Computer Hobby Movement in Canada

In the mid-1970s, there were just a few computers in Canadian homes. A decade later, a worldwide personal computing frenzy was on and all kinds of computers for home and personal use were manufactured by the millions. The computer hobby movement—activities of hobbyists interested in computing—was one of the main contributing factors to that sudden change which Computer Hobby Movement in Canada exhibit intends to affirm and chronicle.

This exhibit is dedicated to a decade-long computer hobby movement in Canada and its role in bringing computing into the homes of Canadians. It chronicles the movement's development and contributions by focusing on the Toronto Region Association of Computer Enthusiasts (TRACE)  — arguably the earliest Canadian computer hobby organizations. Its history (1976-1985), as recorded in the club’s newsletter, documents, and oral histories, offers unique insights into a vibrant Canadian hobbyists’ movement interfaced with the electronics industry and society. It reflects and demarcates the main phases in personal computing's development. It points to the similarities between the Canadian and the American hobby movements as well as to their distinct features. TRACE history also reveals the challenges faced by the global North American computer hobby movement in its struggle to continuously redefine itself and stay socially relevant, a battle which it ultimately lost in the late 1980s but not without leaving a rich cultural legacy, not without making personal computing relevant and inclusive.

The origins

The computer hobby movement grew out of a more than half-a-century-long tradition of radio and electrics hobbyism backed by a large variety of magazines such as the American Modern Electrics (renamed The Electrical Experimenter) and Popular Electricity in Plain English both launched in 1908, Radio-Craft, first published in 1929 (renamed Radio-Electronics), and Popular Electronics—perhaps one of the most influential hobby electronics magazines of the last century—which was launched in 1954. The radio and electrics hobbyism tradition in other countries also goes back a long way. In the U.K., Popular Wireless was offered in 1922, The Boys' Wireless News was launched in Australia in the same year, and Радиолюбитель [Radio Amateur] and Радио всем [Radio for Everybody] started to appear in the Soviet Union in 1924 and 1925, respectively.

The covers of the premiere and early issues of: The Electrical Experimenter, Popular Electricity in Plain English, Radio-Craft, and Popular Electronics (top row, left-to right);  The Boys' Wireless News, Popular Wireless, Радиолюбитель, and Радио всем (bottom row, left-to right).

Since the end of the 1940s, computer enthusiasts and dedicated educators had been involved in a range of computing-related activities from the design of computer toys and educational aids to publishing and setting up computer social groups and organizations.

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The fist issue of the ACS Newsletter published in New York by Stephen Gray in August 1966.

In 1966, the first such organization—the Amateur Computer Society (ACS)—was launched in the U.S. The ACS Newsletter was a forum for the exchange of information on computing among the growing number of computer enthusiasts. Although the computers of the 1960s were to big, to complex, and to expensive to be replicated by a hobbyist, ACS reported that some of its members constructed and experimented with their own rudimentary computers as early as 1966.

The introduction of the microprocessor ("a computer on a chip" as the device was informally referred to) onto the market in the early 1970s triggered the outbreak of homebrew computer activities that spawned the North American computer hobby movement. From 1974, electronics enthusiasts were buying, building, and experimenting with rudimentary low-cost microprocessor-powered computers (or microcomputers) frequently offered to them in a kit, do-it-yourself form. All of a sudden, the movement found itself in the front line of personal computer revolution.

The computer hobby movement in the U.S. had a strong influence on the early developments of personal computing worldwide. However, the computer hobby activities of the 1970s and early 1980s were neither restricted to the U.S. nor were they homogeneous. Hobbyists in Asia, Australia, and Europe were frequently building and experimenting with locally designed and manufactured computers. Their hobby activities were influenced by local conditions and had a considerable impact on domestic home and personal computer markets which were developing in unique ways and at a unique pace, providing further evidence that technological developments are not always globally uniform and that technology is culturally dependent.

