THE GRASS-ROOTS OF HACKER CULTURE
The grass-roots of hacker culture consisted of amateur radio and electronics hobbyists, who built their own microcomputers using the very first mail-order kits. Radio amateurs have been around since 1915, and they are organized in several camps. The most puritan insist that the telegraph key and Morse code are still the best tools for international communication. Others prefer radio telephony, i.e. voice transmissions. Still others have tried amateur TV, and some fiddle around with data communication by radio. Radio amateurs are found in any city worth its name, and many have turned to data transfer through the Internet, where they explore yet another means of communication. In a sense, the radio enthusiasts became the first hackers, even before MIT.
The radio amateurs, as
opposed to the hackers, seldom attracted young people to any great extent.
In Sweden, part of the reason is that you have to be sixteen years old
and become certified to use shortwave radios. The average Swedish youth
can't afford the courses and testing required for radio certification.
Some mess around with radio anyway, and are known as radio pirates. Broadcasting
amateur radio without certification is not a big deal, as long as you
don't cause problems. You have to be careful to stick to the correct frequencies;
broadcasting on bands that are reserved for specific purposes, such as
emergency or military channels, carries a risk of being traced and fined.
To keep track of what frequencies
to use to avoid trouble, radio amateurs soon began cooperating internationally.
This became the first virtual
society , which transcended
geographic boundaries but was limited by technology.
Radio amateurs embody a great deal of the culture that would later be adopted by the hackers: a fascination with technology (machines), and a fascination with interpersonal communication. Some are constantly on the lookout for new, cool equipment (gadget freaks). Others only want to find ways to communicate with other people as efficiently as possible, and try to improve existing systems (evolutionists), and some feel that they've mastered an aspect of technology and simply stay with it (these are sometimes called conservatives). Finally, there are those that most amateurs do not want anything to do with: the people that think that broadcasting pirate radio is the most awesome thing in the world, and who use technology as a means of rebelling against society.
The early computer-oriented
electronics hobbyists initially gathered around the very first personal
computer: the Altair 8800
, which was introduced as a mail-order
kit in 1975. The computer got its name from a planet in a Star Trek episode,
and sold in such large quantities that some of the enthusiasts formed
their own user groups. They were invariably electronics hobbyists, and
often professional engineers. Virtually all of them were adults, but they
were struck by the same technical fascination with programming that kept
the university hackers awake all night and made them forget everything
but the machines. The most
active user group was the Homebrew
Computer Club in San Fransisco.
One of its members was Steve
Wozniak , a dedicated hacker
who was to build the Apple
II computer. His friend
successfully marketed it in 1977 as the first real personal computer. Homebrew
Computer Club's Swedish counterpart was called PD68
, which catered to happy engineers
and others who found microcomputers fascinating.
It is unclear what prompted Luxor and Scandia Metric to produce a computer for the regular consumer. Most likely, the chief engineers observed personal computing trends in the U.S., where the Apple II and TRS-80 had entered mass-production, and somehow persuaded the management to approve such a venture.
ABC80 became a great success among Sweden's early computer enthusiasts, who had been waiting a long time for a real computer (previous computers had been very expensive and directly imported from the U.S.). Now there was one - and to top it off, it was Swedish! In 1981, it was succeeded by the ABC800. In 1980, electronics hobbyists, engineers, and other enthusiasts formed ABC-klubben (the ABC Club) under the leadership of the legendary Gunnar Tidner . The ABC Club showed an interest in computer communications from the start, and at the end of that year it opened Monitorn (The Monitor), which probably was Sweden's first non-profit BBS. It ran thanks to a program written by Tidner himself. For the rest of the 80's, most new Swedish BBS's were named X-Monitorn (such as Örebro-Monitorn, Eskilstuna-Monitorn, etc.) as a tribute to Tidner's breakthrough. The club still has a "monitor" that's used as an internal switchboard for all kinds of things.
