Jim Warren, a charismatic trade show impresario, editor and activist who personified the blend of technical enthusiasm and counterculture values that shaped the early days of personal computing, died Nov. 24 in Silverdale, Washington. He was 85.
His wife and only immediate survivor, Malee Warren, said his death, at St. Michael Medical Center, was caused by lung cancer.
In the 1970s, Jim Warren was a leading figure in the community that sprang up in the San Francisco Bay Area around the emerging personal computer industry.
He was a regular at monthly meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of hobbyist who gathered to share ideas, design tips and gossip. He was the editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia, an irreverent yet influential publication in that nascent field.
At the time, computing was still the realm of big, costly mainframe machines owned primarily by government agencies, universities and corporations. But that was changing with the development of the computer-on-a-chip microprocessor, introduced by Intel in 1971.
By the mid-1970s, dozens of companies were seeking to exploit the opportunity created by low-cost microprocessors. Most of the companies are now gone and their names long forgotten, but notable exceptions are Microsoft, founded in 1975, and Apple, in 1976.
Computer conferences, where these fledgling companies showed off their wares, were just beginning to emerge when, in 1977, Warren staged the West Coast Computer Faire (the spelling a playful nod to the medieval spectacles of Elizabethan England). He calculated that the event, a two-day affair at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, might break even if it could attract 60 exhibitors and perhaps 7,000 people.
But to his surprise nearly 13,000 people showed up, and the lines of people waiting to get in circled the building.
As recounted in “Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer” (1984), by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, the Commodore PET was introduced at that first fair, as was the Apple II. Stephen Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder and chief hardware designer, worked around the clock to finish the new machine in time. Steve Jobs, the company’s other founder and chief executive, manned Apple’s booth on the exhibition floor.
The West Coast Computer Faire became an annual event and thrived, becoming the largest computer conference in the world for a few years. As the event consumed ever more floor space, Warren performed his role as ringmaster on roller skates.
“The early fairs Jim Warren organized moved the state of the art forward significantly,” said Dennis Allison, a lecturer at Stanford University and a veteran Silicon Valley computer designer.
Warren was technically adept; he earned a master’s degree in computer engineering from Stanford. But to him and many others, the broader appeal of personal computing was its potential to put information and economic tools in the hands of individuals.
“It was the ethos of the time, to find ways to use these toys to make society better,” said Allison, a founder of the People’s Computer Co., a California nonprofit. “And Jim was very committed to that.”
In 1978, after serving as the first editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, published by the People’s Computer Co., Warren started Intelligent Machines Journal. He later sold it to a major computer publisher, International Data Group, which renamed it Infoworld. He also hosted a PBS television program, “Computer Chronicles,” for its first two seasons.
Jim C. Warren Jr. was born on July 20, 1936, in Oakland, California, the only child of Jim Sr. and Gladys Warren. The family soon moved to Texas, where his father, a pilot, flew military transport planes during World War II.
Warren grew up in San Antonio. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and education from Southwest Texas State University and later, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, a master’s degree in mathematics and statistics from the University of Texas.
But as he explained to John Markoff, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author of “What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” (2005), he felt confined by the conservatism of Texas in the early 1960s and was looking for wider horizons. Then he picked up a copy of Look magazine with a cover story on California as “The Golden State.”
Warren drove to California, arriving in the Bay Area in the summer of 1964. Encountering the freewheeling culture there, he thought, “I’m home. I’m finally home,” he recalled.He embraced the liberal politics of the region, marching in rallies to protest the war in Vietnam and supporting the Free Speech Movement, centered at the University of California at Berkeley. For two years he was general secretary of the Midpeninsula Free University, an outgrowth of that movement, which not only offered free courses in storefront locations and in homes but also sponsored Be-ins and organized anti-war demonstrations.
Not long after arriving in California, Warren got a job teaching mathematics at the College of Notre Dame, a Catholic women’s school in Belmont, and became chairman of its math department.
His personal life was increasingly uninhibited, as he sampled everything on the counterculture menu, including drugs, free love and nudism. Word spread of the large parties Warren hosted at his house in Woodside. A BBC film crew showed up to shoot footage for a documentary on the “Now” generation.
When The San Francisco Chronicle published a front-page article on the wild parties at the home of an unnamed professor in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Notre Dame administrators learned it was Warren and asked for his resignation.
His math skills led him to a job as computer programmer at the Stanford Medical Center. He had only done a little programming before, on an IBM mainframe at the University of Texas, but he quickly picked up programming on the computers that the medical center used for sorting and analyzing medical information.
That traditional programming job, and others, paid well. But when personal computers began to appear in the 1970s, Warren jumped in. In his book, Markoff wrote that Warren was “emblematic of the cultural, political and technological forces that were colliding” in Silicon Valley.His interest in the social and political impact of computer technology continued later in his life. In 1991, Warren founded and chaired the first Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, an annual academic gathering.
In 1993, he worked on a California law — a model for other states — that required most computerized public records to be freely available. He conferred with legislators, rallied public support and even drafted some of the law’s language.
At the time, the internet was unknown to most people, so to assuage lawmakers’ concerns that the state would be giving away government records to a private company, Warren described the internet to them as the world’s “largest nonproprietary, nonprofit cooperative public computer network.”