Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Apple, Silicon Valley and the Counter-Cultural Impulse

Posted on | September 24, 2010 | No Comments

Power to the People

A curious subculture had been developing around the use of computers during the post-Vietnam War years of the 1970s. Working off the counter-cultural energy of the 1960s, it challenged “the establishment,” the political-corporate interests that had entangled America in the Indochina war. Then, in 1974, Ted Nelson, the originator of the hypertext concept, wrote a book called Computer Lib about the importance of decentralizing these machines. Subsequently, this book became a manifesto urging people to claim the power of computers for themselves and not leave it in the hands of the military and corporate elite.

Nelson’s agenda did not go unnoticed by the youth of Silicon Valley, particularly the future founders of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Coming of age in the early 1970s, they were heavily influenced by the emerging currents of music, poetry, and political philosophy. Sentiments against the Vietnam War and “The Establishment” were strong at the time and contributed to their view that the individual should be empowered by technological means. In 1976, they formed Apple and tapped the swelling counter-cultural rejection of the militarization and corporatization of computing.

From the crumbs of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the “Space Race,” these two impertinent young men started a small company that changed the face of computing. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were not from Jackson, Tennessee; Albany, Georgia; or Burlington, Vermont; but from a suburban complex of industries and small towns amalgamated by arms and the space races. Both grew up in a culture inundated with electronics – Silicon Valley. They had ready access to computer clubs, electronic surplus stores, trade shows, technical libraries, and an economic system of electronic production.

They did start Apple Computers in their garage. Still, the displaced car regularly drove through the streets of technologically-sophisticated suburbs bred and nurtured by the demands of the Cold War. Within this electronics-rich environment, they concocted a relatively primitive computer from readily available equipment in the Silicon Valley area. The first Apple computer was extraordinary for its size, price, and basic microprocessing abilities that together promised a future of individual empowerment through computing power.

Long before Vice-President Al Gore’s “e-rate” and National Information Infrastructure (NII) would democratize computer access for schoolchildren, Woz would have access to a PDP-8 computer in high school. When they started their business in Jobs’ garage, they had access to computer clubs, electronic surplus stores, corporate technical libraries, trade shows, and a culture of electronic engineering and production.

    “The Woz was not the only student in Silicon Valley with such a dream. Actually, in some ways, he was fairly typical. Many students at Homestead High had parents in the electronics industry. Having grown up with the new technology around them, these kids were not intimidated by it. They were accustomed to watching their parents mess around with oscilloscopes and soldering irons. Homestead High also had teachers who encouraged their students’ interest in technology.”[1]


Apple was an offspring of the military-industrial complex, but it was rebellious. Wozniak and Jobs achieved “hacker” status early on because of their Blue-Box business. This device allowed them to make unlimited long-distance telephone calls at a time when they were actually expensive. Moreover, the telephone system was arguably the largest electrical machine in the world. Dominated by AT&T, the network had increasingly been attacked by “phone phreaks” who used various gadgets to mimic the electromagnetic tones used in the telephone system to route calls.

As Jobs told it, they created their Blue-Box after finding an AT&T technical journal at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, a massive device that assists basic research in nuclear physics. In one of the most famous cases, Wozniak, who would later invent the original Apple computer, called the Vatican in Rome to talk to the Pope. Impersonating Henry Kissinger, he failed to make it to the Pope, but he tells the story gleefully, and it stands as an interesting example of the impertinence and resourcefulness of this young subculture to try to use technology for its counter-cultural purposes.[2]

The Altair microcomputer caught the attention of the Homebrew Computer Club, an informal group that met at Stanford University during 1974 and 1975, the last years of the Vietnam War. This club was a strange brew of well-educated hobbyists and hippies living amid the military-industrial complex while heavily influenced by the counterculture movement. Members of this group once got the Altair to play music by placing a transistor radio next to the microcomputer to pick up on the electrical energies sent out by the Altair. They actually programmed it to play the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.”

