Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Book Notes

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Steven Levey; 25th Anniversary edition; Published 2010 (1st edition was 1984)



The book covers some of the influential people and computers during the early computer revolution – from the mainframes of the 1950s to the first home computers of the 1970s and 1980s.  The book takes a particular perspective of “hacker” being a more noble title. It not only includes the typical computer hardware and software engineers but also some of the visionaries, artists and their pure curiosity that expanded the computer popularity into the world. These “hackers” created and followed what became “hacker ethics” – which continued with the culture and revolution many decades later. Though this book was first published in the 1980s – I would say the “hacker ethics” philosophy still exists today and still drives many of the innovative technologies around computers.


Hacker Ethics

The term “hack” seems to have originated from the students and researchers at MIT and the Tech Model Railroad Club during the 1950s. It referred to any work done on computers to make it accomplish some goal (though it may have also been used when working on an electrical system – as those used in railroad systems). Originally it had nothing to do with computer security, exploiting vulnerabilities or anything of that nature. The first “hackers” were highly driven by curiosity – always looking to see what more can be done on a computer. With this shared passion, it isn’t surprising that these early hackers wanted the freedom to explore the computer and be bounded only by how far they could make it do what they wanted. As such, the “hacker ethic” focuses on this sense of freedom. It emphasizes openness, sharing and unrestricted access to information, data and the computers. Hackers would freely share their code and ideas with one another so they could refine and improve each other. In these early days there was no focus on monetary or proprietary benefits as it simply did not exist.

Core of hacker ethics: Sharing, Openness, Unrestricted Access, Free to use


MIT Tech Model Railroad Club

A student group created in the 1950s that focuses on the complex control systems used in railroads at that time. The initial members were electrical engineering students but as computers become more available on campus, some of the students explored how the computers could be applied to the railroad systems (as well as telephone systems). These systems were composed of switches, relays, wires, etc. and therefore were ideal applications for the first computers. Many students from this club would move on into the MIT artificial intelligence division and continue working with the earliest computers.


MIT Tech Square

Is a group of buildings near building NE43 and was a key location in the early computer evolution. Many hackers stemmed from here. Though not technically part of the MIT campus, the buildings were actually used by multiple tenants. The MIT computer research laboratory resided on the 6th and 9th floors of NE43, but the building also had tenants from companies like IBM and Polaroid, as well as government agencies such as the CIA. Many government projects operated here including ARPANET, which was the predecessor to the Internet.

Today the building is no longer occupied by MIT.


Homebrew Computer Club

Some of the early hackers living in the San Francisco Bay Area, notably Gorden french, Fred More, John Draper, Lee Felsenstein and Roger Melen, created a hobby club to meet and share about anything related to computers. In particular, they had an interest in creating parts or whole computers on their own. The club started in 1975 and great exponentially each year. Many of its members were from major companies such as Intel and HP, and some would later become iconic players of the computer industry creating their own companies, such as Steve Wozniak. The popularity of the club reached beyond the Silicon Valley area through its newsletters and active participation with computer companies and news organizations. Later the club would be recognized as the main igniter of the personal computer revolution.


Computer Gaming

From the earliest of microcomputers and even mainframe computers, gaming has played a pivotal part of the computer evolution. Hackers often created games as a way to test a new computer’s capabilities and explore it’s limits. Games would be used in academia as part of research and to demonstrate the computing power. In 1962, on one of the first interactive computer games was created on the PDP-1 at MIT by Steve Russell called Spacewars!. This game is now preserved in the Library of Congress as one of the most significant games of all times.

One of the early hackers, Ken Williams, created a company which lead a whole new industry in computer gaming through the 1970s and 1980s. With his wife Roberta Williams, the two created Sierra Online. The company had a very different culture than other computer companies of that time. Ken was very discriminate in hiring only the best of programmers by seeing what they’ve created rather than academic background or credentials. He would hire young drop outs and put them on short term contracts to see what game they can code. The work culture was one of high intensity. Work could go on for days, through the nights and weekends, with little or no sleep. But once the work was done, the employees would have days of elaborate and overly expensive parties. Whether work or play, everything was done on an extreme. Much of this culture continues in the startups of today.



