Access to Success

The “Whole Earth Catalog" was a 1960s publishing sensation. It happened because its creator was given a chance to fail.

Publisher Stewart Brand, 50 years later.
Publisher Stewart Brand, 50 years later.

Bookstore managers didn’t know quite what to make of the oversized 64-page volume that showed up in their stores in the fall of 1968. It was called the “Whole Earth Catalog” and subtitled “Access to Tools.” For $5, buyers got a hodgepodge of photos, drawings and short written endorsements of books, tools, gadgets and materials, organized into seven sections ranging from “Understanding Whole Systems” and “Shelter and Land Use” to “Nomadics” and “Learning.”

With its striking cover photo of the Earth from space, it was unlike anything else in bookstores. But the Catalog touched a nerve. Leafing through took you on a winding path through a very late-’60s hippie, do-it-yourself world. Its busy, cluttered pages offered everything from buckskin, beads and L.L. Bean hunting shoes to kerosene lamps, electronic equipment, freeze-dried foods, a one-man sawmill and plenty of books, on topics such as camping, survival, “tantra art,” creative glass blowing and television production. The Catalog didn’t actually sell anything directly, except subscriptions to future issues — it referred readers to other sources for the goods it displayed.

The cover of the first “Whole Earth Catalog,” published in 1968.
The cover of the first “Whole Earth Catalog,” published in 1968.

Overnight, the quirky publication exploded as a national bestseller, with its first run expanded from 1,000 copies to ultimately 2 million copies. It won the National Book Award in 1972. The “Whole Earth Catalog” captured the hippie spirit and helped to define a generation of young Americans who, alienated by the Vietnam War and an increasingly materialistic nation that seemed to have lost its soul, were forming a powerful counterculture. 

Fifty years on, the Catalog still defines the concept of serendipity. With its eclectic collection of wares, it was the link between the old Sears catalog and the modern Amazon online emporium. When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs tried to explain the Catalog to a new generation in a Stanford University commencement address in 2005, he described it as being “sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.”

And yet, despite its rapid and enormous success, the “Whole Earth Catalog” almost never happened. Its Silicon Valley origins were an early embodiment of a philosophy that later powered the Valley’s entrepreneurial explosion: It’s OK — even good — to fail.

Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."
Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."


The Catalog has its own creation tale as told and retold by founder Stewart Brand, then a 29-year-old former paratrooper casting around for something to do after several failed ventures. In March 1968, he was flying back to his home in California from his father’s funeral in Illinois. As the nation’s heartland scrolled below, he jotted down ideas for a new business that would encompass a mail-order catalog and a delivery vehicle in the form of a mobile truck store.

Etched on the inside cover of a copy of Barbara Ward’s “Spaceship Earth,” Stewart Brand scribbled: “What I’m visualizing is an Access Mobile (accessory?) with all manner of access materials + advice for sale cheap. Including performances of stuff, books, dandy survival and camping equipment, catalogs, design plans, periodical subscriptions, copy equipment (+ other gathering equipment — some element of barter here). Prime item of course would be the catalog.” 

As an afterthought, in a riff on a then-popular backpacking catalog with a cult following, he added: “Notion: every catalog item pictured is held by a naked lady.”

But while Brand — now a noted Silicon Valley author, sage and philanthropist — was the public face of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” another man, Dick Raymond, was the force that empowered Brand. Raymond, a business consultant and urban planner who died in 2015, ran the Portola Institute, an educational foundation where Brand was working when he came up with the idea for the Catalog.

The Portola Institute was Silicon Valley’s first true incubator. It not only birthed the Catalog, but several years later it also served as the seedbed for the Homebrew Computer Club, the hobbyist group that spawned several dozen personal computing companies, including Apple Computer.

That was a remarkable track record for a non-profit that operated on a shoestring. Explaining the Portola Institute, Raymond would point to a sign on his desk that read “Fail Young.”

Prior to starting the Catalog, that’s exactly what Stewart Brand had done.

Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."
Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."


In 1956, Stewart Brand had followed his brother Mike to Stanford, where he studied biology and mostly spent his time trying to get himself out of his “Midwest skin,” according to a Stanford friend, Joan Squires-Lind. During his senior year, as a result of a class assignment, Brand stumbled upon the Beat scene in San Francisco’s North Beach.

