-have device within the programmer community as easy terminal access accelerated software innovations.

And this just scratches the surface of regular attendees like Ed Hall and George Morrow who brought essential hardware and software breakthroughs out from Homebrew‘s fertile community of leading computing pioneers. The club served as an unparalleled idea exchange propelling member innovations onward at breakneck speeds.

Homebrew‘s Culture & Ethos

Homebrew embodied its name through the DIY, intensely collaborative culture its meetings forged. Members openly shared ideas shaping major PC breakthroughs — from operating systems to CPUs to programming languages — collaboratively powering the nascent personal computing industry up from fragile infancy.

Monthly sessions followed a member-driven format focused on empowering all attendees throughout the night:

  • 6PM: Member presentations of current projects, products, and technologies they were working on
  • 7PM: Broader open discussions, feedback exchanges with creators, and member Q&A
  • 8PM: Conclude formal gathering as co-founders and hosts thank participants and officially adjourn
  • 8PM-Midnight: Attendees mingle freely trading components and schematics; hackers collaborate in loose ad-hoc clusters brainstorming new concepts flowing from earlier sessions

This combination of structured presentations and informal collaboration enabled the rapid open idea and technology sharing crucial for the era‘s skyrocketing pace of digital innovation. Homebrew‘s open culture birthed both iconic hardware devices like the Apple I along with essential programming languages like Gates‘ Microsoft BASIC that fueled software explosions building on exponentially increasing computational power.

Steve Wozniak directly credited the creative open environment for enabling many of Apple‘s quick successes mastering bleeding edge technologies in those early days trying to keep pace with the club‘s collective knowledge.

“I don’t think the club influenced Apple’s technology itself that much, but it did influence Apple’s successes considerably…because so many new ideas got passed around that let us build faster,” Wozniak later recalled.

The freewheeling Homebrew ethos even sparked the creation of the Altair 8800 that originally kicked the club off. Altair creator Ed Roberts decided to launch the pioneering personal computer device after chatting with fellow computer club pioneer Les Solomon.

Roberts ran his idea for a barebones computer construction kit priced under $400 by Solomon, looking for initial feedback. But Solomon responded far more enthusiastically than expected, convincing Roberts to move forward on what became the Altair 8800 — the spark setting both Homebrew and the entire microcomputer revolution alight.

This open, informal, intensely collaborative culture enabling members to rapidly build atop each other‘s work formed the heart of Homebrew Computer Club. It also came to epitomize the broader rise of Silicon Valley as the globe‘s unmatched epicenter of technology innovation ever since.

Homebrew Newsletter Spreads Nationwide

To spread news of Homebrew‘s breakthroughs with fellow computing enthusiasts nationwide, club member Fred Moore launched a monthly publication called the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter starting March 1975.

The crudely typed but information-rich newsletters rapidly found eager audiences as some of the only easy-to-access computing content for hobbyists nationwide. Readership took off exponentially by word-of-mouth, hungering for the latest happenings from Silicon Valley‘s epicenter of microcomputing advances. Total circulation reached into the mid five-digits at its peak based on printed volume, with pass-along readership estimated to be double or more in magazine publishing models.

DateNewsletter CirculationEst. ReadershipTopic Highlights
March 1975750 print copies~1,500 readersAltair 8800 kit instructions; Meeting 1 minutes
June 19751,800 copies~3,600 readersReview of early Apple I prototype; Member project updates
January 197611,000+ copies~22,000+ readersSoftware IP debates (see below); Homebrew spin-off company launches

Each newsletter included everything from:

  • Condensed meeting minutes conveying key insights and member quotes from recent sessions
  • Complete schematics/code enabling readers to recreate early member computer kit designs at home
  • Previews and teardowns of the latest emerging technologies – e.g. capacities of newest floppy disk options
  • Debate around software freedom vs proprietary IP concerns as the industry took off commercially (explored next section)
  • Ongoing updates tracking the bleeding edge progress emerging from both Homebrew and wider Silicon Valley

Homebrew co-founder Fred Moore also welcomed remote readers to mail in questions or ideas to share as honorary members. Select thoughtful contributions occasionally received invites to attend meetings in person on visits to the Valley.

This exponentially widening audience connected the core Homebrew pioneers with fellow computer enthusiasts around the country and beyond. Reader demand for each next issue further inspired members‘ rapid pace of innovations as they saw firsthand the national craze and anticipation building around the microcomputing revolution they sparked.

