The First Hackers Convention

stopthiefWhen hacking first became a thing, people didn’t even know how to properly define it.  It was a very niche pursuit, known only to a handful of people.  Since computers were not as widespread, and the internet hadn’t really come of age, hacking wasn’t something that you could really make too much use out of — at least for most people.

However the first hackers convention is something to look back on with a bit of curiosity and amusement.  Here’s an excerpt from an old PC Week article that outlines how that convention came about:

MARIN COUNTY, CA–The first Hackers’ Conference convened under ghostly lantern light in a chilly former army barracks, continued through a daylong drenching rain and ended in a chapel.

In the end, it seemed possibly the oddest, brightest and most contentious group assembled since the Continental Congress, with no two of its 150 participants able to agree on anything, except that it had been absolutely wonderful.

“Hackers are such loners that something like this has never happened,” author Steven Levy said the last day. “Now people are saying ‘We’ve got to do it again!'” Fiddlers’ Convention

Hackers are those brilliant, driven, often socially inept individuals (almost all of them men, for reasons no one has successfully explained), whose idea of fun is to fiddle compulsively with computers.

From the MIT Artificial Inteligence Lab of the late 1950s to Silicon Valley of the 1980s, hackers have devoted their lives to computers: making them faster, smarter and, in many cases, advancing the state of the art.

Author/activist Stewart Brand (editor of the Whole Earth Software Catalog) organized a get-together for them after reading an early copy of Levy’s new book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution ($17.95, Anchor Press/Doubleday).

“Stewart woke up one morning and said ‘Let’s have a hackers’ conference,'” was the way fellow organizer Lee Felsenstein explained it later. The Fortunate 500

Invitations were sent to 500 well known hackers, many of whom are featured in Levy’s book. During the weekend of Nov. 9 to 11, 150 of the biggest names in hacking gathered at the former army base now converted to a national recreation area on the coast north of San Francisco.

Before registration was finished, the hackers had already begun a passionate three-day marathon of arguing, “blue-sky” philosophizing and just plain hacking. Apparently, no one on earth speaks quite so well of at such length as a hacker absolutely convinced of the correctness of his position.

“I was just speculating aloud whether, if someone set off a hand grenade, it would set the computer industry back five years or advance it,” Brand quipped early on.

The conference got off to a strange and ironic start when a power failure blacked out the entire settlement the first night. The “mapping” session, when everyone was entled to stand to give his name and interests, was lit by lantern and flashlight. It looked, someone said, like “an EverReady commercial.”

It sounded, on the other hand, like the weirdest, most high-energy science-club meeting imaginable, one occasionally punctuated with the offbeat humor and cackling laughter that have gotten hackers tossed from locker rooms and fraternities all over America.

The meeting was also a dazzling display of intellectual dexterity, barbed wit, poor taste, egomania (“I am one of the 200 bes programmers in the country . . . .”) and blazing commitment to the cause of computers and pure hacking. The ‘Contact High’

“This is the Darwinian breakthrough for science. This is going to be a hack!” one participant proclaimed amid the storm. Or, as Brand explained with a smile, “I’m not a hacker. I’m here for the contact high.”

One hacker even lived up to the group’s reputation for being asocial, self-exiled loners when a reporter from a daily newspaper introduced himself and the hacker shouted back, “Who won the election?””

What an article!  “It’s interesting that hacking had such a bumbling start – more like a hobby than a closed door pursuit” says Bill Gordon, editor of, an online blog that documents hacking and other malware concerns.

Hacking is most certainly becoming a profession of sorts, with the various bounties becoming more and more common.  Hacking even has a light and dark side, as well as a more “in the middle” gray.

The SAGE Computing System

Here’s a real doozy of a video to watch:  an old documentary about the SAGE cold war computing system.  Check this out for a great look back at how computers were used back in the day.


The Ever Evolving Role Of Computers In War

computersinawarComputers in war have been a fast and ever-changing subject.  There is always a race to come up with the most advanced and improved computerized warfare systems, and the race is still technically within its infancy in the grand scope of human history.

When looking into the past (which really isn’t that long ago) it’s good to see how things have evolved.

“Acknowledging that a “large part of the computer industry makes money from the Defense Department,” Ornstein said he expects that even some defense workers will join CPSR, even if anonymously. So far the group has met with little resistance from the industry except for what Ornstein calls “disgraceful” treatment by the Association of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), which runs the annual National Computer Conference (NCC).

As he tells it, CPSR applied “well in advance” of the 1983 NCC for permission to set up a stand in the show’s lobby. Hearing nothing from AFIPS, the group reapplied and, finally, on the opening day of the show, it received a note from AFIPS denying permission.

“AFIPS treated us very badly. I’m sure we were refused on political grounds. AFIPS’ bylaws call for the group to be concerned with the social impact of computers and yet they refused us permission.”

Asked about the incident, AFIPS did not respond by press time. Meanwhile, CPSR has applied for admission to this year’s NCC, which is to be held in Las Vegas next July.

“There is apparently a giant fear on the part of industry that organizations like this will rock their boat,” Ornstein says.

CPSR is not alone in questioning the application of computers to nuclear weapons systems, however, nor is it the first organization to do so. In 1970, a group of distinguished computer scientists including Daniel McCracken, Joseph Weizenbaum, and Paul Armer formed Computer Professionals Against ABM, which argued publicly that a proposed antiballistic missile system would be vulnerable to intractable computer problems. In 1982 a small group of people formed Computer Professionals United to do the same sort of tasks in which CPSR is currently involved. Several of its members have now joined CPSR. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Mass., High-Technology Professionals for Peace is working to find nondefense-related jobs for computer workers and others.

Interestingly, McCracken is lending his expertise to CPSR. He was slated in late January to deliver a talk on the “ethical obligations of computer professionals” to the newly formed New York City chapter of CPSR. Also, Weizenbaum, known as one of the most radical and articulate thinkers on the topic of computing’s social impact, has been active in CPSR’s Boston chapter, while in Palo Alto, Terry Winograd, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, is participating. Says Winograd of CPSR’s mission: “As computer scientists we have access to a certain group of other computer scientists who will listen to us and we also have the expertise needed to demystify computer technology for the general public.”

That demystification lies at the center of CPSR’s goals, suggests Ornstein. “Most of us believe science and technology are important, but they need discussion. There’s probably too much faith in technology. It’s not going to solve all the world’s problems.

“It’s a difficult role, to question technology,” he concludes, “because in this country there’s a feeling that Yankee ingenuity can fix anything.””

Verity, J.W. “Nuclear War & the Computer.” Datamation Feb. 1984: 50.