Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on September 8, 2014


I have been studying and practicing astrology for about fifty years. Although I was a professional astrologer in the 1960s, I did not make my entire livelihood from astrology until the summer of 1972. That is when I hung out my shingle, so to speak. That was also the year that my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first child. That sure put a practical hitch in my gitalong. I had to pull something together and fast.

Since I was the first person to create astrology programs on microcomputers (1977) and share them with my fellow astrologers, in my early years before they appeared I calculated astrology charts using log tables, time-change books, and printed ephemerides. That means pencil and paper folks. Remember, we didn't even have 4-function calculators until 1972-1973.

This blog is not about all the kinds of astrology I studied and programed or the great many useful techniques I pioneered. I have a score of free e-books available that cover most of that. Here I am just writing about my life and times as an astrologer back then – something about what it was like.

One thing is for sure, we were poor. My income as an astrologer kept me on the fringe of society where I started and there I remained. Astrology is not what is called a "right-livelihood" and I learned this first-hand. Margaret and I had next to nothing and lived in a little house at 1041 North Main Street in Ann Arbor, right across the street from Lanksy's Junkyard and the Huron River. We had wharf rats the size of large cats rattling the garbage cans outside our house. And within 100 feet we had two train tracks that crossed one another, one on a great arc, which meant that in the early morning hours these massive iron horses would very, very slowly turn a tight corner, their wheels screaming and screeching all the way like the cry of some great beast. We slept to this and even today that sound is nostalgic.

At one point my parents gave us their old car when they got a new one, which was a godsend until it was hit by a drunk driver and totaled while quietly parked in front of our house. However the small bit of money we got from the insurance helped to finance a small programmable calculator. I gradually moved from pocket calculator to the various programmables.

At one point I needed $500 for the Hewlett-Packard HP-97, which not only stored programs, step by step, on little strips, but had a tiny paper-roll-type printer. Of course I didn't have any money, so I went to my local bank and applied for a loan. Back then I was innocent enough that when the loan manager asked what I did for a living, I told him I was an astrologer. I was proud of this. He raised his eyebrows, pulled out a book, and ran his finger down a column to show me where astrologers ranked in the loan-risk department. Sure enough, astrologers were listed, right above migrant workers. Loan denied.

Well, the long and the short of it is that I had to go back to the bank three times begging for that loan before I got it. And that was probably to just get rid of me. However, that small programmable calculator helped to launch my company Matrix Software, which is still going today and, according to an article written for Red Herring Magazine, is the second oldest software company on the Internet, the oldest being a little company called Microsoft. In the beginning my programs were sold online right next to the first spreadsheet, a little program called VisiCalc. I was so proud.

Back in those days making money with astrology was not exactly a piece of cake (not that it is today either). In the late sixties my wife and I calculated hand-drawn astrology charts for Circle Books, Ann Arbor's first metaphysical bookstore, started by my brother Stephen Erlewine. That would be another whole story, and I also taught astrology classes in the store evenings.

Our main income came from my doing astrology readings in our home. The house was tiny, but had two bedrooms, one very small room we called the "bed" , because it had wall-to-wall beds (you could walk across them) where Margaret and I, plus our two kids, slept. The kids loved it! The other bedroom became my office, where I worked giving readings and somehow fitting a whole class in there at nights. It was very tight, all of those students jammed in there while my wife tried to put two young kids to bed only a few feet away. This is what Shakespeare meant by the term "salad days."

When the kids got old enough to require their own room, they inherited the "bed" room and Margaret and I moved downstairs and slept in the living room on a fold-out couch. That was fun, because if a student accidently left their coat or something behind after class and returned for it, when I opened the outside door you could see right into the bed which we had already made up and were trying to sleep in.

In addition to the above, I travelled all over the state, speaking on astrology or giving classes. The largest class I ever gave was in the University of Michigan Union to 1200 people. Otherwise I was teaching or speaking at the YMCA, local colleges, secretary dinners, and anywhere they would have me. I would also go to all manner of psychic and new-age conferences, where I would be featured along with all kinds of psychics and séance mediums. Margaret and I even started a mail-order astrology business, buying books from wholesalers and re-selling them through the mail to astrologers, a truly thankless task, making but pennies on the dollar.