Controversies Around Ownership & Business Models

Success led to growing pains around ownership and business models however, as clubs‘ breakthroughs moved from hobbyist phase towards commercial viability needed for long term industry growth. Debates in Homebrew‘s newsletter foreshadowed IP tensions that still continue around computing technologies today.

In February 1976, 19-year old Bill Gates penned his now-legendary "Open Letter to Hobbyists" directly responding to frustrations around early software piracy. He paid to circulate his letter to all Homebrew subscribers after seeing rampant illegal duplication of Microsoft‘s Altair BASIC interpreter decreasing sales.

Gates contended software deserved similar ownership protections granted to hardware, questioning hobbyists‘ emerging "information wants to be free" ethos:

"As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if people who worked on it get paid?"

Many club members shared Gates‘ frustrations as former passions projects moved into viable businesses. But other vocal early open computing advocates like Richard Stallman emerged arguing software should have no ownership restrictions limiting modification or sharing as today‘s open source models allow.

These philosophical differences on computing‘s ownership formed the earliest salvos in ongoing tensions between proprietary models funding further innovations versus unfettered collaboration and extension of existing breakthroughs. The PC industry still navigates this spectrum between fully open development and commercial software sales enabling companies like Microsoft to rise up productizing computing advancements.

But accommodating this widening range of ideals added growing tensions as Homebrew evolved over its 11 years from loose hobbyists to influential industry leaders. Debates heated up within its newsletter pages and consequential spin-off decisions of prominent members. The cooperative innocence of early meetings faded as attendees recognized the seismic commercial potential their innovations now commanded.

Homebrew‘s Legacy: Hardware, Software & Silicon Valley

Homebrew‘s greatest legacy remains kickstarting the PC industry‘s meteoric rise enabling computers from IBM to Apple to Microsoft rule both business and personal realms today.

Many prominent early members departed to launch iconic companies monetizing the community-driven ideas first developed within the club. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak left to found Apple in 1976 just a year after their first meetings. Bill Gates soon incorporated Microsoft as well leveraging the enthusiast base Homebrew built up. Others like Bob Marsh, Adam Osborne and Lee Felsenstein converted hobbyist technologies into stabilizing PC businesses like Cromemco, Processor Technology and Osborne Computer.

Homebrew itself lingered on for years as a smaller hobbyist user group before ending regular meetings in December 1986. But by this point the seed had already grown far beyond the lone garage it started in over a decade earlier. The PC industry now thrived independently as a pillar of technological and economic progress driving global productivity growth rates over the coming decades.

The ideas first germinated and exchanged through Homebrew club circuits and newsletters spawned vast new business ecosystems that came to define the information age itself. Silicon Valley in particular built off Homebrew‘s open, collaborative DNA in evolving its capital, talents and capabilities uniquely suited to scaling breakthrough computing technologies globally from the desktop PC era through today‘s mobile and cloud revolutions.

TheSteves may have launched Apple and Bill Gates founded Microsoft. But the collective Homebrew community served as founding godparents to them all. Their short-lived club of pioneers, hobbyists and brilliant emerging hackers set the Computer Revolution in motion that still propels technology – and the wider world – into the future today.


We owe so much of computing‘s progress over the past 40+ years back to contributions from average hobbyists gathered in Silicon Valley garages. The Homebrew Computer Club forged an open, intensely collaborative community that nurtured creation of the Apple I, Altair 8800 and so much more PC technology we now take for granted in our daily lives.

Their greatest contribution went beyond any single hardware innovation or software breakthrough seeded from open idea exchanges. Homebrew‘s DNA providing an open communal forum for trailblazing engineers and entrepreneurs became embedded within the broader rise of Silicon Valley itself. The liberating ethos empowering Jobs, Wozniak, Gates and so many others to rapidly build off each other‘s work reshaped organizational models for nurturing breakthrough innovations thereafter.

Ultimately we can thank meetings at a humble Menlo Park computer club for many of the exponential gains in computing power and accessibility improving life for so much of humanity in the 21st century. And with pioneers today pushing fields from AI to quantum computing into the mainstream, perhaps hobbyist communities and idea hubs like Homebrew launching the PC revolution can serve as a model for empowering the next generation of innovators as well.

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