LSD and the birth of the PC

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CIO magazine presents a quick taste of the well-documented links between the emergence of Silicon Valley and psychedelic culture. The full story is documented in John Markoff's excellent book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. It was definitely a long strange trip. From CIO magazine:
Silicon Valley's rise as the hub of the technology industry in the 1960s coincided with LSD's explosion on the cultural scene. Within a few miles of Stanford Research Center (SRI), where Douglas Englebart was envisioning the personal computer as a mechanism to "augment human intelligence," three organizations were then legally administering LSD to guinea pigs. The Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park and the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute were studying LSD to better understand schizophrenia. Meanwhile, the International Foundation for Advanced Study, founded by a former engineer, sought to give credibility to LSD's mind-expanding properties. These organizations offered leaders of the counterculture (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg) and some of the personal computer industry's founding fathers their first communions with acid. No doubt, their mind-blowing experiences influenced the communal ethos of the early personal computing industry and later the open source software movement.
Tech Visionaries and LSD: Turn On, Tune In, Geek Out


    1. why would i forget a man who denies global warming or that HIV causes AIDS and believes in astrology and little green raccoons?

  1. For a minute I was concerned that the title made it through the entire publication process without being flagged for misspelling ‘dormouse.’

  2. Jerry Garcia was also one of the first people to try LSD in clinical tests in the early 60s. The internet as we know it would not exist if it weren’t for Deadheads BBS-ing setlists of Dead shows from the night before.

  3. An interesting insight into how the the 60s counterculture influenced the ‘personal computer’ and some of the most important personal and social technology of today.

    However anyone with any experience of the IBM PC internals will testify that that particular technology was clearly designed by MEN IN SUITS.

  4. I read that book several years ago. It is a great book on the history of the personal computer. The counterculture stuff really doesn’t figure into the entire story until almost 3/4 of the way through the book. It was a good geek read.

    1. Yeah, he did a great job of avoiding salivating drug anecdotes and really focused on how a great number of people were influenced by the open-mindedness of that generation. I actually found his stories about Doug Engelbart’s visionary ideas most inspiring and frustrating at the same time. The difficulty these guys had in either communicating their complex visions or letting go of them enough to see real implementation is parallel to the type of dogma and calcification of thought that erupted from all facets of the counterculture. Markoff does an excellent job of seeing the full spectrum of thought generated in that era as more than just a by-product of drugs or revolutionary ideology. I highly recommend this read.

  5. Writing code while blasted would yield a lot of loops and error codes. But, if you were stuck, it might unstick you after you settled back to earth.
    Without drugs, I once had a dream that flipped how I was looking at a problem and after that I filled pages with working diagrams that eventually became hardware.

  6. I’ve read “Dormouse”and it isn’t very spectacular. The links in the book between psychedelics and engineering seem pretty weak. “LSD:Storming Heaven” by Jay Stevens and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe have more spirited and even exciting anecdotes.

  7. Steve Woz wasn’t much into drugs according to his bio, iWoz. And many of us early computer nerds were techies, ham radio operators or in the military, not hippies or druggies.

    1. Woz woz not? I submit that “much” is a relative term. When I worked at Apple, there were many stories about the good ‘ol days with Woz, and most of those tales involved drugs.

  8. From an article ( by Dennis Wier about working on compiler for a language called “MARLAN” for the IBM 360…

    “At one point in the project I could not
    get an overall viewpoint for the operation
    of the entire system. It really was too much
    for my brain to keep all the subtle aspects
    and processing nuances clear so I could get
    a processing and design overview. After
    struggling with this problem for a few
    weeks, I decided to use a little acid to see if
    it would enable a breakthrough, because
    otherwise, I would not be able to complete
    the project and be certain of a consistent
    overall design. Overall design consistency
    was important to reduce program and
    design errors.”

    It worked.

  9. Correlation does not equal causation. You might just as easily say that computers caused people to do drugs.

  10. I have this book, and it is a must-read for any geek. The original “augment” vision of networked computing is only now beginning to be partially realized.

  11. Sigh. Or more accurately, Yawn.

    This reminds me of that scene in ‘My big fat greek wedding’ when the father makes the case that every word – even kimono – is rooted in Greek.

    And we still hear, endlessly, that everything interesting is rooted in the fucking 60s counterculture that happened over 40 years ago. Yawn. So some hippies were involved, so what? I for one am sick to death of hearing about how special the frikkin 60s and the boomers are, given that they have done more than any generation in history to destroy the planet and bankrupt the world to serve their interests.

    Though some of the music is still good.

    But maybe I’m just grumpy tonight.

  12. Highly recommended on the same topic, fascinating read:

    From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner (ISBN-10: 0226817423)

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