Pamela Hardt-English was the driving force behind Resource One, the “people’s computer center” in San Francisco during the 1970s counterculture movement. Resource One would become the first computerized bulletin board system, a community initiative to link centers of counterculture across the Bay Area with a computer network. Pam acquired, operated, and maintained a decommissioned SDS 940 mainframe computer from Transamerica in 1972 — which cost $150,000, and of which they were only 57 made.
Resource One was a core part of Project One, a “technological commune” and warehouse community in 1970s San Francisco that operated out of an abandoned candy factory. Pam’s work made computers accessible to groups who didn’t think of themselves as computer users — social workers, hippies — hoping to help people by providing a resource network for anything they needed. Resource One was part of the earliest vanguard of personal network computing, and Pam anticipated the rise of the Internet that happened decades later.
DEVON: Hello and welcome to Tools & Craft, the show where we talk with engineers, inventors, and designers who shaped computing as we know it.
I’m your host, Devon Zuegel, and today we’re talking with Pamela Hardt‑English. Thanks for joining me, Pam. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.
PAMELA: Me too.
DEVON: So after you were studying computer science at Berkeley, you went and moved into Project One, which was a commune.
PAMELA: When I went to college I started in math and I moved over to computer science because it was just starting as a field. In fact, it was a Bachelor of Arts, but it was a field where women were welcome. There weren’t enough people. And I knew that I’m good at math, and I thought that would be a good opportunity for me.
DEVON: I’m really curious, what was the initial spark of the idea to have a mainframe in the commune?
PAMELA: You have to have the context of what was going on at the time. It’s very similar to what’s going on right now. It was our brothers, our friends, that were going to Vietnam and it was disproportionately minorities going to Vietnam and being killed. And why were they being killed? They’re being killed because the United States wanted to rule things and was so afraid that China would make Vietnam communist.
From our point of view as young people, it was old men making decisions that were sending young men off to war. And that was the draft — it wasn’t an option, it wasn’t a volunteer army at that point. So when I went to Berkeley, the free speech movement was just ending and the anti-war movement was just starting, so I spent my first three years on strike a lot of the time.
When we tried to get people like professors in the math department to join us they said, “You know, we just finished World War II. All we want is to do our work. We just want peace and quiet.” There was a divide. Our parents, we felt, were passive in allowing this war to go on. People in Vietnam just wanted to run their own lives and we couldn’t understand it, so that was the context.
There were two other men in the computer science department that I was in, Chris Macie and Chris Neustrup, and the three of us heard about this Project One, and we really wanted to do something with the technology that was useful to people, not to killing people, but to making lives better.
The three of us went over to explore that and Chris Macie and I stayed. Our idea was to have a computing center that could share resources. It was a resource, exchanging resources, and knowing what was going on.
But at that time, there weren’t any of those services and there was very little time sharing going on. So it wasn’t an idea that I had, it was an idea that was floating in the universe of young people at that time — of people with technical backgrounds — that wanted to do something useful. There was also Science for the People, there were all sorts of organizations that said, “Hey, we’re not putting our resources to supporting the world in a positive way, and we want to change that.”
DEVON: That’s fascinating because I guess previously, before that, all of these services were mediated by institutions where you had to go ask somebody for a pointer to something else. Am I right in describing it? You wanted to bring it to individuals so that they could direct those resources themselves?
PAMELA: Exactly. All you had in the past was a phone book, so if you wanted a resource, you had a phone book and you didn’t know how to contact the right person to talk to there. We also had, in Project One, a switchboard, one of those old-fashioned switchboards that you plug in when people call.
The Haight-Ashbury Switchboard was a way to communicate with parents because hippies came out to the west, and their parents were trying to find them. There was no way of connecting. People could leave messages, so it was a way of connection.
What we wanted was a way for the technology to be more useful to individuals in the community.
DEVON: How did Google end up being different from how you envisioned this system?
