by Meridith Levinson

Tech Visionaries and LSD: Turn On, Tune In, Geek Out

Apr 02, 2010
Data CenterIT Leadership

While some of the technology industry's brightest minds were inventing the first PCs and developing groundbreaking software, they were also feeding their heads with LSD. Here's a look at nine tech visionaries who's mind-blowing adventures on acid have forever influenced the direction and ethos of the computer industry.

Silicon Valley’s rise as the hub of the technology industry in the 1960s coincided with LSD’s explosion on the cultural scene. Within a few miles of Stanford Research Center (SRI), where Douglas Englebart was envisioning the personal computer as a mechanism to “augment human intelligence,” three organizations were then legally administering LSD to guinea pigs. The Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park and the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute were studying LSD to better understand schizophrenia. Meanwhile, the International Foundation for Advanced Study, founded by a former engineer, sought to give credibility to LSD’s mind-expanding properties. These organizations offered leaders of the counterculture (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg) and some of the personal computer industry’s founding fathers their first communions with acid. No doubt, their mind-blowing experiences influenced the communal ethos of the early personal computing industry and later the open source software movement.

Source: John Markoff. What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Penguin 2005).

Myron Stolaroff


A CIA agent introduced Myron Stolaroff to LSD in 1956 while Stolaroff was working as an engineer and corporate planner for Ampex, a manufacturer of tape recorders. The Stanford University grad’s first experience with acid transformed him into an evangelist for the drug. In fact, he was so enamored of LSD’s creative potential that he wanted Ampex to use it as part of its product development process, but his management team rejected the idea. In 1961, Stolaroff set up his own organization to study LSD. The International Foundation for Advanced Study introduced some of Silicon Valley’s brightest engineers to acid.

Source: John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Penguin 2005).

Photo of Myron Stolaroff from the Stolaroff Collection, courtesy

Douglas Englebart


Intrigued by LSD’s potential to “augment human intelligence,” Doug Englebart, the father of the mouse, first took LSD with a group of engineers at the International Foundation for Advanced Study. Englebart and the other engineers were told that the drug would help them solve difficult technical problems. Englebart didn’t get much of a creativity boost from LSD the first time he took it (he was given a very low dose), but the second time, he came up with an idea for a toy that would help potty train boys.

Source: John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Penguin 2005).

Stewart Brand


Long before he co-founded The Hackers Conference, The WELL (considered by many to be the first online social network) and the Global Business Network, Stewart Brand was staging acid tests with Ken Kesey and his ragtag band of Merry Pranksters. In this photo, Stewart Brand (in white jumpsuit) is pictured with Ken Kesey on Kesey’s infamous International Harvester school bus. Brand, who popularized the term personal computer in his book II Cybernetics Frontiers, took his first dose of acid at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in 1962. He’s also credited with the expression, “Information wants to be free.”

Sources: John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Penguin 2005); Stewart Brand’s Web site; NY Times

Timothy Leary


Timothy Leary is less known for his adventures in the computer industry than he is for his psychedelic adventures—not to mention for getting kicked out of Harvard and encouraging an entire generation to turn on to LSD. But in the mid-1980s, the ageing acid guru turned on to computers. He got into virtual reality and software development in a big way and reportedly declared the Internet “the LSD of the 1990s.”

Source: Wikipedia

Tim Scully


Tim Scully manufactured San Francisco’s purest and most potent LSD in the mid-1960s. He worked under the tutelage of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the eccentric Grateful Dead patron and acid enthusiast who’s reds and greens and blues made Haight-Ashbury the acid Mecca. Scully, an engineer by training, designed sound equipment for the Dead. Both travelled with the Merry Pranksters—Scully, of course, rigged the sound system on Kesey’s bus.

After Owsley’s arrest in 1967, Scully synthesized LSD for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a spiritual group that sought to turn the entire world onto acid. The police eventually caught up with Scully, but before he was imprisoned, he started his own company designing biofeedback machines. In the late 1980s Scully began consulting for Autodesk, writing device drivers for video displays and other equipment. He retired from the company as a senior software engineer in 2005. He renounced drugs in 1970.

Sources: Lee, Martin A. Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams. The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties and Beyond (Grove Press 1992);

John Perry Barlow


The one-time Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has reportedly taken psychedelic drugs “more than a thousand times.” But, he says in an essay for the anthology, Tripping, that it was his first experience with LSD in 1966 that truly altered his consciousness.

Dan Ingalls


Dan Ingalls left his home in Cambridge, Mass. to attend graduate school at Stanford in 1966. It was the year before the Summer of Love, and LSD was on the cusp of becoming outlawed. But that didn’t stop Ingalls, and many others in his generation, from experimenting with acid and other mind-altering substances.

At Stanford, Ingalls’ interest switched from electrical engineering to software development. He designed optimization programs and worked on speech recognition technology in the early days. His work in the field of software development helped pioneer object-oriented programming. Ingalls has worked for almost every major computer company in Silicon Valley, from Apple and Hewlett-Packard to Sun Microsystems and Xerox PARC.

Source: John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (Penguin 2005).

Steve Jobs


In an interview with John Markoff for Markoff’s book, What the Doormouse Said, about the counterculture’s influence on Silicon Valley, the Apple co-founder confided that “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” During that interview, Jobs intimated that the trippy graphics that early iTunes players produced in synch with music reminded him of his youthful psychedelic experiences. Jobs’ openness about his drug use prompted Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1938, to ask him to help fund a study of LSD-assisted psychotherapy. Jobs reportedly never funded any of the research.

Kevin Herbert


Software developer Kevin Herbert is a vocal proponent of LSD. In a 2008 interview with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Herbert noted that dropping acid has helped him make important career decisions (such as taking a job with Cisco), made him a more socially responsible technologist and has helped him solve perplexing technical problems. He told MAPS: “I think that LSD can help you out of these problems you’ve been wrapping your mind around for weeks. It can give you a fresh perspective on a problem that’s so complex that it’s not good enough to try to explain it to a co-worker…”