In 1977, when the first home computers appeared, I started Matrix Software, the first company to offer astrological programs to other astrologers. I picked the name "Matrix" not after the mathematical term, but after the meaning of the word matrix that means "womb" or birthing place. I knew even then that what I was creating would change the world of astrology forever. In fact, I have always known who I am in the world of astrology. It is just those other astrologers who didn't recognize me when I appeared.

Naïve as I was, in the beginning I gave my programs away to anyone who needed them. In those days, they were on cassette tape and I produced them for the Commodore PET, the Apple IIe, and the Radio Shack TRS-80. On some of the computers, not only did you have to carefully load in the program, but you had to load in the BASIC interpreter as well, also from cassette -- tedious. I wrote a complete astrology program that was accurate planet positions to about one minute of arc that did geocentric, heliocentric, horizon (Local Space), vertical coordinates, and a lot of other things in less the 8K or RAM – unthinkable today.

Before I knew it I was spending entire days loading and verifying tapes for others, so I had a little come-to-Jesus talk with myself. I was happy just researching astrology on my own, but I was also broke all the time. And with creating and sending tapes to others, I was ever more broke, so something had to give. I can remember how it came down, in a little vision-like moment. I was being told that I could drop this computer stuff and keep on my pure research or I could give up some of that research time and actually make some kind of a living for my family. Believe it or not, I had to think about it, but in the end I chose to go commercial, at least enough to pay the bills. So I began to charge for my work and a real company was born.

Not everyone was happy to see astrology computerized. One quite-famous astrologer (which I won't name, but I should) wrote me a nasty letter telling me that I had no right to charge anything more for my astrology programs than the cost of the blank cassette, mailer, and postage. Of course this astrologer was just kicking himself that he had no way to cash on in on this new technology.

By far the most criticism came from astrological Luddites who mourned the passing of the pencil, paper, and log-table way of creating charts by hand. They were sure that there was a baby in there somewhere along with the bathwater of tradition that I was sending to oblivion. And despite some protests, astrologers all over the world switched to computers in short order. It saved them endless time and freed them up to do other things. In 1978 I started a journal called "Matrix Magazine" and began to share algorithms and notes with astrologers all over the world. I also published a book with my complete program listed out so anyone could have that program. I was, indeed, a child of the Sixties.

In 1980, my family and I moved from Ann Arbor to Big Rapids, Michigan, where we have remained ever since. Not long afterward, my brother Stephen joined me and together we built Matrix Software into a real company. Later, Matrix Software had something like 30,000 customers, so I got to know up-close-and-personal a great many astrologers, and not just the well-known ones either. Almost all of them had either no money to speak of or very little.

In the beginning astrologers were so technically backward they assumed that because I taught myself to program I was a techno-nerd with no real interest or knowledge of astrology. You could hear it in the way they spoke to me. Nothing I could say would change their minds.

The actual truth was that I was more into esoteric and the mystical side of astrology than they could even imagine. In the ensuing years I have written much about that side of me but, for the most part, have never been acknowledged by my fellow astrologers for the reach of my thinking. Back then I could have cared less about the technical side of things and only learned to program because I wanted to research ideas that could not be done with pencil and paper.

For example, back then (before computers) I could spend an entire day working with trig tables on paper to produce a single chart for things like the Local Space relocation technique that I brought to astrology, or spend weeks calculating the position of each star and plot entire sky maps (but from the astrological perspective – ecliptic) with graph paper, pen, and ink. My book "Astrophysical Directions" was the first comprehensive approach to deep-space astrology ever offered to astrologers, and it remains the seminal book even today, much imitated, but not equaled. I could, of course, go on with many other techniques that even today are not understood, but I digress.

There is a lot more I could relate, but I am not sure if there is the interest, plus I would probably wax critical as to the state of modern astrology and just why astrologers as a group can't make a decent living.

[Photo of me taken around 1980 in Big Rapids.]