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The first hobby computer in Australia was designed by Jamieson Rowe in 1974. He published his EDU-8 computer construction project (left image) in Electronics Australia in a series of articles titled "Build Your Own Computer." The second inage depicts Sergey Popov operating his Micro-80 computer in 1979. The designs of the computer published by Popov, Panov, and Zelenko in Radio magazin, genrated the first wave of computer hobby activities in the Soviet Union.

TRACE is born

In late 1975, several employees of R&D division of Control Data Canada (CDC) located in Mississauga, Ontario, began their informal after-work meetings to talk about advancements in microelectronics and the possibility of designing rudimentary microcomputers for personal use. The person who played the central role in bringing hobby computer enthusiasts together at CDC and who felt most strongly about forming a hobbyists’ club was Harold Melanson, an American software engineer "on loan" to CDC which was a Canadian subsidiary of Control Data Corporation, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was familiar with microprocessors both from the professional journals and the hobby magazines, Melanson later recollected.
I had always wanted to build my own computer. I knew a handful of people at work who had like interests, and thought that there must be others in the area who wanted to build micro[processor]-based systems. It seemed like a good idea to pool our knowledge, share parts sources, have swap meets, etc.

The first meeting of the Toronto area microcomputer enthusiasts took place in Melanson’s apartment on January 23, 1976. The first one-page bulletin prepared by Melanson tentatively named the group “The ? Microcomputer Group of Greater Toronto.”

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Invitation to "what may become Toronto area microcomputer user's society", January 23, 1976 (left) and the premiere issue of The ? Microcomputer Group of Greater Toronto (later TRACE Newletter), March 15, 1976.

At the April meeting, the group adopted its official name — the Toronto Region Association of Computer Enthusiasts (TRACE).

The formation of TRACE was not an isolated event on the computer hobby scene of the mid-1970s. In fact, at the time of TRACE’s first informal meetings, the North American microcomputer hobby movement was about one year old. It was set into motion by the Mark-8 microcomputer project published by Jonathan Titus on the pages of Radio-Electronics in July 1974. To Titus’ surprise, his microcomputer construction project resonated strongly with the Radio-Electronics' readers who not only were building the computer but also started to organize dedicated Mark-8 clubs and groups.

Another hobby microcomputer was offered to the electronics enthusiasts half a year later. The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics contained the first part of an article by Edward Roberts and William Yates describing the Altair 8800 microcomputer as the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models...” For just $395, Roberts’ company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems offered the Altair 8800 microcomputer in kit form. The computer had a profound impact on the computer enthusiasts and quickly became their hardware icon.

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The covers of Radio Electronics, July 1974, and of Popular Electronics, January 1975.

The Homebrew Computer Club (HCC) was one of the most influential early microcomputer hobby organizations. Formed in San Francisco Bay Area in early March 1975, it shortly attracted a large number of computer enthusiasts. The early membership of HCC was diverse; it included computer novices as well as people with considerable hardware and software knowledge. Most of HCC's members were interested in microcomputers, many in building them, some in experimenting with them. There were also club members who regarded microcomputers as tools for social change as well as cultural and educational advancement.

Franklin hobby computer

Howard Franklin re-assembling his 1974 computer at his home in 2003. Photograph by Z. Stachniak. Franklin’s microcomputer resides at York University Computer Museum.

By contrast, the early members of TRACE were mostly computer professionals. However other enthusiasts of computing, of little or no expert computer knowledge, soon joined the club to build their first personal computers.
[T]hey all shared that invisible bond which ties together members of any hobby, wrote Garry Wheeler in the January 1978 issue of TRACE Newsletter.
This bond is strengthened by the unique language they use. Words such as byte, bit, nibble, Kansas, ram, rom, floppy, and five volts were heard [during meetings] at regular intervals.

Similarly to HCC, some people joined TRACE having already working microcomputers to their credit. A young computer enthusiast and a TRACE member, Howard Franklin, built his microcomputer in 1974. His home computer was possibly the earliest hobby computer constructed in Canada and one of the elite few microcomputers designed in the early 1970s.