A chance visit to the city’s bohemian neighborhood lit up Brand intellectually. He raved about his visit in a long letter home to his mother. After graduation, he spent the summer in an apartment in North Beach before leaving to join the Army on the East Coast. He washed out of Ranger training, but then succeeded as a second lieutenant and paratrooper and spent two years in the service.

Deciding to pursue photojournalism as a career, he hung around for a while with a small band of new-media artists in Greenwich Village, but in 1962, he returned to San Francisco, taking up residence in an apartment in North Beach and diving back into the Beat scene. He soon discovered LSD, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. He began working on the craft of photography somewhere at the line between art and photojournalism. 

Not long after Brand returned, Raymond, a longtime family friend and mentor who was consulting for the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, offered him a job taking photographs at the reservation in Oregon. Brand’s trip there was a seminal moment. He was mesmerized by Native American culture, and when he was introduced to another friend of Raymond’s, San Francisco architect Zach Stewart, the two set out to capture the importance of Native American culture and contrast it with the modern United States in a show that Brand called “America Needs Indians.” With multiple slide projectors and a wild soundtrack, it foreshadowed a new art form that several decades later would come to life as “multimedia” in the personal computer era. 

Brand used the show as the opening act for a three-day happening in January 1966 known as the “Trips Festival,” which became the defining moment for the emerging California counterculture. It became the most successful of a series of “Acid Tests” that had been organized by Kesey and the Pranksters. Intended to be a way to experience an LSD trip without taking LSD (actually there was plenty of LSD to be taken), the Trips Festival took place over three days at the Longshoremen’s Hall near the San Francisco waterfront and featured light shows and performances by the Grateful Dead and other bands.

Connecting “America Needs Indians” to the Trips Festival made Brand the bridge between the Beat and hippie cultures that blossomed in San Francisco. Later, connecting Native American culture to the “Whole Earth Catalog” helped shape the American environmental movement that arose during the 1970s.

By itself, the Trips Festival had a dramatic impact on San Francisco — it was the first time the 10,000 hippies who were then spread all across the Bay Area realized they were a defined community, leading directly to the emergence of Haight Ashbury during the following year. Brand, however, had little interest in the Haight Ashbury scene. Like many moments in his life, he was there early both as an observer and as a protagonist, and by the time the Summer of Love movement got off the ground, he was on to his next big thing.

The following year, Dick Raymond presented Brand with the opportunity to organize an even bigger event: a weeklong “Education Faire” on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds.

The Whole Earth Catalog was a cornucopia of tools, clothing, books and oddities, put together by a small team led by Stewart Brand and backed by Dick Raymond (above).
The Whole Earth Catalog was a cornucopia of tools, clothing, books and oddities, put together by a small team led by Stewart Brand and backed by Dick Raymond (above).


Raymond had been a close friend of Stewart’s older brother Mike at Stanford, and when Stewart arrived in 1956, Raymond and his wife, Ann, gave the younger Brand a haven away from the insular Stanford campus.

At the time, Raymond was working as an urban planner at Stanford Research Institute, where his clients included the city of Menlo Park and the Seattle World’s Fair. (Raymond convinced the fair organizers that its buildings should be permanent; the Space Needle and its surrounding complex remain Seattle landmarks to this day.)

The Raymonds lived in Ladera, a neighborhood in Portola Valley, then a small rural town just west of the Stanford campus. It was not far from Perry Lane, where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters first took root in the early 1960s, and around the corner from where the Grateful Dead took up residence in the mid-’60s.

Raymond, who had a Harvard MBA, referred to himself as an economics consultant specializing in land use, recreational economics and community development. He started the Portola Institute in 1966, and it became a haven for freelance entrepreneurs in the field of education.

“There are no rules,” he wrote. “It demonstrates how the process of non-planning can work. The take we have now is making things happen but also having the air of complete simplicity — sometimes making things simple is more difficult than making things complicated.” For Brand, with Raymond as his patron, the Portola Institute was to become the base for a series of projects, with varying degrees of success.

the whole earth catalog was such a publishing phenomenon that it generated several editions
The Whole Earth Catalog was such a publishing phenomenon that it generated several editions. Brand, above, helped to paste up the second edition in 1969.