The ABC Club grew exponentially as personal computing in Sweden became all the rage it was in the U.S. It became a center for debating the technology of ABC computers as well as data communications in general. In 1985, through a contract with the QZ Computer Center in Stockholm, the ABC club gained access to a DEC-10 computer. On this machine, the members started a central BBS (a "real" conferencing system) with several discussion groups. The BBS, named Q-Zentralen (The Q-Zentral) ran on QZ's KOM-system, and resembled past and present networks such as U.S.A.'s Usenet and Prodigy, or England's Compunet.
Many of the pioneers of
the future electronic Sweden were found on Q-Zentral's discussion groups:
Sven Wickberg, Anders Franzén,
Henrik Schyffert, and
Initially, most European hackers were of the same kind as the American ones: old radio amateurs, engineers, or electronics enthusiasts who dreamed of using a real computer such as VAX or IBM (those lovely, gray, refrigerator-looking things) instead of simple home computers. The hacker culture from MIT in the 60's, and its extension of the radio amateurs' philosophy, were considered an ideal; a real hacker was a person who wrote programs that did something useful (or appeared to do something useful), or who had mastered electronics and could modify their computer to the amazement of their friends. The most fortunate computer clubs had been able to start their own BBS's on a used minicomputer purchased from some company. The hackers that had gotten started on ABC80, minicomputers, and electronics were generally shocked and somewhat disgusted by the culture that emerged in the mid-80's through the invasion of the C64 (this will be discussed in the chapter 5, Subculture of the Subcultures ). Many of those hackers have now obtained a PC, and consider writing shareware programs and other real "hacks" to be a noble art.
Hackers of this sort also started the alternative computer network Fidonet . In San Francisco, amateurs Tom Jennings and John Madill devised a system in which different BBS's called each other according to a specific pattern, and through skillful coordination managed to provide coverage as broad as the Internet's. The main difference was that electronic mail had longer delivery times, and there were no permanent connections; the mail was distributed through substations, just like in an old-fashioned postal system. The network also allowed for globally accessible discussion groups. In the beginning of 1985, the Swedish Fidonet was started in Karlstad by Conny Johnsson .
Because of the increased affordability of the Internet, many think that Fidonet has become obsolete. Far from everyone agrees - Fidonet is a true amateur creation, while the Internet has mainly been constructed by academicians. However, for a long time there have been bridges connecting the two networks, enabling their respective users to send mail to each other. Personal computing became a public concept, and many teenagers received their first computer in the mid-80's. Most futuristic parents who bought a computer probably hadn't expected their children to spend as much time on the computer as they did, but this was a result of a marketing glitch. Personal computers were marketed as office systems to be used for financial, word processing, and database applications, for all of which they turned out to be quite useless. Apparently, it was simpler to find a recipe in a cookbook than to boot up the computer and look through some database which took five minutes to load. The only "useful" tasks that the machines could perform efficiently were word processing and simple calculations, which was something that few people were familiar with or could appreciate.
The only adults who really used their computers were almost exclusively technicians or technology fans, who could stay up all night and fight with their ABC80 to make it do one thing or another. Many were electronics hobbyists that modified the computer to suit their own wants and needs. (I belong to the wave of youths who were completely captured by the ABC computers around 13 or 14 years of age; for many in my generation, those machines became a ticket to the electronic world).
It would be until the 90's before the personal computer really got its breakthrough as a popular appliance - but when it came, it came with a vengeance. It is only recently that IBM PC's have become common in the home. If it hadn't been for the Altair 8800, Apple II, Atari 800, and ABC80, it would never even have occurred to IBM to manufacture PC's. The previous trend had been toward building mainframes: mammoth boxes that consumed several kilowatts per hour, and generated so much heat that they needed a separate cooling system to be able to operate. The idea of one computer for each user was and remains a hacker's notion, which goes all the way back to MIT, where many late nights were spent working alone on a PDP-1.
Had these microcomputers not emerged, the industry would still be working on their 50 supercomputers that were to provide computing power for the entire world. Without the microcomputer, modern information systems such as the Client-Server model (in which a coordinated network of computers distribute tasks and information between them) would never have been invented.
Design and formatting by Daniel Arnrup/Voodoo Systems