TRACE members learned about microprocessors and their potential for building small and inexpensive computers primarily from the technical literature and professional presentations by semiconductor and computer manufacturers. Before its closure in early 1975, Microsystems International Ltd. (MIL) of Ottawa was one of the largest semiconductor companies manufacturing a range of products from computer memories to microprocessors. MIL’s marketing program included technical presentations delivered at corporations and universities. Walter Banks, an early TRACE member and a University of Waterloo employee, attended one of such presentations at his university leaving it with promotional literature on MIL’s MOD-8 microcomputer, a computer which would become the focus of TRACE's
early hardware activities.

MOD 8 Microcomputer

The MIL MOD-8 computer (left) and the MF8008 Central Processor Applications Manual (right) published by MIL in 1974. The manual contains all the specifications, schematic diagrams, and layouts of printed circuit boards that allowed hobbyists to build and experiment with MOD8 computers.

Another Canadian company that attracted much attention at TRACE was Toronto-based Micro Computer Machines (MCM). Since the beginning of 1972, MCM had been developing its portable personal MCM/70 computer. The computer begun to ship in 1974. TRACE invited MCM to present its computers (the MCM/70, /700, and /800) soon after the club’s formation.

MCM/70 Computer

The MCM/70 computer was possibly the earliest microprocessor-powered computer designed specifically for personal use.

Acquiring components for hobby computers was not always easy. They were expensive especially for young electronics hobbyists. According to Franklin, two companies that (indirectly) contributed to "solving" the computer components supply problem and inevitably supported the growth of the Canadian computer hobby movement were MIL and Consolidated Computer Inc. of Ottawa. Components that were out of specs were finding their way into the hobbyists' hands through the backdoor. Some of the circuit boards used by Franklin in his home computer came from Consolidated Computer, the microprocessor and memory from MIL. Franklin suspected that
The management most likely knew about this, did not worry about things that were going on at the backdoor; they knew who the chips were going to, they were not going onto the grey commercial market, they were going out to students who were building things as hobbyists.

A Canadian Computer Club

The microcomputer hobby is alive and well in Canada, if the turnout at our March meeting is an indication, wrote Gifford Toole in TRACE Newsletter following the club’s second meeting in March 1976. Twenty eight people showed up for that meeting and took part in a tour of CDC’s manufacturing facilities. In the following months the membership was growing rapidly crossing the one hundred member mark by the end of the year.

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An announcement of COMPUTERFEST'79 — the M.A.C.C 4th Convention, Luisville, Kentucky, June 1979.

TRACE hobbyists regarded their club as part of the global North American computer hobby movement rather than a distinct Canadian organization. Since June 1977, TRACE had been a member of the Midwest Affiliation of Computer Clubs; it exchanged newsletters with several American computer clubs, and its members regularly attended microcomputer events in the U.S. However, specific local factors defined some of TRACE's characteristics and in the process distinguished it from other North American computer hobby organizations. One such characteristic was TRACE's early focus on the Canadian-made MIL MOD-8 and MOD-80 microcomputers and on the APL programming language.

The MIL MOD-8 and MOD-80—were popular microcomputer ‘starters’ for hobbyists across North America. They were easy to build, expand, and experiment with. Their components were available from various sources. In April 1976, TRACE formed the MOD-8/80 special interest group. Two months later there were thirteen fully functional MOD-8/80 systems. Although TRACE hobbyists did build other computers as well such as the Mark-8s and Altair 8800s, the construction of the MOD-8 and MOD-80 computers would remain one of the main hardware activities of TRACE in its first year of operation.

Another unique characteristic of TRACE was its involvement with the APL programming language. The language's fundamentals were conceived by a Canadian, Kenneth Iverson in the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, the language was already well-established in North America and its fast growing popularity turned into a worldwide APL software movement. APL conferences and meetings, interest groups and publications, as well as "I Like APL" stickers and buttons, T-shirts and songs, transformed the initial curiosity about APL into an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.