After the Trips Festival, Brand led a group of student activists in San Francisco in a similar event in October 1966 called “Whatever It Is.” The students took over the San Francisco State campus during a long weekend featuring a fugitive Ken Kesey, the Pranksters and the Grateful Dead. 

At the event, Brand met two young student activists, James and Cynthia Nixon. James Nixon was student body president at San Francisco State, deeply committed to radical education and active in a student-run “experimental college” at the school.

In early 1967 Brand had come back from helping his friend Steve Durkee start the Lama commune in New Mexico with the intent of “letting his technology happen” in Menlo Park. He went to Raymond looking for a job and perhaps some kind of entry into the world of “business technology” in the pre-Silicon Valley regional boom. As it happens, Michael Phillips, a San Francisco banker who was a friend of Dick Raymond’s and a Portola Institute board member, had organized an “Educational Innovations Faire” that had recently taken place on the San Francisco State campus, exploring the intersection of education and technology. 

Raymond asked Brand if he wanted to extend Phillips’ original idea and help organize a larger version. At first Brand demurred, telling Raymond that he was through with public events for a while. However, spurred on by his need for work, he gradually warmed to the idea and several weeks later took Raymond up on his offer. He brought in the Nixons after spending a night driving the streets of San Francisco and brainstorming with them.

At the time computer technology was already a significant force around Stanford. The plan for the fair was to bring companies that sold primitive computer-assisted education systems into the fair as exhibitors. Brand met Doug Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse and a computing system that was the forerunner of the personal computer and the internet, and he was enlisted as a fair supporter.

But what began with great enthusiasm would collapse after a half year’s hard work. Brand ended up deeply resenting the Nixons’ approach, feeling that they were immersed in the criticism/self-criticism style of the Movement. Burned out by endless meetings that accomplished little, Raymond pulled the plug on the project.

The experience permanently soured Brand on the New Left. He decided that the idealism of the students was largely ineffective.

Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."
Inside page from the original "Whole Earth Catalog."


Brand continued to spend his time at the Portola Institute. He also continued to be a fount of ideas, some off the wall and one or two occasionally worth trying. In 1968, despite the failure of the Education Faire, Raymond gave Brand access to a garage hidden in the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains — part of an aging hippie crash pad known as Rancho Diablo set on 70 acres high above the Santa Clara Valley. Raymond had renamed it Ortega Park, with the idea of establishing an experimental laboratory to explore new ideas in teaching.

“What we’re trying to create here is a new administrative model,” Raymond told Gurney Norman, who co-authored a 1970 Esquire story on Brand, the Catalog and the Portola Institute, “a complete reversal of the success syndrome, a place to fail and feel good about it. That’s what education is all about, it grows on mistakes, without failure it just wouldn’t happen.”

Raymond’s faith in Brand, despite his string of failed projects, gave Brand the ability to take another chance. When Brand mentioned his idea of a wide-ranging catalog to Raymond, his mentor was quick to give him encouragement. With his then-wife, Lois Jennings, along with a young graphic artist and a typist, Brand moved into the garage at Ortega Park and quickly produced the first “Whole Earth Catalog.” 

It was soon obvious that he had touched a nerve. Sales took off shortly after the first issue was published in 1968. The Catalog resonated with an entire generation. Millions of Americans were exploring more sustainable ways of living in the form of a brief but widespread back-to-the-land movement. Others were dabbling in everything from the human potential movement to psychedelic drugs, and the Catalog quickly became their bible.

For Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of Strategy+Business, who as a young editor worked at CoEvolutionary Quarterly, a follow-on to the Catalog, Brand’s contribution was not just about “access to tools,” but also about instilling a deep faith in human progress. “It was the idea, ‘Let’s take this baby humanity out on the road and see what it will do,’” he says.

The “Whole Earth Catalog” went through several editions and supplements before sputtering out in the mid-‘70s. Today, at 79, Brand is still at it. His current project is Revive and Restore, an effort to spur the use of modern genetic engineering tools to help diversify the genomes of endangered species and thus increase their resilience in the face of climate change. It was, after all, the first sentence in the “Whole Earth Catalog”: “We are as Gods, and we might as well get good at it.”

And it wouldn’t have happened at all if Dick Raymond hadn’t given Stewart Brand permission to fail.

Keep reading: The Roots of Sexism in Silicon Valley

John Markoff wrote about technology and science for the New York Times beginning in March 1988 as the paper’s national computer writer.
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