Bill Gates (Microsoft)

Worked with Paul Allen to create the Altair BASIC interpreter while the were still in college at Harvard. They met with Altair creator and founder of MITS, Ed Roberts, and Gates negotiated a contract to design the interpreter at a cost. MITS would distribute the interpreter and provide royalties back to Gates and Allen through their newly formed company “Micro-soft”. The interpreter ended up getting copied by the early hackers, which upset Gates as he accused them of theft. Some say that it was due to the hackers freely copying the interpreter that made it so popular. The popularity was so great that later, Micro-soft was able to sell it to Texas Instruments to be sold with their computers.

Bill Gosper

Student at MIT and one of the first hackers to create the ‘hacker ethic’ while working on the computers at the University’s AI Lab with John McCarthy. Later became a large contributor to the LISP community.

Ed Roberts (MITS)

Founder of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) which created the very popular computer kit, Altair 8800. Roberts named the computer Altair based on an episode of Star Trek. MITS was based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico – an unusual location for a computer company at that time. Roberts worked with Bill Gates and Paul Allen to sell the BASIC Altair interpreter, which became very popular among the hackers.

Jack Dennis

Worked with John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky at MIT and headed parts of the computer lab. Was one of the first hackers at MIT to form the ‘hacker ethic’.

John Draper (Capt. Crunch)

Famous for hacking the phone system so that he could make free long distance calls or be able to call almost anyone in the world, including once calling the Vatican and almost speaking with the Pope. In that incident eventually someone at the Vatican got suspicious and wouldn’t connect the call. He was also one of the first members of the Homebrew Computer club. At one point he was working with Wozniak at Apple to help create their first modems.

John Harris

Expert programmer on the Atari 800 and worked for Ken Williams at Sierra Online to create some of their most famous games. Such games as Jawbreaker and Frogger. He was able to hack new tricks in making stunning graphics at that time. Graphics that was considerably better than even those games created by Atari.

John McCarthy

One of the first hackers and founder of the AI Lab at Stanford (SAIL). Worked at MIT as a fellow.  Also developed the LISP programming language.

Ken and Roberta Williams

Founders of Sierra Online, one of the first computer gaming companies based out of Oakhearst, California. Ken was the programmer and Roberta was the creator of the game story and images. Their first games were for the Apple II but later created games for the Atari 800 as well. The two paved ways for many of the other issues that would arise out of the computer gaming industry. For example, they faced legal issues against Atari for creating games similar to Pacman. Due to their efforts, federal regulations would be created in the field of computer software and how it is treated like other copyrighted material.

Lee Fesenstein

One of the first members of the Homebrew Computer club and at times acted as the club leader/moderator. Creator of the SOL computer using the Intel 8080 chip. Was from UC Berkeley and one of the first hackers on the Altair 8800.

Marvin Minsky

Worked with John McCarthy and Jack Dennis at MIT and headed parts of the computer lab, in particular the AI Lab. Was one of the first hackers at MIT to form the ‘hacker ethic’.

Peter Samson

One of the first hackers at MIT and member of the Tech Model Railroad club. Worked with Steve Russell on the first computer game on the PDP-1 ‘Spacewars!’.

Richard Greenblatt

One of the first hackers at MIT working with Bill Gosper at the MIT AI Lab. Member of the Tech Model Railroad club, was one of the first to influence the ‘hacker ethic’ and making computers easily accessible and all information shared.

Richard Stallman

Considered by the author to be the last of the first generation hackers. He hacked the MIT computer lab so that no computers needed passwords for access (though later policies change to require it). He is best known for creating the open source operating system GNU as well as the open source licensing GNU Public License.

Steve “Slug” Russell

Was creator of the first interactive computer game on the PDP-1 called “Spacewar!”. Was also member of the Tech Model Railroad club at MIT.

Steve Dompier

One of first members of the Homebrew Computer club. Dompier was the first to actually get an Altair 8800 working (it played music) and introduced it to the club. Dompier’s Altair was the second completely assembled Altair ever.