PAMELA: Well it’s actually really very similar to what we wanted. It’s just we were 50 years ahead of the times. That’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to be able to connect to each other and to services that they needed. As you know, one of the problems with the phone book, first of all, it’s static, it’s frequently out of date, and it doesn’t take the next step which is actually connecting you with the right person. It just gives you a blunt look of something you might need like a tire store or something.
DEVON: Right, that makes sense. I suppose also with Google you can go and read the information. You don’t necessarily have to have someone on the other line. So if you call somebody, if you call the tire store, well if they’re not open then they’re not open, and you just have to call back tomorrow. Whereas with Google, you can look at their website and see what their prices are or what their address is.
PAMELA: Right. Also, I think the other part of the mentality is that things were very top-down at that time. People made decisions for people, for the betterment of people, whereas, we thought people should make decisions for themselves, and that’s a common thought now.
But for instance when my mother had children, fathers were not allowed in the delivery room. Mothers had to stay in the hospital for seven days. They frequently were given drugs so that they wouldn’t have pain, spinal blocks, all for the betterment of the woman.
Women were told not to nurse because you couldn’t measure the amount of milk infants were getting if you nursed. They said that was bad, rather than talking to women about what they needed.
I mean my own mother-in-law, who is the kindest woman, she said, “Pam, you shouldn’t be nursing. How can you know that Steven is doing well?” I said, “Because he’s thriving. He’s not crying.” But that was their mentality at that time.
So, we operated the building by consensus. The idea was that you shouldn’t have some dictator, one person, telling everybody what to do, thinking they know best for everybody. We wanted a more diffused leadership.
DEVON: How did that impact the kinds of decisions you ended up making?
PAMELA: You asked about how we got the computer. There were other resources in the community that helped us go that direction.
For instance, Mr. Clausen was president of Bank of America when the students at University of Santa Barbara burned it down. He was appalled that this could happen, that he could be so disconnected to the community that he served. So he set up a group of businesspeople, including Transamerica, CEOs, top people in San Francisco, to find a way to work with young people. That was one component.
The second was a group called Pacific Change. These were the sons and daughters of wealthy people who wanted to do good in the community, who wanted to be different, and maybe that’s how we connected to this group of businessmen. I’m not 100% sure.
But they gave us some guidance, or gave me some guidance, as to how to approach these people about what we wanted to do. We knew what we wanted to do.
We knew what we wanted. We needed help figuring out how to get there.
I think it was Pacific Change that helped me because I was only 21 or 22 years old. What did I know about fundraising? We needed about $100,000 and we needed a computer. So I think they gave me some training as to how to approach these people. But because Mr. Clausen had set up this group, it made it a group of people I could go see, and that included Transamerica which had just decommissioned this SDS 940, which is also called an XDS 940.
DEVON: It’s very cool and very meta that you built up this network of people to give you one-on-one advice to then go procure a machine that ended up achieving that same goal as well.
Just for context, that SDS 940 was not your typical MacBook where you just walk into an Apple computer store or anything like that. It was, I think, when I looked it was up it was like $150,000 in the 1970s and there were only 57 of them that were ever made.
PAMELA: And it took up a lot of space. We had to build a room. Now, it probably has just as much power as our phones. But at that time, we had to build a space.
In fact, Paul Ward was our electrician and he was, again, about 20 or 21 years old. And I said, “Paul, were you an electrician before you came to Resource One?” Because he did all the electrical work. He said, “No, Pam. I didn’t know anything. I went to the library and learned.”
So all of us were novices in what we were doing, but we had that dedication, passion, and people were smart to put it together.
DEVON: He didn’t even have YouTube, that’s really impressive.
PAMELA: No, he had the library. We got a lot of people that were just misfits other places in life and they were all welcome. We did have people that had mental illness, for instance. I think in general, there was a lot of kindness, and we had a high school and we had a daycare center, a lot of artists.
Optic Nerve people, who were the video people, what they should do, or any of the artists. The only time we came together to have discussions was about our communities as a whole.
DEVON: You mentioned that Project One, the commune, was located in an abandoned candy factory. How did that warehouse environment impact the culture of the community?
