Whole Earth Catalog goes digital

Written by Ced Kurtz on .

TechMan was rooting around in the basement the other day and came across a hippie era stash of -- no, not that -- Whole Earth Catalogs and magazines.

Anyone coming of age in the '60s, '70s or '80s remembers those publications, favorites of the back-to-the-earth, counterculture movement.

But what you may not remember was the role of the publications and their founder in early days of the personal computer.

Stewart Brand, who began the catalogs (they were published in various forms from 1968 to 1988), had impressive counterculture credentials.

In 1966, he campaigned to have NASA release the rumored satellite photo of the entire Earth as seen from space. He thought it would be a uniting image. In 1968, a NASA astronaut made the photo and it appeared on the cover of the first catalog.

Mr. Brand took part in early scientific studies of then-legal LSD and was one of Ken Kesey's iconic Merry Pranksters. Tom Wolfe describes him in the first chapter of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

He also had an early interest in computers and assisted Douglas Englebart with his famous presentation to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco that debuted many revolutionary computer technologies, including the mouse.

Mr. Brand went on to team up with Larry Brilliant to found one of the seminal dial-up bulletin boards and computer-based communities, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link or The Well.

The Well became a gathering place for computer types, including Mitch Kapor, designer of Lotus 1-2-3, and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. Mr. Kapor and Mr. Barlow joined with John Gilmore to establish the Electronic Frontier Foundation, still a leading defender of digital individual rights.

Craig Newmark started his original Craigslist on The Well. And it was a major online meeting place for Deadheads.

The initial 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, between the entries for beekeeping equipment, had an article about a personal computer. It was $5,000, the most expensive thing in the book.

In 1984, Mr. Brand published the Whole Earth Software Catalog 1.0 and a magazine called the Whole Earth Software Review, which lasted only three issues. But the software catalog was updated to 2.0 in 1985.

In 1989, the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was published on CD-ROM using an early version of hypertext linking language

Mr. Brand and his cohorts at Whole Earth convened the first "Hacker's Conference," which, after a sputtering start, has become an annual event.

Wrote John Markoff of the New York Times: "There was a very big Luddite component to counterculture back then, but Brand wanted nothing to do with it. ... He really believed you could take the tools of the establishment and use them for grass-roots purposes. He was, after all, the guy who coined the term personal computer."

In 1995, Mr. Brand wrote an article in Time magazine titled "We Owe It All to the Hippies." In it he said, "Counterculture's scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution."

So are Whole Earth Catalogs now consigned the basement's of ex-hippies and the ideas in them only tie-dyed memories?

No. Stewart Brand and his catalogs live on, although much of what seemed radical now is mainstream.

Contacted by e-mail through the Long Now Foundation, Mr. Brand said he had not changed his ideas on the use of computers for grass-roots purposes or on the continuing influence of the countrculture on computers and the Internet.

After the Whole Earth Catalog and its descendants ceased publication, New Whole Earth LLC, headed by entrepreneur and philanthropist Samuel B. Davis, acquired the intellectual property and physical assets.

As it states on, "Although the catalog's heyday was during a specific and turbulent period of American history, the ideas found in it and in its related publications continue to engage the brightest minds of the 21st century -- and Whole Earth LLC believes that those ideas should be preserved as they were originally disseminated."

To that end, at, all of the catalogs and other publications are free for viewing online. Or you can buy a pdf copy for $5 or less.

As Grace Slick sang, "Feed your head."

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