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"We are as Gods, and might as well get good at it."

-- WholeEarthCatalog, 1968

In 1966, StewartBrand started a one-man campaign to ask NASA, "Why Haven't We Seen a Picture of the Whole Earth?" They'd been sending cameras into space for several years, but had not released any photos that showed the whole thing. Supposedly, those first "whole earth" photos partially inspired the environmental movement (along with Rachel Carson's SilentSpring?).

In 1968 he started thinking about his friends who were starting communes in rural areas and needed information about various things, both "how-to" and "where-to-buy". His first idea was for a "truck store" that would take samples around to all the communes. It would also have a catalog, partially updated by the users, who would send in information about what worked best (sort of like a wiki, but printed on paper-- and they wouldn't waste any space reviewing the bad stuff, which was analagous to deleted pages on a wiki). He borrowed the "Whole Earth" name from his earlier project, and financed the startup with money he had inherited from his parents.

The first issue of the WholeEarthCatalog was published in the fall of 1968, with a cover photo of the Whole Earth that had been taken by a satellite in November of 1967. Despite the name, the WholeEarthCatalog was a magazine that came out several times a year (they also had a store in Menlo Park, CA which mostly sold books, including mail orders from their subscribers).

In 1971 they decided to discontinue the Catalog, and published their last issue in the form of a 448-page tabloid-sized book called the "Last Whole Earth Catalog". It sold 1,600,000 copies over the next several years, and won a National Book Award. Inside they printed a letter they had received from a reader:

"What in the Hell is the Big Idea, anyway, threatening to cease publication of the Whole Earth Catalog?!! Why, you characters have hardly even started! What if the telephone companies suddenly decided to stop printing the yellow pages next year?"

It appears that the decision to quit in 1971 was due to the enormous amount of manual labor that went into each issue, leading to a classic case of Wiki:BurnOut ("desktop publishing" in those days meant physically shuffling bits of paper around on your desk, gluing them in place, and then having the printer photograph the finished pages on a huge camera). They really did plan for it to be the "last" catalog, although they hoped that someone else would pick up the idea and run with it.

The current WholeEarthReview is descended from a different magazine called "CoEvolutionQuarterly?" that StewartBrand started in 1974. At that time he wrote:

After burning our bridges we reported before the Throne to announce, "We're here for our next terrific idea." The Throne said, "That Was It."

They published another book that year called the "Whole Earth Epilog", which started on page 450 and had an index that covered both books. In 1980 they came out with an all-new version called the "Next Whole Earth Catalog", followed in later years by the "Essential Whole Earth Catalog" and the "Millenium Whole Earth Catalog" (which was actually published in 1994).

"CoEvolutionQuarterly?" was renamed WholeEarthReview in 1985. Their Winter 1998 issue includes a complete reproduction of the first WholeEarthCatalog from 1968 (they claim only two original copies exist). It includes a review of the HP 9100A desktop programmable calculator, which cost $4900.00 (in 1968 dollars).


I don't remember which edition it was in, but one of the only subjects to get an entire page in the WEC was Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. I picked up my copy in '84 or '85 based on the WEC recommendation. I was interested in architecture at the time, so I found it at some architectural bookstore in the Bay Area.

I remember that I posted an extended quote from Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building on my office door when I worked as a programmer at Xerox. I propagandized my co-workers about it. Others obviously thought so, too - the whole software pattern movement blossomed (with no help from me).

The tradition of the Whole Earth Catalog was carried on by the Co-Evolution Quarterly (still published as The WholeEarthReview), and TheWell.

-- PaulHolbrook

Whole Earth closed its doors last year, on issue 111.


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