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From left to right: K. Iverson, A Programming Language, Wiley, 1962; the December 1979 issue of I.P. Sharp Newsletter announcing Kenneth Iverson's recognition with the 1979 Turing Award (often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Computing”) by the Association for Computer Machinery;   APL Blossom Time, a 45 RPM record released by APL PRESS (the song was written by Mike Montalbano and was performed live at the APL 81 Conference in San Francisco by, according to some recollections, over 1000 people).

APL Images & Photographs

York APL reference card,  1972.

In Canada, the popularity of APL resulted in the first implementation of this language on a personal computer (the MCM/70 PC mentioned above was equipped with the MCM/APL dialect of the language) and early introduction of APL to universities. In 1968, York University offered its own variant of the language called York APL.

Several TRACE members had considerable APL expertise. In April 1976, they formed the APL special interest group. The following month, TRACE provided its members with an opportunity to glance at the MCM/70 computer and its APL language during a special MCM presentation.

By contrast, members of the Homebrew Computer Club were almost exclusively interested in the BASIC programming language developed by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. The language was further popularized by the enthusiasts of the Altair 8800 hobby computer who used a dialect of the language implemented by Microsoft's founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. However, because APL required much more memory than BASIC and because computer memory was expensive, the cost of a microcomputer running APL—such as the MCM/70—was prohibitively high for most hobbyist and, realistically, BASIC was the only language that they could afford. The connection between TRACE and the APL community continued into the early 1980s.

Regional computing landscapes directly affected the activities of other early Canadian microcomputer clubs as well. The Ottawa Computer Group  was a hardware-oriented club formed in late 1976. In 1977, Jocelyn and Frank Tait—the co-owners of the Ottawa-based Tarot Electronics—offered their MIMIC microcomputer to the club.
We belonged to a hobby group in Ottawa, recollected Jocelyn Tait, and some of the members expressed an interest in the new microcomputers, so I worked up a kit and instructions so they could build their own (which is what they liked to do) if they cared to. Eventually we were taking a display case to every meeting and selling parts to them as well as delivering quantities of the kits.

For those who did not want to solder the MIMIC’s components together, Taits offered fully assembled computers enclosed in a slope-front metal case in blue and black. Over 200 MIMICs were sold to the hobbyists.

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A fragment of the June 1979 issue of the Ottawa Computer Group Newsletter with an announcement of MIMIC Users Group's monthly meetings at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.

Early Canadian hobby clubs such as TRACE and the Ottawa Computer Group were ethnically diverse although the majority of their members were white males. Women were joining the clubs infrequently but when they did, like Jocelyn Tait, they contributed novel ideas and solutions to their clubs.

Hobbyists or Hackers

TRACE's beginnings were typical of early North-American computer hobby clubs. Microcomputers were what their hobby was all about and it was only natural that building them was the focus of their early activities. However, not all TRACE computer enthusiasts saw small microprocessor-powered computers only as world’s greatest toys and to them the building of rudimentary hardware and software was never satisfactory. They wanted to explore the potential of microcomputers more fully. The 1976 survey on topics of interest to the club’s members revealed that the majority of TRACE hobbyists favoured advanced hardware and software subjects such as computer graphics. The subjects that scored the lowest on the survey were "getting a system together" and "what I do with my computer" (similar results were reported after the 1979 survey).

In spite of clear preferences articulated in the surveys, it was not evident how to turn them into the club’s stated role as an organization. Eventually, the club's constitution approved in 1978 stated that “The general purpose of TRACE shall be to promote and encourage community interest in hobby computing.” The term ‘hobby computing’ was not defined in the constitution but it was understood, informally, as a non-commercial activity concerned with building hardware, writing software, experimentation with, and sharing information about microcomputers.

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The cover of TRACE Newsletter, August 1982, depicting a photograph of Ontario and the Great Lakes taken by Tiros-N satellite in September 1980. This image was produced using a high-resolution display generator designed by TRACE hacker Fulko Hew.

