6 Lee Felsenstein and the Convivial Computer

Monday 23 July 2007
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Lee Felsenstein, one of early developers of the personal computer, had read Ivan Illich and was influenced by his vision of convivial tools. As stated in the Wikipedia article on Felsenstein:

Lee was influenced in his philosophy by the works of Ivan Illich, particularly "Tools for Conviviality" (Harper and Row, 1973). This book advocated a "convivial" approach to design which allowed users of technologies to learn about the technology by encouraging exploration, tinkering, and modification. Lee had learned about electronics in much the same fashion, and summarized his conclusions in one of several aphorisms, to wit - "In order to survive in a public-access environment, a computer must grow a computer club around itself". Others were - "To change the rules, change the tools", and "If work is to become play, then tools must become toys". [1]

Lee Felsenstein’s familiarity with Illich’s Convivial Tools is also mentioned in "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution", a book on the history of the personal computer which was published in the mid-1980s [2].

Lee Felsenstein was thus among the first to draw attention to the relationship between Ivan Illich and the digital revolution.

A Berkeley Radical

Lee Felsenstein grew up in Philadelphia where he became an engineering student. One summer he got a job in the Los Angeles area working as an engineer for an operation that required a security clearance. He had filled out the application forms honestly, stating that he did not know any members of the Communist Party. One day the security officer called him into his office to inform him that he would not be given the necessary security clearance because his parents were members of the Communist Party. To protect the young Lee, his parents had never told him. [3]

Felsenstein entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1963, and joined the Co-operative Work-Study Program in Engineering in 1964. From October through December 1964 he participated in the Free Speech Movement and was one of 768 arrestees in the "Sproul Hall Sit-In" of December 2-3, 1964.

In the sixties Lee Felsenstein contributed time as a technician and journalist on a weekly underground newspaper called the Berkeley Barb, run by Max Scheer. The Barb made little money and the staff received no pay. When Max Scheer started selling advertisement space to massage parlors, the newspaper started making money, but Max still did not pay the staff any salary. A group of the Barb staff, including Lee Felsenstein, left and started another underground newspaper called the Berkeley Tribe. For a while Felsenstein was the manager of the Berkeley Tribe newspaper.

Felsenstein had dropped out of University of California Berkeley at the end of 1967, working as an Electrical Engineer at the Ampex Corporation from 1968 through 1971. In 1971 he re-enrolled at Berkeley, receiving a B.S. in EECS in 1972.

Resource One

In 1971 Felsenstein came into contact with a group of four computer science students who had dropped out of Berkeley and were living in a warehouse community in San Francisco called Project One. (A "warehouse project" is a group of people who form an unincorporated non-profit association and lease a warehouse.) Within Project One, these former students created Computer Group One, and were trying to deliver computing power to non-profit organisations and social-action groups. The group obtained the donation of an obsolete time-sharing computer, an XDS 940, together with money to set it up and run it. They had also obtained a time-shared BASIC. Felsenstein signed on as chief engineer.

The computer was installed in 1972. It was delivered to the non-profit organisation Resource One in two trucks, and it also required 23 tons of air conditioning. For input/output the computer had a big line printer, a console that sat on a table, and a Teletype terminal for the console. The multiple serial interface handled 8 lines, and Felsenstein built a rack of modems that could collect four modem lines. It was usable by ASCII terminals, mostly Teletypes. The hardware was old and Felsenstein had numerous problems trying to keep it running.

A friend of Felsenstein’s, a systems programmer named Efrem Lipkin, directed the project of writing an information retrieval system. That system, which took more than a year to write and debug, was called ROGIRS, the Resource One Generalized Information Retrieval System. They proposed the system for use by Bay Area switchboards (volunteer information and referral agencies), for a minimal charge of $150 a month for rental of a teletype and a modem, so that the switchboards could enter and retrieve data on the system. But even that was too expensive for the non-profit switchboards.

