Lee Felsenstein

is creating adventures - technology, ideas, stories, books.

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About Lee Felsenstein


I come from an activist family – both of my siblings and a cousin were at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington – we only recently found out the others were there. I was able to participate in the Free Speech Movement because I failed to get a security clearance for my NASA work-study job. Lessons I learned from that experience helped me elude the military draft during Vietnam.

As an engineering student at Berkeley in 1963 I thought that people smarter than me would tell me what to design and I would design it. Next year during the Free Speech Movement I discovered the flaw in this concept - my intellectual betters were ignorant of what it took to bring a new device into existence. I decided to not leave it to others and do my own exploration - a good decision that has paid off for me and others.

The 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was a revolution – the counterculture grew out of it and thousands of people – mostly students, changed their life courses in the process. I was no exception – and began to explore the question of what technologies I could create to allow people live free, creative lives in sustainable communities.


I began to write and worked for the Berkeley Barb underground paper while in school. I tried things and learned from the results, and I began thinking about decentralized media. Eventually I realized that a network of computers would be the right thing – then found that others had obtained a serious computer for use by the counterculture. I joined them (Resource One Inc.) and brought my ideas with me.

Together we created the first computer public-access social media system, called Community Memory. We showed that people could use it and were attracted by it. I began to think about how to let the equipment survive in public use – and began to work out the architecture of a personal computer. I designed a modem that could also spool data from a cassette player. The computer was installed in a “warehouse community” - Project One – in San Francisco and I lived there for a year.

The PC underground

During that time I consorted with the small band of hackers and visionaries who were discussing what personal computers could and should do when they came into being. In 1974 I self-published an engineering specification for a personal computer that would start life as a terminal (we had only Teletypes and expensive CRT terminals then) and grow with plug-in modules to become a computer.

Then in 1975 a near-bankrupt company in Albuquerque offered the “Altair 8800” for sale - a personal computer kit at a good price. Along with thousands of other hackers, hams, bored doctors and just plain engineering geeks I got busy working out what to do with it. I was at the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club with 30 others (including Woz) to look at and discuss the first Altair to hit Silicon Valley. By the fourth meeting I was organizing and running the meetings, and continued to do so for 11 years.


Then my exploring started to pay off – I was able to apply my personal computer spec and design a video display adapter for the Altair – the “VDM-1” that set the standard for how video was presented on the personal computer. That architecture is still in general use today – unless you're reading this on paper you're seeing it presented that way.

I redesigned the modem I had made for Community Memory as a product that lowered modem prices by a factor of three – it could be successfully sold as a kit. I designed a whole computer around the display architecture which was offered for sale in 1976 when Apple was still designing their Apple 2.

I became a bit of a celebrity in the small personal computer world. In 1981 Creative Computing magazine's announcement of the Osborne-1 portable computer opened with the words “Lee Felsenstein has done it again!” Adam Osborne, a well-known self-promoter, had asked me to design what became the first commercially successful portable computer in exchange for 25% of the company, and the article was a reaction against Adam's minimizing my contribution.

In the Sunshine

Osborne Computer went bankrupt two years later, and I continued to explore. I helped Stewart Brand start the Hackers Conference in 1984 as the publication party for Steven Levy's book “Hackers – Heroes of the Computer Revolution” (where I was featured in the cast of characters), and later advised Brand in the formation of the WELL (an online community that set high standards for others). I had a major role in “Fire in the Valley” - the first journalistic account of the personal computer's history, published in 1984.

I hung around the San Francisco-Moscow Teleport in 1986 and 1987 as it developed people-to-people email ties with Soviet citizens. In 1989 I was sent to Moscow to check out a business school in formation – I used the opportunity to explore in the Soviet hacker underground. I tried to form a company to prospect for business in Russia but backed off in 1991 - the place was overrun by thieves.

The Lab

During this time I survived economically by doing electronic design work on contract. As this became a slowly-failing business I jumped at the opportunity to be among the first employees at Interval Research Corporation – Paul Allen's research lab, where I spent 8 years designing prototypes for an amazing batch of researchers. They closed up shop in 2000 and I was back to doing contract work.

The "Pedal-Powered Internet"

In 2002 and 2003, while employed by a company that did contract product development, I accepted a challenge on the side and designed a village telecommunications system based on Wi-fi, voice over IP, and embedded systems (and powered by batteries recharged by a bicycle generator) for a group of refugee villages in Laos. I burned off my vacation time to fly over there and attempt the installation, which failed in the software area (it may have been sabotaged).

The New York Times Magazine included the idea in their 2002 "Best Ideas of the Year" issue, dubbing it "The Pedal-Powered Internet". The story of the expedition made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Back at my job, where we were designing a military communication system, someone looked up and told my managers “we can't do anything to him – he doesn't have a clearance”.

Off to Tunis

That company closed up shop in 2005, and I went to Tunis for the World Congress on the Information Society – by that time I was blogging as a critic of the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) program that was introduced there. They were a highly connected Media Lab spinoff – during the introduction Kofi Annan, mistakenly assuming that the hardware model was real, broke off the balsa-wood crank when he tried to demonstrate recharging the battery on stage.

I was OLPC's primary opposition voice and my criticisms were published on the independent “OLPC News” website. While I never got a response from OLPC I was vindicated by the fact that no country took them up on replacing their educational system with the product.

Also that year I was invited to give a talk in a series on spirituality and technology on the roots of personal computing. The talk, titled “The Arming of Desire” was delivered in the “Waag” in Amsterdam – in the room that was the anatomical dissection theater pictured by Rembrandt in his famous 1632 painting that we know as “The Dutch Masters” (from the cigar box on which it appeared).

Looking for a Job

Occasionally some well-meaning people would advise me to knock off this crazy stuff and get a stable, good-paying job. My last attempt in 2013 was working for some small-scale Russian oligarchs designing petrochemical safety monitoring equipment – they disciplined me twice for not being a good enough Dilbert before the project ran into optical technology problems and I was out again. No, thanks.

I got hired in 2001 and again in 2013, but increasingly employers would talk with me and then - silence. In one case I responded to an agency and spoke with an engineer in the target company who said he would recommend me for the next step. Hearing nothing again, I called the agent, who told me in a brusque tone of voice that the job had been filled. I looked and the job posting was still on the site - and remained there for weeks.

I have projects - some in process - but now have to spend my time chasing contract work and carrying it out. If that's what the rest of my working life would be like then I need to develop an alternative.

It would be great if someone offered me a job to be an adventurer, but since no one is advertising for this, I want all of you to hire me for that position – an old revolutionary urged forward by visions of a new world to come – “nostalgic for the future”. I've got the experience and the skills - plus a list of projects awaiting completion - see "Coming Attractions" in the posts (the contents will change as projects get completed or are modified).

You, my collective patron, will not only provide financial support but will also serve as my audience and colleagues. Your involvement will help me improve my understanding of the idea(s) under development so I (or you) can take sections of the ideas and turn them into practical implementations – I have too many to keep to myself.

Your support will be invaluable in helping me develop and realize the types of adventures described in the posts. Let's go!
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By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 29 exclusive posts
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