To many, however, TRACE was not an organization of hobbyists but of computer hacking — a type of activity that required working hard on laborious hardware or software projects.
I think [the term] ‘hobbyist’ connotes someone who’s just passing time doing ‘the thing’ without a real goal and without intense motivation, commented Fulko Hew, TRACE's last president, whereas a hacker is out there to improve either something or themselves — the ‘works hard’ part [of the definition of a hacker]. According to Hew, TRACE members were hackers in the proper definition of the term. We were hackers... we built the future of personal computing. We were doing things that (relatively) few other people in the world were doing.

Hew’s depiction of TRACE as an organization of hackers echoes Bob Kamins’ views that he expressed in his June 1982 “Real Hackers don't use IC’s” editorial for TRACE Newsletter:
If there is one thing distinguishing TRACE from many other computer clubs, it is the disproportionately large number of hackers among the members. Hackers will continue to make contributions ... to the art of computing.

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JLS Computers Inc. Promotional brochure, c. 1983.

Finding evidence of significant hacking activities at TRACE to support Hew and Kamins’ point of view is not difficult. Hew himself ‘hacked’ a high-resolution graphics display. Using his system he was able to display high-resolution images produced, for instance, by the Tiros-N weather satellite (one of such images was reproduced on the cover of the August 1982 issue of TRACE Newsletter).

Hew did not commercialize his display. On the other hand, Kamins did convert his hardware hacking experience into business when he started his HAL Computer firm in Toronto to manufacture IBM PC and XT compatible computers. And so did Joe Sutherland, whose Toronto-based company —J.L.S. Computers Inc. —manufactured IBM PC, XT, and AT compatible computers, and another TRACE hacker Walter Banks who founded an electronics company Byte Craft in Waterloo in 1976.

Howard Franklin’s experimentation with microcomputer hardware culminated in 1977 with his design of a microcomputer-based voting system for Borough of North York, Ontario, which was used by its  council for many years.

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A drawing of Howard Franklin’s microcomputer-based voting system for Borough of North York, Ontario, 1977.

Possibly the most successful among early TRACE hackers were Jim Butterfield and Peter Jennings. Between 1976 and 1977, Butterfield devoted his time to making the MOS Technology KIM-1 microcomputer more accessible to hobbyists.

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Jim Butterfield shows his The First Book of Kim during his 2005 lecture at York University. Photograph by Z. Stachniak.

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Peter Jennings demonstrating his Microchess program during the 5th Vintage Computer Festival, Mountain View, CA, 2003. Photograph by Z. Stachniak.

The result of his work was a popular book The First Book of KIM published in 1977. Later, Butterfield became a legendary promoter of Commodore products and prolific writer on the subject of microcomputing. His enthusiasm for the KIM-1 brought him and Peter Jennings together. In 1976 Jennings wrote Microchess — a chess playing program for the KIM-1 and, later, offered for other computers. The game became one of the most successful entertainment programs written for early home computers and launched Jennings’ successful entrepreneurial career.

Interestingly, some of the early profits from Microchess were used by the company Personal Software (which had purchased Microchess from Jennings), to help finance the marketing of one of the first spreadsheet programs—VisiCalc—arguably the first “killer application” and one of the best selling software products in the early personal computer industry. VisiCalc was initially offered for the Apple ][ computer exclusively helping the young Apple Computer Inc., rooted in another hobby computer club, HCC, to establish itself as an early industry leader.

Years later, Peter Jennings commented that there were those at TRACE with considerable hacking drive and those who, like him, wanted to turn their passion for microcomputing into an entrepreneurial venture. But he also noted that there were those who never considered their hobby a business opportunity.

Hew, Kamins, and Jennings painted a complex picture of TRACE that reflected their expectations of what the club could have accomplished. In their recollections, they recalled hackers and consumers of microprocessor products. They mentioned those who, like Jim Butterfield, were very curious about the new microcomputer technologies and applications. They finally talked about future entrepreneurs, like Peter Jennings and Walter Banks, like Jocelyn and Frank Tait, who transformed their enthusiasm for microcomputers into successful business ventures.

