Lee Felsenstein

2016 Fellow

For his influence on the technical and social environment of the early personal computing era.

"If work is to become play, then tools must become toys."

— Lee Felsenstein

Lee Felsenstein was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1945. He participated in the Free Speech Movement as a teenager and was arrested during the Sproul Hall Sit-In of 1964 at University of California, Berkeley. He graduated from Berkeley with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1972, after dropping out for several years to work as a junior engineer at Ampex. In 1973 Felsenstein developed the Community Memory Project with Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski, and others. Using a Scientific Data Systems SDS-940 mainframe computer, Felsenstein developed a time-shared public bulletin board system that was installed at locations around Berkeley, starting with Leopold's Records. Community Memory was designed around the counter-cultural ideals of decentralization, low cost, and open access. It was one of the earliest online communities. Bothered by the high cost of the modems used on the Community Memory project, Felsenstein designed a less expensive version, leading to the design of the Pennywhistle modem. It was featured on the cover of Popular Electronics in 1976 and became a favorite of early personal computer hobbyists. Felsenstein was also one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club, at which he moderated meetings using a blackboard pointer to keep control of the chaos of the open forum. Many companies would form out of the Homebrew Computer Club, helping to launch the personal computer revolution.

Shortly after the founding of the Homebrew Computer Club, Felsenstein joined the fledgling Processor Technology Corporation as a design consultant. He developed a terminal system for use with the Altair 8800 microcomputer - the Video Display Module, or VDM-1. The VDM-1 circuit board attached to a television was far less expensive than the “glass teletype” terminals used by many hobbyists. Later, along with Homebrew members Gordon French and Bob Marsh, Felsenstein developed the SOL-20 computer, one of the first microcomputers to be sold complete with case and keyboard. The SOL-20 sold more than 10,000 units between 1977 and 1979.

In 1980 Adam Osborne founded Osborne Computer Corporation with Felsenstein, who designed the company's first product, a portable computer. Inspired by the NoteTaker computer developed at Xerox PARC and based on the Zilog Z80 microprocessor, the Osborne-1 used a 5-inch CRT display and could fit underneath an airplane seat. The Osborne came bundled with software worth almost as much as its $1,795 price tag and sold more than 125,000 units in 1982, making it one of the most successful CP/M-based computers ever released.

Felsenstein has never stopped innovating, endeavoring to increase access to computers for all. Working with the Jhai Foundation, he designed an open-source networked computer and communications system that ran on pedal-based power generation. Felsenstein was also “Founding Sensei” of the HackerDojo in Mountain View, California. In 1998 he founded the Free Speech Movement Archives, an online record of the movement that was so formative for him and thousands of others in the 1960s.

Felsenstein has been honored as a Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and as a Laureate of the Tech Museum of Innovation. He lives in Palo Alto, California. Felsenstein's philosophy is perhaps best expressed in his motto, “To change the rules, change the tools.”


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