PAMELA: Well it was just fantastic because it almost looked like a parking garage. There was nothing in it but these big concrete pillars and several floors, so we had to put up walls, we had to build spaces, we had to do everything. So it was wonderful, men and women, everybody working together. We all had to clean bathrooms. We did everything communally. Also made decisions by consensus, which is torture because that means meetings are very, very long.
But those skills gave all of us, particularly women, such confidence to be able to put up walls and do electrical work, do plumbing, do everything. It was really a wonderful environment.
Then in terms of structure, again, because the times were so volatile, police would come into the building and they would say, “Who’s in charge?” We would take pride in saying, “No one’s in charge,” or, “We’re all in charge."
DEVON: How did they react to that?
PAMELA: Not too badly. But sometimes there would be circling helicopters over the building. But we didn’t really have that much trouble with the city, no raids or anything like that. We did have a lot of communal meetings because we had to make decisions.
My brother graduated from college and my brother is a person who always has polished shoes and always dresses well. In the building, of course, everybody’s dusty and dirty. But he was out of college and out of a job, and it was one of those poor economic times, so he came to live with me for a couple of months. He had to clean bathrooms like everybody else and it really motivated him to go back to graduate school to get a business degree because it was the worst couple of months in his life.
DEVON: I have a hard time imagining living in San Francisco without heat. That cold, damp, fog really just clings to you. Wow.
Someone who lived in your commune once wrote, “I have watched my hands use so many different tools that at times I couldn’t answer people who asked me what I did for a living.” How did that shape the way that you approached living in Project One and working on Resource One?
PAMELA: It gave us confidence that we could do anything. As a young person I think you feel you can do almost anything. But seeing the fruits of our labor, making nothing into something, gave us a lot of confidence.
DEVON: How long did it take for you guys to get the thing set up and functional?
PAMELA: That’s an interesting question because I’ve asked a couple of people and it was months, not years, but I can’t tell you exactly how long. I don’t know. I’ve asked a couple of the other people who were there because when you’re building something you just keep doing it. You don’t think of the days that go by.
For instance, when I went to graduate school, I gave myself a year. Well, it took three years. But in my mind, it was always a year. Three years just seemed too enormous.
So anyway, I don’t know exactly how long it took, but it was months.
People came in as we needed them. The ECOS, which was the group that started it, Ralph Scott, started Project One, they would go out and talk to other groups of people and people would get interested.
There wasn’t the Internet to plug into, but people talked to each other. So people would just float into Project One and then if they were technical or interested they might float in to Resource One, and we ended up getting all the people we needed.
He kept the floors perfect and the dust level down. When I look back, it’s amazing how we found all the right people.
Steve Robinson was a finance guy, but who also wanted to put his skills to doing something useful in the community, so he helped us with budgets and things like that.
DEVON: Were there any moments where you thought, “Man, I really wish we had someone with such and such skill?” If so, how did you end up solving that problem?
PAMELA: No, they just seemed to arrive. We had the people that we needed. I’m not a great programmer. This is what I wanted to do, but programming is not something that I particularly like. But we had excellent programmers like Chris Macie, who came over with me, and then
Lee Felsenstein. Both were really good programmers, so they could make the computer do what we wanted it to do.
DEVON: That’s amazing. I think if you have a good project, especially with a good cause, it just attracts people to you, people who want to help and give input, and provide resources and time. So there’s something just magnetic about it.
PAMELA: I think that’s true. And it’s not like we were getting paid money. I was working, I had a shared job washing beakers at the University of San Francisco that I would do at night, I shared with another woman. Because our expenses weren’t high, we were only paying I think about five cents a square foot, and we were living in the building, so they weren’t high, but of course we needed to eat. I’m not even sure if we ever paid salaries. I’m just not sure about that. I’d have to ask our account guy.
DEVON: Project One and Resource One were definitely run on a tight budget, so the $150,000 price tag of the SDS 940 was probably out of range. You mentioned that you spoke with some business people who gave you advice on how to procure it ... what was the actual price for getting it? Like what was the advice that they gave you?