Interfacing with Community

Until the arrival of the first wave of commercial home and personal computers from large manufacturers such as Commodore, Atari, and Tandy in 1977 and 1978, hobby computing's versatile infrastructure that included clubs and groups, computer events and programs, dedicated magazines and stores, offered comprehensive information about microcomputing to the general public.

Top row (left to right): First Canadian Computer Store catalog (1977), First Canadian Computer News newsletter (Summer 1977), House of Computers promotional brochure (1978), an announcement of the opening of Active Components electronics store in Toronto. Bottom row (left to right): The Computer Place catalog  (late 1970s), Computer Mart News newsletter (November 1977), Exceltronix Fall 1983 Catalog, Active Surplus store in Toronto — an iconic electronic surplus store supporting the needs of hobbyists and artists (c. 2010).

Judging by the high attendance numbers recorded during the Canadian Computer Show and Conference in the second half of the 1970s (Canadian Computer Show and Conference had been a prime Canadian computer event organized annually by the Canadian Information Processing Society since 1969), Canadians were ready to take a closer look at microcomputers as soon as those were brought out of the clubs and basements into the open.

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The official guide and program of the 1980 Canadian Computer Show and Conference, Toronto, November 11-13, 1980. Published by Canadian Datasystems.

The attendance at the 1977 Canadian Computer Show and Conference was estimated at 13,000. By the early 1980s, that number grew to over 30,000. TRACE participation in the Canadian Computer Show and Conference events as well as its involvement in organizing microcomputer exhibits and shows provide evidence of information transfer from Canadian computer hobbyists to the general public that was occurring in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first public event organized by TRACE was not, in fact, the club’s initiative at all. It was a microcomputer exhibit mounted in Toronto's Ontario Science Center during the International Federation of Information Processing meeting hosted by the center on August 8-12, 1977.

For TRACE, the  Ontario Science Center's invitation was a unique opportunity to showcase microcomputing in front of a large audience of computer professionals and general public visiting the center. It was also an opportunity to test the organization's readiness and maturity to create and deliver outreach programs.

TRACE exhibit at the Ontario Science Center was followed by another presentation during the 1977 Canadian Computer Show and Conference that took place in Mississauga, Ontario, in early November. The organizers offered exhibit booths to several Canadian computer clubs including TRACE, the Kitchener-Waterloo Microcomputer Club, and the Ottawa Computer Group. Under the The First Canadian Personal Computing Showplace banner the clubs as well as local suppliers of microcomputer products showcased the age of microcomputer by exhibiting hobby and commercial personal computers.

The success of the 1977 microcomputer exhibit at the Ontario Science Center, allowed TRACE to exhibit there again in the following two years. Reporting on the overnight preparations for the 1978 exhibit, Ross Cooling wrote in the July 1978 issue of TRACE Newsletter about the public's high anticipation of the event:
You could tell the public knew what was happening - we had hard time holding them back that night.

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The announcement of the 1983 TRACE Computerfest in Toronto (left) and the official TRACE Computerfest poster (right).

The biggest event put together by TRACE was the Computerfest that took place at Toronto's Harbourfront on July 8-10, 1983. The Computerfest was an annual event sponsored by Midwest Affiliation of Computer Clubs to promote microcomputers and their use in society.

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Lining up for tickets at Computerfest'83. Photographer unknown.

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A demonstration of Canadian TELIDON videotex system during Computerfest'83. Photographer unknown.

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Crowd gothers for a software presentation at Computerfest'83. Photographer unknown.

TRACE Computerfest'83 took place under the slogan “computers are fun!” It aimed at attracting both the hobbyists as well as the general public. The registration fees were set low to encourage high participation. The three-day event was well attended and its program included microcomputer seminars, workshops for children, films, demonstrations, and exhibits on a wide variety of software- and hardware-related topics prepared by computer clubs as well as vendors of computer equipment. A flea-market and public domain software swaps completed the program.