The reasonably powerful information retrieval system thus remained empty. Efrem Lipkin had the idea of setting up a public terminal somewhere to serve as an electronic bulletin board, just so they would have some data in their system. The first public terminal was set up in 1973 in Leopold’s Records, a record store that was run by the UC Berkeley Student Union. The terminal used a modem which cost $300 (the equivalent of about $900 today). Felsenstein started exploring the possibility of building a cheaper modem himself. His goal was to run the modem off of a cassette tape recorder, because that was a popular and inexpensive storage standard of the day, but you couldn’t do that with regular modems. He successfully developed such a modem for use with the Berkeley terminal. After further development it appeared in 1976 as a commercial hobby kit called the Pennywhistle modem. [4]

A convivial computer

In January of 1974 they moved the terminal to the Whole Earth Access store on Shattuck Avenue (which Felsenstein described in an interview as "a catalogue store for hippies and for communes"). They leased a fancy Hazeltine 1500 CRT terminal and connected it to Felsenstein’s modem. They had a service contract for the terminal, and one day when the service technician was working on it, he dropped the circuit board for the keyboard, breaking the ceramic pack on one of the chips. Somebody who was looking over the tech’s shoulder asked if the unit was broken, and he answered, "Oh no, it works." That experience started Felsenstein thinking about how to make such a system survive in a public access environment. Efrem Lipkin was in favor of armoring the equipment to keep everybody out, but Felsenstein took the opposite tack, under the influence of Ivan Illich’s book "Tools for Conviviality." Felsenstein describes this influence as follows:

Illich was a former Jesuit rising star who got off the official track and began writing books about de-schooling society, that was in 1970, and went on to establish some little center that he worked from in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He had a perspective that admitted technology and yet was very much outside the industrial model of society. He described radio as a "convivial," as opposed to an "industrial" technology, and proceeded to describe basically the way I had learned radio, but from the standpoint of its penetration into the jungles of Central America. Two years after the introduction of radio in Central America, some people knew how to fix it. These people had always been there. They hadn’t always known how to fix a radio, but the technology itself was sufficiently inviting and accessible to them that it catalyzed their inherent tendencies to learn. In other words, if you tried to mess around with it, it didn’t just burn out right away. The tube might overheat, but it would survive and give you some warning that you had done something wrong. The possible set of interactions, between the person who was trying to discover the secrets of the technology and the technology itself, was quite different from the standard industrial interactive model, which could be summed up as "If you do the wrong thing, this will break, and God help you." So radio could and did, in effect, survive in that environment because it "grew up" a cohort of people around it who knew how to maintain and sustain it. And this showed me the direction to go in. You could do the same thing with computers as far as I was concerned.

This goal was all the more challenging given the particular nature of computers. As an electrical engineer Felsenstein had extensive experience with disruptive factors like noise in circuits, and the reliability required in computers, which have to work at every clock cycle, appalled him.

Felsenstein convened a discussion group around the concept of a convivial computer. About five people showed up, including Bob Marsh and Ray Bruman. Felsenstein’s proposition, following Illich, was that a computer could only survive if it grew a computer club around itself. They decided that the central aspect of the computer would be memory. Random access memory chips were just then becoming available. They also discussed the TV Typewriter, about which Don Lancaster had recently written an article in Radio Electronics. The promise of a TV Typewriter was that you could connect a TV set to a little box, which you could build yourself with a hundred dollars worth of parts, to make a usable terminal, whereas the Hazeltine terminal cost about $1600. [5]

The Tom Swift Terminal

Radio Electronics received ten thousand orders for the two-dollar plans in Lancaster’s article, showing how to construct the TV Typewriter. However, according to Felsenstein, Lancaster’s model was in fact very difficult to construct, since it used sequential memory, shift register memory, and was tricky to build and debug because it used lots of little analog delay pulses.

Also, the TV Typewriter functioned rather poorly as a terminal, because it displayed one page at a time, and when you got to the end of one page and the last character went up on the screen, the screen blanked and you saw only the next typed character. And it had no buffering for back scroll. Felsenstein asked Don Lancaster, "Why did you do it this way if it’s supposed to be a computer terminal?" and Lancaster said, "It isn’t supposed to be a computer terminal, people just want to put up characters on their TV sets," and that was so. Felsenstein concluded that the people who tried to make the TV Typewriter simply felt an urge to gain control over technologies that they knew would affect their lives.