PAMELA: Well, I think the advice came more from Pacific Change and the contacts of who we should talk to came from Mr. Clausen and his group.
We didn’t want to pay for anything. We didn’t pay for the computer — they delivered it to us. It was decommissioned, so we weren’t buying it, they weren’t going to use it. It had been used by a company called Tyme Share. So Transamerica donated it to us and delivered it to us, so the money we needed was operating money, which was about $100,000. Bank of America gave us $25,000, so we were looking for money in $25,000 chunks.
I went and talked to a zillion people. Fortunately, I was talking to the right people that had money and I was talking to the foundations of these corporations, not to the corporations.
DEVON: What were the emissions of the respective foundations and how did they fit in with what Project One was doing?
PAMELA: I think we just told them what we wanted to do, that we wanted to make this computer center available to people in the community. That’s what foundations are for — to be supportive of people, of something. Corporations are there to make a profit and then the foundations are set up to give a small percentage back.
DEVON: So you just came with sort of a charter of, “This is what we’re trying to do.” They could look at that and say, “This seems great, we’ll do that.”
PAMELA: Yeah and you have to realize the discord in the country at that time. In the early 70s there were many more bombings than we have ever experienced right now. Most of them were not fatal bombings. But there was so much discontent in the country where people were so unhappy with the government and we were being lied to all of the time.
DEVON: One of the big goals behind having the mainframe in the commune was so that you’d have your own access to it and so that you could put teletypes all around the city so other people could have access to it. What about your behavior and other users’ behavior did you expect to change?
PAMELA: We just thought it would give people the freedom and the flexibility to do what they needed to do in a convenient way.
Honestly, I left Resource One before it got moved over and became Community Memory. That was Lee Felsenstein’s project. We were limited by our own technology. We couldn’t get to where I wanted to be in the 1970s, but people like Lee Felsenstein, the real hardware/software people, they continued working for years to get to that point.
If I had done something else in technology the next thing I wanted to do was to buy a satellite. Because I thought once the war is over in Vietnam, they’ll need to set up all this infrastructure and they’ll need to be able to communicate with each other. And the best way to do that is with satellites. I wanted to buy a used satellite that could then be used rather than putting cables through the jungle. But again, a lot of these things were just not available in the 70s.
DEVON: Wow, that sounds a lot like Project Loon that Google ended up doing in the last 10 or so years. What gave you the idea that would even be a possibility? How did that cross your mind?
PAMELA: Just ... why not?
DEVON: That’s fantastic. You mentioned Community Memory was one of the projects that was built on top of that foundation you created with Resource One. Can you speak a little bit more to that and what you know about it?
PAMELA: Two things happened after I left. One is the way that computer got used in creating a resource directory that people subscribed to. So three women, Sherry Reson, Mary Janowitz, and Joan Lefkowitz, worked together to create this directory using the computer, which is then easy to update. People would then subscribe to that. They used that to support themselves for a period of years.
The computer got moved to the San Francisco library where Joan worked, and so it got used in that way while people were trying to improve the technology so that it could be more interactive than it really was.
DEVON: When you say they moved the computer to the library, did they move the entire mainframe or was it just primarily the teletype terminal itself?
PAMELA: My understanding is they moved the whole thing.
DEVON: What’s a way that somebody used Community Memory or just the mainframe in the primary commune that surprised you?
PAMELA: What surprised me is not in the positive. It just couldn’t do as much as I wanted it to do.
DEVON: What were the limitations?
PAMELA: The limitations were the teletype terminals, it wasn’t as interactive as I would have liked.
You know when you write a document and you have an outline and you go A, B, and then you go inside, inside. Well we couldn’t do that with information, it’d take forever. So you have to find other ways of accessing the information. That software was not that well developed at that time. There were software and hardware limitations as to how interactive it could be.
I really didn’t know how long it would take to get there. I know that I was disappointed that we couldn’t do more than we could do at that time. Then you reach different points in your life, I was ready to do something different.
The part I really enjoyed was building Resource One. And then taking it to the next step — which other people did like Lee with Community Memory — wasn’t what I wanted to do at that time. That’s why I left.