Steve Wozniak

One of the first members of the Homebrew Computer club. Wozniak worked at HP when he first saw the Altair 8800 at the club. He took time off of work to create the first Apple computer. At one point he actually tried to sell the computer to HP to see if they would be interested in mass producing it. HP declined. Later Wozniak quite HP to work on the Apple full time with Steve Jobs. This decision did not come easy as Jobs had to pursude several of Wozniak’s friends and family members to get him to quit HP and join him at Apple.


Early Computers


Transistorized Experimental computer Zero – or called tixo – was one of the first computers used at the MIT labs (Lincoln Laboratory). It was introduced in 1955 and was the predecessor to the PDP-1.

TX-0 (wikipedia)



Programmed Data Processor-1 was a ‘minicomputer’ sold by DEC and used at many early computer laboratories such as those at MIT, Harvard, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It was first introduced in 1959 and continued production until 1965. It cost over $100,000 which in today’s value is nearly $1 million. It was the computer used at MIT to create the very first computer game “Spacewar!” developed by Steve Russell. It was also the computer used by Peter Deutsch to create the very first word processor “Expensive Typewriter” named as such as you were using a $100,000 machine to do what a typewriter did.

PDP-1 (wikipedia)



One of DEC’s early mainframe computers release in 1966 and produced through the 1970s. It was used in both industry and academia. It was the the computer used by Bill Gates and Paul Allen when they were at Harvard University to create the BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800.


Altair 8800

The Altair 8800 was the first microcomputer sold to general population for personal use, released in 1974. It was actually a ‘build-it-yourself’ kit as the computer did not come assembled. The company selling it, MITS, only included the hardware pieces along with instructions on how to assemble the computer. The assembly required soldering and an understanding of circuit boards, so only the advance hobbyists were able to correctly assemble the computer.

MITS founders, Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims, got the idea of ‘build-it-yourself’ from model rockets, which sold in the same fashion at that time. MITS did have a support hotline and as the computer gained popularity (which it did very quickly) the hotline became flooded with calls on help with the assembly. Ed Roberts later commented that it would have been cheaper if the company sold the Altair pre-assembled.

The name “Altair” was stemmed from an episode of Star Trek at that time.


Altair BASIC

Altair BASIC was the first interpreter for the BASIC programming language on the MITS Altair 8800. It was written in 1975 by Bill Gates and Paul Allen soon after the release of the Altair 8800. The Altair 8800 was very popular among computer hobbyists/hackers. The BASIC interpreter was not free, which was unusual at that time as early hackers believed in being able to freely share software as defined in the hacker ethic. Gates disagreed and accused their sharing as theft, stating that the software was his craftsmanship and like any other product one works to create it was his right to charge for it. Soon after the Altair BASIC both Gates and Allen would drop out of school to create Microsoft.

Original print out of the Atlair BASIC


Apple I

During the mid 1970s a group of hackers formed the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, California – what is now today part of Silicon Valley. A member of that club was Steve Wozniak and he was inspired by the efforts done by the other club members, such as making the Altair 8800 do different tasks and extending it’s interface. Wozniak wanted to use a keyboard for the user interface, which had not been done before on early computers. He integrated this along with a terminal to send output to a television set or an array of lights on a circuit board. These interfaces were revolutionary at the time. Wozniak’s friend, Steve Jobs, worked on making the Apple I a consumable product and negotiated sales to local computer stores. The Apple I was released in 1976.

Apple I


Apple II

Wozniak was already working on the Apple II computer while the Apple I was still being produced. He wanted to keep the computer small and inexpensive, while also expanding on the user interfaces to include a graphical monitor, sound and later even an external modem. He took several innovative approaches in making this happen, hacking circuitry and the software controlling it. Steve Jobs was again focused on making the computer a consumable product and lead the way in creating the plastic covering and expanding the use case from hobbyists to more of general users. The term ‘personal computer’ had not been coined yet but with the Apple II release it was the first time a microcomputer was referred to as a ‘consumer appliance’.

Apple II with Disk II drives


Commodore PET/64

One of the most popular personal computers of all time. It was a direct competitor to the Apple II and Atari 800. It eventually had over 10,000 software titles created for it, making it popular in almost any area from business to video gaming.


Atari 400/800

In the early 1980s there were three main competitors in the personal home computer industry – Apple II, Commodore and Atari. Of these, the Atari was particular good at sound and graphics, making it very popular for gaming.

Atari 400