A New Online Archive Lets You Read the Whole Earth Catalog and Other Whole Earth Publications, Taking You from 1970 to 2002

Today, if you want to get start­ed in home brew­ing, shop for a syn­the­siz­er, find out what cyber­net­ics is, order non-genet­i­cal­ly-mod­i­fied seeds, start your own mush­room farm, learn how to repair a Volk­swa­gen, sub­scribe to lib­er­tar­i­an pub­li­ca­tions, pur­chase the work of Mar­shall McLuhan, sign up for an out­door excur­sion, read an essay on zen Bud­dhism, com­pare home-birth setups, gath­er home­school­ing mate­ri­als, build a geo­des­ic dome, you go to one place first: the inter­net. Half a cen­tu­ry ago, when the per­son­al com­put­er had only just come into exis­tence, that would­n’t have been an option. But pro­vid­ed you were suf­fi­cient­ly tapped into the coun­ter­cul­ture, you could open up the nine­teen-sev­en­ties equiv­a­lent of the inter­net: The Whole Earth Cat­a­log.

Launched by Stew­art Brand in 1968, the Whole Earth Cat­a­log curat­ed and pre­sent­ed the prod­ucts and ser­vices of a wide vari­ety of busi­ness­es all between the cov­ers of one increas­ing­ly weighty print­ed vol­ume offer­ing what its slo­gan called “access to tools.”

While cer­tain of its sec­tions reflect­ed the most lit­er­al mean­ing of the term “tools” — you could’ve kept a pret­ty robust farm going with all the imple­ments on offer, and no doubt more than a few read­ers tried to do so — the larg­er enter­prise seemed to run on the goal of expand­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of what a tool could be, as well as the range of pos­si­bil­i­ties it could open to its user. Even sub­scribers who nev­er bought a prod­uct could receive an edu­ca­tion from the cat­a­log’s often eccen­tric but always infor­ma­tive descrip­tions of those prod­ucts.

“Behind the infor­ma­tion, the advice, the hints, and the facts, this book is about com­ing to see things as they are, through your own eyes, instead of the hired eyes of some expert or oth­er. It’s about train­ing your­self to trust your­self, and trust­ing your­self to train your­self, until you‘re able to claim your right as a human to be com­pe­tent with your hands.” These words come from writer and doc­u­men­tar­i­an Gur­ney Nor­man’s cap­sule review, in the spring 1970 Whole Earth Cat­a­log, of Joan Ran­son Short­ney’s book, How to Live on Noth­ing (described there­in as “our best-sell­ing book”). But Nor­man could just as well have been describ­ing the Whole Earth Cat­a­log itself, which was all about the abil­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als and small groups, equipped with not just tech­nol­o­gy new and old but also deep reserves of opti­mism and humor, to deter­mine their own des­tiny.

“The Whole Earth Cat­a­log offered a vision for a new social order,” writes the New York­er’s Anna Wiener, “one that eschewed insti­tu­tions in favor of indi­vid­ual empow­er­ment, achieved through the acqui­si­tion of skills and tools. The lat­ter cat­e­go­ry includ­ed agri­cul­tur­al equip­ment, weav­ing kits, mechan­i­cal devices, books like Kib­butz: Ven­ture in Utopia, and dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies and relat­ed the­o­ret­i­cal texts, such as Nor­bert Wiener’s Cyber­net­ics and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a pro­gram­ma­ble cal­cu­la­tor.” Oth­er sec­tions might offer Grav­i­ty’s Rain­bow; an Apple II home com­put­er; some­thing called “self-ther­a­peu­tic rub­ber”; and even a hot tub. “Many a new­com­er to Cal­i­for­nia remem­bers for­ev­er the trau­ma of first being invit­ed — at a per­fect­ly ordi­nary par­ty — to strip and enter a steam­ing tub full of strangers,” writes Brand in the Next Whole Earth Cat­a­log of fall 1980, which may sound a bit late in the game for that sort of thing.

But then, the spir­it of the Whole Earth Cat­a­log, first ani­mat­ed by the free-enter­prise-and-free-love nine­teen-six­ties and sev­en­ties, has long out­last­ed its orig­i­nal cul­tur­al moment — and indeed the cat­a­log itself, which ceased pub­li­ca­tion in 1998. But now, thanks to Gray Area and the Inter­net Archive, you can read and down­load many issues of not just the Whole Earth Cat­a­log but also its suc­ces­sor pub­li­ca­tions, from CoEvo­lu­tion Quar­ter­ly to Whole Earth Mag­a­zine, in a new online col­lec­tion span­ning the years 1970 to 2002. To browse it is to enter a coun­ter­cul­tur­al time machine, expe­ri­enc­ing both the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness and the pre­science of the coun­ter­cul­ture as if for the first time. But then, for the vast major­i­ty of its vis­i­tors here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry — who know that coun­ter­cul­ture only indi­rect­ly, through its wide but dif­fuse influ­ence on every­thing up to and includ­ing the inter­net — it will be the first time. Enter the col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Stew­art Brand’s 6‑Part Series How Build­ings Learn, With Music by Bri­an Eno

Earth­rise, Apol­lo 8’s Pho­to of Earth from Space, Turns 50: Down­load the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph from NASA

Bri­an Eno Cre­ates a List of 20 Books That Could Rebuild Civ­i­liza­tion

Down­load the Com­plete Archive of Oz, “the Most Con­tro­ver­sial Mag­a­zine of the 60s,” Fea­tur­ing R. Crumb, Ger­maine Greer & More

Buck­min­ster Fuller Tells the World “Every­thing He Knows” in a 42-Hour Lec­ture Series (1975)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Avukat says:

    Thank you for shar­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion about the online archive of The Whole Earth Cat­a­log and its relat­ed pub­li­ca­tions. It’s an excit­ing resource that pro­vides insight into the coun­ter­cul­ture of the past. The col­lec­tion’s avail­abil­i­ty allows us to revis­it and appre­ci­ate the ideas and tools that shaped a par­tic­u­lar era and con­tin­ue to influ­ence our world today.

  • Rose B says:

    This would be a great resource if we could OCR the text into some­thing leg­i­ble for screen read­ers. With the col­umn struc­ture of the text, OCR attempts with the PDFs just are a jum­ble mak­ing this beau­ti­ful resource inac­ces­si­ble to many.

  • David Barker says:

    HAD the per­son­al com­put­er come into exis­tence 50 years ago. I’m 68 years old and I can­not remem­ber any­body using a desk­top or home com­put­er at that time. Mind, they were begin­ning to be very pop­u­lar FORTY years ago…

  • Don Taber says:

    I had for­got­ten about the Whole Earth Cat­a­log, but your arti­cle brought back a flood of mem­o­ries. I spent many hap­py hours pour­ing over the first edi­tion when it came out.

  • Silverlake Bodhisattva says:

    Olivet­ti Pro­gram­ma 101, 1965: https://www.pingdom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/programma101-uk.jpg

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