When he was working on constructing his own version of Lancaster’s TV Typewriter, Felsenstein called him back, and Lancaster told him that he was working on a new version that used random access memory. Felsenstein quickly realised that once you had installed random access memory in a simple computer, you could use that same memory to run this terminal. He claims that that was the genesis of the architecture of the personal computer. His idea was to begin with a memory card, add a card to put data into the memory, and a third card to get information out of the memory and put it to the screen. To connect the three cards he defined a 44-pin bus structure that used cheap Vector connectors. That three-card set constituted a terminal.

Felsenstein defined what the terminal would do when it got various control characters, and in the fall of 1974 he put together a specification that he called "The Tom Swift Terminal, or a Convivial Cybernetic Device." He mimeographed the specification and sold it for the price of making the copy. However, the common memory and the bus structure made this device potentially much more than a terminal. You could plug in additional boards, additional memory and possibly even a microprocessor.

Just as the boards plugged into the bus, he wanted to make sure you could plug the busses together to expand them. The goal was that the builder, the user, would control the rate at which the device grew upwards into an intelligent terminal and then into a computer. That would be the realization of the convivial ideal. [6]

The Homebrew Computer Club

In January of 1975, Resource One decided to shut down the 940 computer. They had gotten permission to put terminals into the Berkeley Co-op Markets, which would have meant a significant expansion, and they did not trust the 940 to support a larger system. At that time it was clear that the new generation of minicomputers was the way to go. Felsenstein’s Community Memory Project decided to split off from Resource One and to attempt to secure their own minicomputer and move the software over to that. (The Community Memory Project incorporated in 1977.)

Meanwhile, Bob Marsh, who was unemployed and casting about for something to build, convinced Felsenstein to rent a garage with him. Felsenstein set up his bench downstairs and Marsh took the little loft office. Then in January 1975 appeared the issue of Popular Electronics magazine advertising a kit for hobbyists to build the MITS Altair 8800, now considered to be first microcomputer. Marsh showed it to Felsenstein and said "Look at this picture on the front. It’s clear it’s a phony.... This thing has nothing in it, it’s an empty box." There was nothing much more to an Altair than the microprocessor interfaced to a series of connectors. Marsh wanted to start building peripherals for it, so he and his friend Gary Ingram formed Processor Technology Corporation. Felsenstein remained a consultant and never became an employee or part of the corporation, but took on contract work drawing schematics and writing assembly manuals.

Ever since Resource One days, on Wednesday nights Felsenstein had been going down to potluck dinners at the Community Computer Center, also called the People’s Computer Center, in Menlo Park, run by Bob Albrecht. Bob Albrecht cared about kids and computers, and had set up PCC as a couple of minicomputers running time-shared BASIC and used as a game parlor for kids. Meanwhile, one night Gordon French went to visit the Kaylor Electric Vehicle Shop a few doors down, and happened in on the PCC.

When the Altair was announced, Fred convinced Gordon to make his garage available, and they put out a call to the PCC visitor list. Thirty people responded, including Bob Marsh and Felsenstein. One version of the Altair had been sent to People’s Computer Company as a review copy, and they gave it to Felsenstein, who had taken it to Efrem Lipkin’s place to ask what he made of it. Lipkin considered it useless, since there was nothing to it but switches and lights. He kept it as a sculpture in his living room, on the same table with his guinea-pig cage, with its lights flashing to keep the guinea pigs company. Felsenstein retrieved it and returned it to PCC, and it turned up as the centerpiece of the first Homebrew Computer Club meeting.

Thirty people stood looking the Altair, and started telling each other what they knew about it. Steve Dompier who had made a trip to Albuquerque to try to get his Altair kit from MITS (they were swamped with orders) reported that it was a very small operation, which came as a surprise to many. The people in the room, including Steve Wozniak and Roger Melen, began to understand that as a group they probably knew as much as the MITS people. Felsenstein talked about Community Memory and the Tom Swift Terminal. Wozniak talked about the Breakout game he had made, and the video terminal he was working on. The written record was reprinted and distributed as the first newsletter.