TRACE Computerfest event demonstrated that by the early 1980s, the effective promotion and delivery of large scale computer literacy programs by computer hobby organizations such as TRACE required expertise and resources that the clubs did not and would not have. The opening of the Harbourfront Computer Center just two months later (and in approximately the same location as Computerfest'83) was clear evidence that many aspects of microcomputing were now out of the hobbyists’ hands. The Center was opened on September 19, 1983, at Queen’s Quay Terminal as "A place where you, your grandmother, your three-year-old child or your brother can come and learn on and learn about computers." It was co-founded by the federal and Ontario governments, had 30 full time positions, and supported its programs with 60 computers. It was well-positioned to deliver high-quality computer literacy programs.

Although TRACE was neither an organization of educators nor the club's focus was on outreach programs, it did contribute its fair share to the process of the social acceptance of personal computing. It had also found its voice to represent the hobby movement in Ontario and speak on its behalf. The much improved newsletter published by the club between 1982 and 1984 provided comprehensive information on computer stores, shows, meetings, and other events. It offered its pages to promote activities of other computer clubs in the region.

Winding the operations up

For most of the 1970s, these were the hobbyists, and not the commercial microcomputer or consumer electronics industries, who found themselves on the front line of promoting and imparting computer literacy at the community level.

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The Commodore VIC-20 home computer (introduced in 1980) was possibly the first computer to sell over one million units.

By the end of the decade, this situation had began to change rapidly due, in large part, to the introduction of a new consumer electronics gadget—the home computer—driven by the success of hobby computing and home gaming consoles. By the early 1980s, the consumer electronics market was full of inexpensive computers for home and schools manufactured by companies such as Apple Computer, Atari, Commodore, Texas Instruments, and Tandy. Home computers were being sold fully assembled and supported with manufacturers' warranties and ever growing libraries of software. They were readily available from large departmental stores or, as in the case of Tandy, from dedicated retail centers. For the first time in the computer industry's history, some manufacturers sold over a million computers. With these new offerings came dedicated commercial magazines and other publications. In parallel to home computing, the desktop computer market had started to attract considerable attention since the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer in August 1981.

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The TORPET magazine,  (published by The Publisher), January 1984 (left) and Personal Computer Guide (published by Electromocs Today Magazine), Spring 1983 (right).

All these developments had a profound effect on general-purpose computer clubs such as TRACE and HCC. They were brought about by electronics hobbyists whose main objective was the construction of hobby computers for the purpose of self-education and experimentation. TRACE was formed not because its early members lacked access to computers but because they were searching for ways to express their hobby interests and because it was easier to fulfill them in an organized form such as a club. However, in the new home and desktop computer reality of the early 1980s, those aspirations were no longer valid as many members were turning away from the homebrew hardware in favour of assembled computers bought in a computer store.

While in the mid-1970s, a computer hobbyist could construct his or her own computer from the ground up by using state-of-the-art components, just five years later this task could only be performed by the most knowledgeable hackers. In the March 1980 issue of TRACE Newsletter, Paul Cooling wrote:
The introduction of sixteen bit microprocessors this past year... are making it difficult for the home hobbyist to build a simple system.
Buying a fully-assembled and tested computer in a store was simply the only option for many hobbyists to operate state-of-the-art hardware.
Today a person can go into a Computer Store and purchase a computer... with all the software he or she would ever want to use, excluding games, continued Cooling. That's why The need of a computer club to help people get their systems going is almost nonexistent.

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The 25th anniversary of TPUG celebrations during the  World of Commodore 2004 event. In the top picture, some of the TPUG's earliest members (including Jim Butterfield, 3rd from the left) are presented with an anniversary cake. The bottom image depicts a flee market during the event. Photographs by Z. Stachniak.

Another challenge to social relevance of the early general-purpose computer clubs was the impact of the rapidly changing personal computing landscape on the formation of a new type of computer clubs dedicated to specific manufacturers. These new organizations that were mushrooming all over the North America were eroding membership from older general-purpose clubs at an alarming rate. For TRACE, this diminishing membership, in addition to other factors, almost resulted in its closure in early 1982. When only a few members showed up for the January meeting and none of them was willing to assume responsibilities for the club’s operations, a motion was put forward to discontinue TRACE as a formal organization. At the same time, the Toronto PET Users Group (TPUG) formed in 1978 and dedicated to Commodore microcomputer products was about 15,000 member strong and was the largest Commodore-oriented user group in the world. Fortunately for TRACE, the motion to discontinue its activities was defeated. A new and energetic executive took over and, in a short period, the club staged a spectacular comeback.

