Origins of the Maker Culture

When I was in high school I subscribed to Popular Electronics magazine. Popular Electronics was a spin off from Popular Mechanics. Both magazines were created to feed the voracious appetites of do-it-yourself hobbyists. Popular Mechanics focused on cars and woodworking and home repair. Popular Electronics focused on radio and tv and high fidelity audio equipment. Both magazine featured several construction projects in each issue.

By the time I graduated from high school, the microprocessor had been invented and the embryonic personal computing movement had started. Early computer hobbyists had to build their own computers. There were a few kits and some so called development systems intended to help designers learn how to program the novel single chip CPUs. There were local clubs in places like Silicon Valley and Boston where computer hobbyists showed off their creations to each other and helped each other master this fascinating new hobby.

In Peterborough, NH, Wayne Greene, a ham radio operator and magazine impresario, started a magazine called Byte: The Small Systems Journal. It covered both hardware topics and programming topics and featured both construction articles and programming articles in every issue. More importantly it had ads from all the various suppliers of parts and kits and assembled computers and accessories.

An entire generation of computer hobbyists learned how to build and program personal computers reading Byte magazine and the other magazines, like Kilobaud, Compute!, Dr Dobb’s Journal, and many others. Some focused on the hardware. Others concentrated on printing programs that could be typed in directly to your personal computer. None was as pivotal in the education of computer hobbyists as Byte.

I later got a B.S. degree in Computer Science but I learned about computers from my instructors at the Army Pershing Missile school and Byte magazine.

When I see the new generation of hobbyists programming Raspberry Pis and Arduinos and reading the new crop of educational magazines that have popped up to support them, I have hope that we will have innovative computer hobbyists in the future.

One thing that todays computer hobbyists have that we didn’t is the internet. We had to send off for spec sheets and buy books to learn about our hobby. While that is still a productive approach, most people today make their first stop Google when they need to read up on some detail for a project they are doing.

Computer hobbyists now call themselves Makers or DIYers or even hacker, although the former turn has come to have bad connotations in some circles.

I write articles like these because I think that these new hobbyists deserve the opportunity to find out about the history of their hobby. I’m not sure what kind of computers they’ll be using but I’m sure that there will be computer hobbyists for centuries to come.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.