Then I had to explore what I wanted to do. So I went to work for Robert Shapiro, who’s another tremendous software person, and did some programming for him. While we were working together on the political side — because he also believed in technology for the people and science for the people — we looked at how computers were used in the world at that time, so that was, what, mid-70s, like 1974. The first place we looked at was the dairy industry. Computers were used in the dairy industry for artificial insemination, and we did a lot of research in that area.
We have overpopulation in the world, we have the green revolution going on, and it was an area I wanted to learn more about.
I went back to graduate school and I didn’t want to just be in food science because, again, I was a girl and I was afraid I’d get stuck in a lab somewhere. So that’s why I went into engineering and food science and got a double master’s so that I would be an engineer and a food scientist. For me, that was fantastic because I got to work all over the world solving problems, so it was a good fit for me.
In fact, one of things I thought about when you asked that question about the Internet, is in my travels as a food scientist. Even though I talk to people on the Internet and we share reports etc., when I was doing all this work in China, I would get up at 6am and just walk in the streets. It would be so wonderful to watch people getting up in the morning. You’d see people squatting in front of the drainage ditch in front of buildings brushing their teeth, and then people opening up the doors, kind of like garage doors, to their little stores and they were in the back.
There’s an intimacy of being there that you don’t get with just the Internet. It’s like the difference between having coffee with a friend and having a Zoom meeting with a friend. You connect but you just connect in a more intimate way when you’re actually there.
DEVON: What is something young people take for granted about technology that, for you, when you were in your 20s, was a big frustration or a big limitation?
PAMELA: Well when I went to college we had to use Fortran, or punch cards. I’m an imperfect person, I’m not a detail fanatic, so I always had one typographical error. There was so much demand on the computers that you couldn’t get your deck of cards until midnight and if there was one error, you had to go correct it and then resubmit it. It took forever to run programs, so that was a big frustration in college.
DEVON: I remember my dad, he also went to college around that time with punch cards. He was racing to get to his time slot to be with the machine and he tripped, and he spilled all of his cards all over the place. He had to go sort them. They weren’t numbered, or something, so he had to figure out how to sort them back. It sounds extremely frustrating.
PAMELA: It was just so difficult to do. Punch cards were the worst.
People can work on websites that are not technical people. Everything’s been made so much more friendly. It’s just fantastic. Don’t you think?
DEVON: It is pretty great, yeah.
PAMELA: The big problem is people reacting all the time instead of thinking and responding carefully and not knowing what the truth is in terms of chatter. I don’t think that is a problem in your area because you’re working as a team, you all have the same goal. But in society it’s clearly become a big problem of knowing what’s true and what’s not true.
DEVON: Yeah, very relieved of that.
Resource One was described as a, “Testament to the way computer technology could be used as guerrilla warfare for people against bureaucracies.” But until that point, computers were massive mainframes almost exclusively owned by corporations and institutions. What did you see that others didn’t? That it had this potential to be a personal computing device and a networked computing device?
PAMELA: Like I said, it wasn’t just me, it was a feeling of a lot of technical people like myself had, that what you’re saying is true.
They were using them for business and military aims and our job, as young technical people, was to find a way to use them for people.
In all of science, there were people doing that. That was the beginning of looking at the environment. We weren’t talking about climate change, but destruction of the environment with monoculture in agriculture.
DEVON: We’re coming up towards the end of our time so I’ll just ask one last question, and that question is: what should I have asked you? What about Resource One do people not really understand?
PAMELA: I think what’s been nice for me reflecting, from you asking those questions earlier, is just how everybody arrived as needed at Resource One to do what was needed. “Everyone’s lives unfolded after Resource One in so many different ways, which were enriched by the fact that we had to build our own walls, build our own space, raise our own money, and work together as a team. I think that broadened all of our horizons.”
DEVON: Well this was an incredibly fun conversation Pam. Thank you for taking time on a Saturday morning to chat.
PAMELA: Hopefully I’ll talk to you again soon.
DEVON: You too, bye.