Calling All Computists: The Us Festival in ‘Silicon Gulch Gazette’, 1982

Exhibit / May 7, 2019

 

Object Name: Silicon Gulch Gazette, No. 30
Maker and Year: (West Coast) Computer Faire, July 1982
Object Type: Newsletter
Image Source: Bitsavers
Description: (Michael Grasso)

In April 1977, computer enthusiasts gathered in San Francisco for the inaugural West Coast Computer Faire. (The quirky spelling of the word “Faire” evokes another nerdy subculture born in California: the Renaissance Faire.) Two personal computers that would go on to dominate the first half of the red-hot PC market in the 1980s had their debut that year: the Commodore PET and the Apple II. This inaugural Faire was the beginning of the personal computer’s transition from a hobbyist’s pursuit (Faire co-founder Robert Reiling was the editor of the newsletter of the Homebrew Computer Club, a favorite hangout of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) to a big money retail business. In the aftermath of the first Faire, the showrunners not only put out a huge compilation of all the papers and presentations given, but also began publishing a regular newsletter, the Silicon Gulch Gazette, that would keep up with all the news in the rapidly expanding personal computer field.

In this sample issue from 1982, a reader can see the kinds of concerns driving the contemporary personal computer industry—a mere five years after that first big convention packed with hobbyists. One is struck by the many stories and advertisements that hint at the early ’80s shift in the corporate world, from big mainframe computers (often rented or time-shared) to the versatility and portability offered by the easy-to-install-and-operate (and much cheaper to purchase outright) PC. While many of the articles and ads still are directed at individual hobbyists (articles about and reviews of new software and hardware abound), the concerns of the nascent computer industry are beginning to take to the foreground (in articles about how the restaurant industry will be able to use computers, as well as details on the computer industry’s lobbying of Congress and President Reagan under the auspices of the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association for “liberalization of trade”). What was once the “people’s computer” was rapidly becoming the corporate computer of choice.

This tension between the populist and corporatist philosophies is evident in the above issue of the Silicon Gulch Gazette, dedicated almost entirely to coverage of Steve Wozniak‘s and Peter Ellis‘ 1982 Us Festival, which would be held over Labor Day weekend in 1982. Wozniak envisioned a festival that would confront the legacy of the “Me Decade” of the 1970s with a grassroots gathering of computer hobbyists, music fans, and computer industry leaders, showcasing the promise of the personal computer for the “Us Decade” of the 1980s. By mid-1982, Steve Jobs was taking Apple Computer to new heights of sales and influence within the computer industry; with the launch of the Macintosh less than 18 months away, Wozniak, who’d always been the real geek of the Apple duo, wanted to do something to improve society with his newfound wealth and influence following a traumatic 1981 plane crash that led to his temporarily leaving Apple. The 1982 Us Festival, held on the outskirts of San Bernardino, California at a newly-constructed amphitheater space (which Silicon Gulch Gazette claimed would bring “jobs and park improvements” to San Bernardino) presented a plethora of pop and New Wave artists along with lectures and computer demonstrations. In the Us Festival, one can see the very beginnings of a concerted movement among idealistic Baby Boomers, which held that a technocratic consensus would solve the nation’s and world’s problems; it also marked the foundation of a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship between popular musical artists and the technocratic elites.

The Festival was a financial failure, held in an area with little natural shade, blinding dust storms, and daytime temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit; numerous attendees needed to be treated for heat-related ailments. The 1983 Us Festival (this time held more wisely over the cooler Memorial Day weekend) was also a financial failure, despite a killer lineup of bands featuring theme days for New Wave, Heavy Metal, Pop/Rock, and Country music (on its own day a week after the main show). Wozniak returned to Apple Computer after his dalliance with concert promotion. As for the Silicon Gulch Gazette and the West Coast Computer Faire, both persisted into the 1980s. Faire co-founder Jim Warren sold his interest in the Faire in 1983 and published the Gazette until 1986. Jobs and Apple also departed the Faire in 1983, having moved their sales focus to the COMDEX convention in Las Vegas, which was much more of a trade show than a hobbyist gathering. The Faire, a singular coming together of Silicon Valley’s computer geeks and hobbyists, inspired by similarly humble and insular gatherings as medieval hobbyists or sci-fi fans, the very convention that had made Apple Computer, would slowly find itself outpaced by slick corporate trade shows focused on commerce over innovation and information exchange.

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