Think back to 1974, if you're old enough. Vietnam was still a raw
wound. Richard Nixon had ended the Watergate crisis by resigning
from office. Inflation was rampant, oil was running out and the
Japanese would soon seem to be taking over everything. Surely the
years ahead would be a humbling time of irreversible national
In the middle of all this, an Albuquerque, N.M., entrepreneur
named Ed Roberts had a scheme to produce a personal computer kit
that would sell for under $500. The task was considered impossible -
there really were no personal computers, after all - and Roberts was
broke, but Popular Electronics, a big deal in those days, had
promised him the cover if only he could deliver.
Somehow, Roberts and his band created a prototype, but the
shipping company supposedly lost it en route to New York, so all
parties held their noses and a mock-up was slapped together for the
photo shoot. Then the magazine made like Gabriel: "Project
Breakthrough!" trumpeted the January 1975 cover of PE.
"World's First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models ...
Beneath that innocuous-looking machine, the earth shook. Small
computers in those days were the size of a stove, but this one was
the size of - well, what people now think of as a computer. And it
sold for $397, an unheard-of price.
It wasn't perfect, of course. There was no display and no real
storage. Input was via a series of switches (a program might require
thousands of error-free toggles), and output was in the form of
flashing lights, something like the computers on old TV shows.
(Altair was where the Enterprise (ETP)
was headed one night on Star Trek.) The machine didn't even
Nonetheless, the kit was an overnight sensation. Unfortunately,
Altair's makers were selling a product they couldn't immediately
deliver or support. When the marketplace rejected the Altair's
uniformly defective memory boards, Roberts forced them on his
customers by bundling boards with the machine's crucial Basic
software - created, incidentally, by a couple of brash young fellows
Gates and Paul
Allen. They had naturally pitched the software to Roberts before
it even existed.
Reading Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine's Fire in the
Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, it's hard not to
conclude that maybe the computer business hasn't changed as much as
we think it has, the original Altair's 256 bytes of memory
First published in 1984 and out of print for years, Fire in
the Valley has now been updated and reissued, complete with what
surely must be bar mitzvah pictures of Gates, Steve
Jobs and others looking younger, skinnier and hairier than any
human could possibly be. Although the book takes a stab at
comprehensiveness, these gawky youngsters are really the focus of
the story, and the authors tell their tale with surprising human as
well as technological insight. Of course, Freiberger and Swaine are
blessed with a remarkable tale to tell; if you don't already think
so, you'll probably be bored at times by the comings and goings of
so many nerds so badly in need of shampoo. But even nongeeks need to
understand what happened here, because it subverts the funereal
narrative of recent American history that both liberals and
conservatives seem so readily to embrace.
Fire in the Valley proves that old-fashioned American
ingenuity wasn't dead; it had just moved out West. Nor were the
1960s and '70s merely a time of self-indulgence and license, as some
conservatives have contended. Aside from such gains as civil rights,
the era's hallmark openness and sense of play - the preference for
tie-dye over gray flannel, so to speak - has paid big dividends. The
computer revolution "had its genetic coding in the '60s," observes
Jim Warren, an industry pioneer and self-described "chair-being" of
an early industry computer fair - "antiestablishment, antiwar,
profreedom, antidiscipline attitudes."
At the same time, the industry that these crazies founded is a
powerful rebuff to the strange cult of pessimism and nostalgia that
characterizes recent liberal economic cant. It turns out that growth
isn't over, and there are even signs that our huge investment in
computer technology is showing tangible results now that the
machines finally work and people have some idea what to do with
More mundanely, Fire in the Valley offers comfort to the
parents of smart but difficult boys everywhere. (I myself have
stopped shopping for an exorcist for one of my sons; we'll give him
an old laptop instead.) It gives comfort but also pause, because
nowadays such boys are often medicated, the rough spots of childhood
and adolescence smoothed out by Ritalin until the kids get old
enough for Prozac.
Back in the 1970s, though, it was still possible to be young,
male and different without being slapped with a prescription.
Consider Steve Wozniak, the early technical genius behind
A whiz all through his Silicon Valley childhood, in high school he
planted an electronic metronome in a friend's locker, taped to some
unlabeled battery cylinders and wired with a switch that accelerated
the ticking when the locker door was opened. Upon discovering the
device, the authors report, "the principal bravely snatched the
metronome from the locker and ran out of the building with it."
A book like this really is kind of a boys' story; its heroes,
virtually all men, inspired Robert X. Cringely in his book
Accidental Empires to attribute the computer industry to mass
sublimation by a collection of nerds who couldn't get laid. With its
star-studded cast of unwashed, unwed brainiacs, Fire in the
Valley offers unwitting support for that thesis. Of his own
nerdity, for example, Bill Gates says: "I tried to be normal, the
best I could."
The personal computer revolution was driven by these brilliant
and individualistic misfits, and their legacy - who could have
foreseen it? - is a revitalized U.S. economy in which no one talks
enviously anymore of Japanese firms that have 100-year plans and put
their employees in what look like Jiffy Lube uniforms.
Fire in the Valley offers many nerd pleasures, not the
least of which is a stroll down memory lane, back to a sunny time of
youth and innocence and endlessly whirring floppy drives. All the
highlights are covered. You'll read about the earliest BBS, the rise
of the Phoenix BIOS, the creation of computer magazines, and the
unhappy life and death of poor Gary Kildall, creator of CP/M.
Remember Adam Osborne? Peachtree Software? Wordstar? It's all here,
enough to give any aging computer freak a lump in his throat.
Here too is the incomparable Doug Englebart, who in 1968 took the
stage at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco to give
what the authors say was by all accounts "one of the most impressive
technology demonstrations since the atomic bomb test at Alamogordo."
He showed off hyperlinked text, remote video conferencing (including
live document sharing), cursor control via mouse (he made the first
one of wood) and the mixing of text, graphics and video.
"Englebart is justly credited with the invention of the computer
mouse, hypermedia, multiple-window screens, groupware, online
publishing and electronic mail," the authors write. Another
high-tech visionary, Alan Kay, wasn't kidding when he said, "I don't
know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug's ideas."
One of the strengths of this fine book is that it isn't
tendentious about its subject matter. If Fire in the Valley has any
thesis, it's that, like Englebart, the very earliest players weren't
much motivated by money. Some were simply visionaries. Others just
loved computers. Others still couldn't fit in anywhere else.
The plutocrats are here too, of course, but most of them come
later and get relatively short shrift. So do the chip engineers, who
are mentioned only at the beginning. Like indulgent gods, Freiberger
and Swaine seem to love all of Silicon Valley's children, but their
hearts are clearly with the hobbyists and hackers, gifted weirdos
and insanely curious oddballs, the ones they show us most clearly.
The classic examples may be Alan Cooper and Keith Parsons
who created a bookkeeping program and actually sold a copy for $995.
The, uh, corporate culture at their impressively named Structured
Systems Group differed somewhat from the average business
"The atmosphere was giddy," the authors write. "Parsons paced the
office shirtless, while Cooper, hair down to midback, guzzled coffee
that would dissolve steel. The two of them, wired on caffeine and
the excitement of the $995 check, wrangled about potential markets
and dealer terms. Parsons' girlfriend made phone sales while
sunbathing nude in the backyard."
Cooper, by the way, had a ready explanation for why he started a
software company: "My unemployment had run out."
Daniel Akstis a
writer teaching this semester at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of