To stop the membership erosion, TRACE needed knowledgeable volunteers who would reorganize the club and keep their members active and informed.
Volunteers are the life blood of an organization like TRACE. If you don't work, TRACE won’t work, wrote Kamins in the February 1982 issue of TRACE Newsletter, in his rather desperate attempt to enlarge TRACE's volunteer base. His plea seemed to work. The attendance at the meetings picked up again through 1982. The renewed TRACE offered high-profile presentations to its members (in 1982, TRACE meetings featured, among other presentations, talks on LOGO programming language, on the development of SPAR Aerospace Shuttle Craft Manipulator Arm, and on Canada's Telidon videotex system). The club improved the quality of its newsletter which, for a brief period, was commercially sold in Toronto. New clubs and computer stores found TRACE Newsletter a convenient place to advertise their services.

From left to right: Get involved drawing published in the November 1982 issue of TRACE Newsletter; the cover of the November 1982 issue of TRACE Newsletter depicting Canadarm used on NASA's space shuttle "Columbia"; the back cover of the August 1982 issue of TRACE Newsletter announcing the review of Steven Lisberger's Tron movie; an ad by ACE Computer Supplies of Toronto in TRACE Newsletter, January 1983.

By 1985, TRACE found itself in the middle of a rich and diverse microcomputing environment. It was evident that the activity that had been powering TRACE for almost a decade—microcomputer hacking—was at its end.  The development costs of state-of-the-art hardware and software products became prohibitively high for a hacker.

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The Defender — an Apple ][ clone assembled in Canada (c. 1982).

The success of the IBM personal computer in the marketplace, followed by its informal acceptance as the industry standard for a business desktop computer, shifted the attention of many hackers to the IBM microcomputer hardware and software products and to new business opportunities created by a vast IBM PC and Apple ][ clone market. Furthermore, many computer literacy programs and large-scale computer events such as exhibits, shows, festivals and conferences, were being organized across Canada by educational institutions, dedicated organizations and companies with substantial financial backing and expert knowledge. For all these reasons, in the mid-1980s, people just stopped coming to TRACE meetings, to meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, and of the Ottawa Computer Group.

From left to right: announcements and catalogs of Pacific Cost Computer Fair, Vancouver, October 1981; Mac Fast'87, Toronto, September 1987; Computer Fest'87, Toronto, September 1987; Computer Culture Exposition, Toronto, May 1980.

Epilogue

By the mid-1980s, TRACE and the majority of other early general-purpose North American clubs wound down their operations but not before sowing the seeds of enthusiasm for personal computers into society at large and bequeathing their legacy to the new generation of microcomputer users. The decade-long microcomputer hobby movement in Canada left a rich landscape of organized computer activities: computer groups and clubs, shows and stores, computer publications and electronic bulletin board systems. In the 1980s, a new generation of computer enthusiasts stepped forward to drive microcomputing by forming vibrant computer gaming, music, and multimedia subcultures and transforming computer hobbyism from the computer club-based movement of the 1970s into new forms of digital, networked interaction and expression.

The Computer Hobby Movement in Canada exhibit has been produced by Zbigniew Stachniak using York University Computer Museum (YUCoM) resources, public domain images, and text excerpts from D. Lungu and Z. Stachniak, Following TRACE: The Computer Hobby Movement in Canada, Scientia Canadensis, vol. 34, no. 1, 2011.

The exhibit has been possible thanks to the generous support from former TRACE members who agreed to be interviewed for the history of TRACE project at YUCoM: Howard Franklin, Fulko Hew, Peter Jennings, Bob Kamins, William Kindree, Harold Melanson, Joe Sutherland, and Gifford Toole.

Computer Hobby Movement in Canada