Two regular group members at the Homebrew Computer Club were recent high school graduates who worked nearby in the computer industry. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak also viewed the Altair but began to receive a lot of attention when they brought in their own microcomputer. The scene is dramatized in the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. As Jobs says, “I never had a problem with the Altair, until I tried to use it.” Of course, it was the Altair that inspired Bill Gates to leave Harvard and get into the software business.

On April 1, 1976, they started Apple Computers. The name reportedly came from Jobs’ belief that the Apple was the perfect fruit. It has high nutritional value, tastes good, and comes in an attractive, protective package.[3] But Jobs’ genuine concern was a type of spiritual nutrition that he thought was lacking in modern society and certainly in the dominant computer industry. His dream was to sell “the first real packaged computer” that could empower and help enlighten the individual.

Jobs and Wozniak decided not to go with the 8080 chip that was fascinating to the Homebrew crowd and chose instead to go with a variation of a Motorola chip. Motorola was one of the original licensees of Bell Labs’ transistor and continued to play an important role in chip design and production. Its 6800 family of microchips, in particular, had a substantial impact on the emergence of the microcomputer. Several of its employees left to form a computer called MOS Technology that released an imitative chip called the 6502. MOS was soon sold to Commodore computers that used the 6502 in its well-regarded computers. It was the 6502 that became a workhorse for the Acorn, Atari, and Commodore microcomputers. Perhaps most importantly, it was readily and cheaply available by 1976 and used by a new company called Apple Computers.[4]

Silicon Valley was not really interested in microcomputers. Instead, they saw their markets as military systems and other industrial products, such as manufacturing sensors. The two kids from Apple, however, managed to find enough venture capital to produce a small number of computers. Jobs, a fruitarian at the time, went to Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist, for money to get the company off the ground. Rock had originally funded Intel and referred them to a recent Intel retiree, Mike Markula, who became an important part of Apple’s management team. With the new funding, they contracted with a local company to build 1,000 computers. The Apple II was launched at the West Coast Computer Fair in 1978. It was a big hit, and they signed up distributors. Initially, the market was hobbyists, but Apple soon began to market education and business.

It was Apple Computers that first implemented the smaller 5-¼ inch disk drive. Wozniak redesigned the controller chips for the disk drive into a more elegant configuration. He reduced the number needed from around fifty to five chips, reducing the required space in Apple II for chips considerably. Shugart Associates was a leader in developing the 5-¼ inch floppy that it sold to Apple. The new floppy drive system allowed many third-party software developers to produce and market software that could be easily installed and used on the microcomputer.[6] Apple sold the new device, which could hold 113 Kbytes of information, for $495. The drives were important, not just for storing data, but they would prove crucial for distributing software applications.

While Woz earned his title as the “Mozart of digital design” through his design of the Apple II, Jobs helped conceive the computer as a democratizing tool with the motto-“One person–one computer.”[5] The microcomputer was sold as a tool that would balance the unequal relationship between institutions and the individual. It would empower the individual and allow their inner artist to emerge. The Apple II Computer became the darling of the counter-cultural crowd. It would remain a symbol of resistance against the corporate forces of IBM and, later, the predatory practices of Microsoft.

The message here is not that computer creativity could only emerge in the midst of the military-industrial complex, but rather that context matters. Enabling infrastructures matter. Later the Internet would spread the opportunities available to youth through PCs and dial-up capabilities connecting to ISPs allowing webpages that could be easily built with HTML, gifs, and Adobe Photoshop jpegs.


[1] Quote about Steve Wozniak “Woz” from a chapter called “The Prankster” in Freiberger, P. and Swaine, M. (2000) Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. Second Edition. NY: McGraw-Hill. p. 255.
[2] Triumph of the Nerds video.
[3] The Apple name from accessed July 6, 2005.
[4] Useful information on Zilog and Motorola chips came from George Gilder’s Microcosm. p. 108-112.
[5] Wozniak as the Mozart of digital design from Triumph of the Nerds video, Part One.
[6] Apple’s new floppy disk proved decisive. From Paul E. Ceruzzi’s A History of Modern Computing. Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 266-267.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2010, Sept 11). Apple, Silicon Valley, and the Counter-Cultural Impulse.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global political economy.


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