The Homebrew Club (it was not called that yet), which met every two weeks, grew rapidly. At the third meeting there were more than a hundred people. Steve Dompier had built his Altair, and he set it up at the third meeting with a low frequency weather radio sitting on top of it. He plugged in the Altair and hand-entered the program laboriously with the switches. Somebody kicked his plug out, and he had to toggle everything in over again. When he finally he pushed the Run button, there was music. An electronic melody of "Fool on the Hill" came from the radio, which was picking up the radio frequency noise generated by the computer, the tones being modulated by programming the computer to do things at different rates. Dompier received a standing ovation. [7]

After the Homebrew Computer Club had been operating for sometime Lee Felsenstein became the facilitor for the Club, an informal master of ceremonies to direct the meetings and discussions. As many as 750 attended the meetings and they became a major locus of information exchange on computers in the Bay Area.  [8]

Processor Technology and the Sol computer

Those who opened up the Altair box and looked inside were unimpressed. Of four possible places for motherboards, only one was filled with a group of four sockets, and of the four sockets only two were occupied, one by the processor card, and one by the memory card. The memory card had sockets for eight RAM chips, but MITS only supplied two chips, so the stock Altair had 256 bytes of RAM, which was not enough to support the kind of programming that most people wanted to do. The processor card was nothing more than the 8080 processor driving the lines on the bus through buffers. They had installed separate data-in and data-out buses, which was inefficient, because you never did data transfers both ways at the same time. That indicated to Felsenstein that the designers of the Altair did not really understand what a computer bus was. As they worked with the Altair they found other serious problems that confirmed their impressions.

Also, the Altair needed everything, including I/O (input/output) and memory that worked. Bob Marsh quickly saw that he could build a memory board from the same chips which Felsenstein was using on the Tom Swift Terminal. Marsh made a satisfactory delay generator circuit, Felsenstein wrote the manuals, and Marsh’s Processor Technology Company was off and running.  [9]

Felsenstein’s shared-memory alphanumeric video display design, the Processor Technology VDM-1 video display module board, was widely copied and became the basis for the standard display architecture of personal computers. [10]

Lee Felsenstein working for Bob Marsh’s Processor Technology also designed a fully contained computer for an issue of Popular Electronics. This Intel 8080 based computer was named the "Sol," after Popular Electronics editor Les Solomon. The Sol sold for under a thousand dollars and included many more capabilities than the Altair. [11]

The Osborne computer

Lee Felsenstein also designed the Osborne 1 Computer, the first mass-produced computer that was "portable," in the sense that it could be conveniently carried from one place to another and there plugged in and used. Felsenstein was commissioned to develop this first portable computer by Adam Osborne, who founded the Osborne Computer Corporation in 1980. [12] The Osborne 1 was released in April, 1981. It weighed 23.5 pounds (10.7 kg) and cost US$1795.  [13]

The size was limited to the dimensions that could fit under a jetliner seat.

Recent years

In 1998 Lee Felsenstein founded the Free Speech Movement Archives as an online repository of historical information relating to that event.

In 2003, working with the Jhai Foundation of San Francisco he designed an open-source telecommunications and computer system for installation in remote villages in the developing world. This system was dubbed "the Pedal-Powered Internet" by the New York Times Magazine due to its reliance on pedal power generation. The design has been tested on an Indian reservation in the US and continues in development in India. In 2003 Lee was named a Laureate of the Tech Museum of Innovation (San Jose, CA) for this work.

Lee Felsenstein has also been named a "Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier" in 1994 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In 2007 was he named the "Editor’s Choice" in the Awards for Creative Excellence made by EE Times magazine. [14]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Fe...

[2] Steven Levy, "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" (1984)

[3] The story can be found on the "applet magic" website

[4] Much of this section (and those following) is condensed from a Felsenstein interview published by the Computer History Association of California and viewable on the website of Open Collector, which features a page of articles by or about Felsenstein.

[5] Condensed from the Felsenstein interview published by the Computer History Association of California.

[6] Condensed from the Felsenstein interview published by the Computer History Association of California.

[7] Condensed from the Felsenstein interview published by the Computer History Association of California.

[8] Article on the "applet magic" website

[9] Condensed from the Felsenstein interview published by the Computer History Association of California.

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Fe...

[11] Felsenstein told how he created the Sol in the article "Sol: the inside story."

[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborn...

[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_1

[14] The information in this section comes from the Wikipedia article on Lee Felsenstein