Abstract: An Industry of Enthusiasts: Users Make the Computer Personal, 1975-1981

Thomas Haigh


Crucial aspects of technological innovation and industrial creation take place through the apparently passive act of technological adoption. This paper examines the various ways in which computer enthusiasts contributed to the development of the personal computer industry, from its conception in 1975 to its early adolescence with the introduction of the IBM PC. This is particularly apparent here, since early personal computers were almost entirely useless. The only application supplied as standard on most models was BASIC programming. Because their suppliers lacked elaborate market research abilities, or good ideas on what ordinary people might do with a computer, users did most of the cultural and technical labor required to transform the personal computer into a reasonably useful and practical tool. The incredible flexibility of computer systems, achieved by adding additional hardware and by reprogramming, makes this an exceptionally good case in which to study user involvement. As is well known, electronics hobbyists were both the first users and the first suppliers of personal computers. But enthusiasts also founded the first personal computer dealerships, user groups, software companies, trade shows, newsletters, and magazines. I use the career of Dan Fylstra, publisher of VisiCalc (the firstspreadsheet program and by far the most successful early microcomputer application package) to illustrate the interplay of these institutions.