The computer on Keegan McNamara’s desk is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The machine sits on a light wood table, bathed in the sunlight coming into the second floor of McNamara’s Los Angeles house. McNamara, tall and blonde in jeans and a light khaki Carhartt jacket, walks over to the desk, sits down, and reaches over to hit the power button. Then he pauses. He forgot something. He digs into his pants pocket, pulls out his keys, picks a silver one, sticks it into a cylinder just to the right of the computer’s 8-inch screen, and turns. A light on the left side of the device turns red. Then McNamara reaches up and flips a silver switch just above the keyhole, the lights on the left turn to yellow and then green, and his computer comes to life.
Like I said, this is not your average computer.
McNamara calls this device the “Mythic I.” It’s a sweeping, curved object that starts with a leather palm rest before sloping sharply upward like dunes on a beach, then gently cresting down again in the back. Oh, and it’s almost entirely made of wood. McNamara spent months sourcing the right maple and walnut, slowly chiseling with hand tools until the coarse boards turned into the gently curving waves in the final product. He scoured the internet for just the right keyboard, just the right leather for the palm rest, just the right screen, just the right internals to make exactly the computer he wanted and nothing else.
Obviously, there are easier ways to build a computer. Lots and lots of easier ways. And the machine McNamara just booted up can’t play YouTube or Fortnite, doesn’t have apps for video editing or web browsing, and is bigger and heavier by far than just about any computer you might buy. But to McNamara, this computer is perfect. Close enough, anyway — he occasionally absentmindedly rubs his fingers on the nicks and cuts in the woodworking or the small crease on the back where two of the wood pieces didn’t go together exactly right. But even those imperfections are part of the point. Because McNamara’s not just trying to build himself a desktop PC. He’s also trying to prove a point: that computers actually can look like this.
“There’s something about modern design that feels very cold and inhuman to me,” he says. Look at the MacBook, for instance. “It’s a very well-machined rectangle, but it’s just a rectangle.” It’s not that he hates the MacBook. He likes it! But why has the world decided this is the only way a laptop can look?
“It’s a very well-machined rectangle, but it’s just a rectangle.”
In the music world, the folks who make and repair one-of-a-kind instruments are known as luthiers, and McNamara has started to think of himself as a “computer luthier.” He wants to be a new kind of computer maker: the maker of products born of great quality and care, not scale. He’s started a one-man company called Mythic Computer, and he’s ready to make handmade computers for anyone willing to commission him.
For McNamara, the way he builds computers is about more than just building computers. He responds to my questions about gadget designs with answers that lace in religious teachings and aphorisms from ancient philosophers. Barely a few minutes after we met, McNamara told me about the concept of “kami,” the divine spirits that Shintoism teaches live all around us. “These spirits will come to reside in objects that are made the right way,” McNamara says — he believes they would never come to dwell in an object that has been marred by power tools. In all our time together, he’s remarkably earnest in his quest to imbue something like spirituality inside a computer. And he believes kami might live in the Mythic I.
It all sounds a little silly, really — a guy starting a computer company that can only manufacture a couple of computers a year and will surely charge a not-so-small fortune for each one. (The wood alone in the Mythic I cost McNamara about $600. Just the wood.) But after spending a couple of days in McNamara’s second-floor workshop, watching him alternately type away on the Mythic I and chisel away at the wood blocks that will become his second computer — the first machine he’s making for someone else — I couldn’t help but think he might be onto something.
Maybe we don’t need more trillion-dollar companies making gadgets by the tens of thousands for no one in particular. Maybe we need more people in their workshops, carving them one at a time.
Pretty and practical
The story of Mythic Computer starts with a bunch of guns. To be clear: “I’m not a gun guy,” McNamara says. But one summer day in 2022, he went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and happened upon the Arms and Armor exhibit, which displays thousands of objects from the history of weaponry around the world. “It feels weird to say,” McNamara says, “but I literally had a lightbulb moment sitting there in front of a bunch of insanely ornate guns.” There was something beautiful to him about the juxtaposition of a totally functional object — guns shoot, that’s the whole job — and the idea that it might still be worth making them spectacularly beautiful. “There were people three, four, five hundred years ago that thought it was worthwhile to add that, I don’t know, beauty,” he says. “I think the right word is beauty. That’s what they thought was beautiful, and they added it onto a merely utilitarian object.”
McNamara’s lightbulb thought went a step further: that combination of craftsmanship and utility, objects that are both thoroughly practical and needlessly outrageously beautiful, doesn’t really exist anymore. “And it especially doesn’t exist for computers.”
This thought also happened to be a confluence of a lot of things about McNamara. Growing up in Colorado, his father was a hobbyist woodworker, so from an early age, McNamara developed an appreciation for craftsmanship and materials. He even took a guitar-making class in college, though he’s somewhat embarrassed by the one he made. He was also fascinated by computers from an early age: his first job was building websites, and he did two internships at Amazon before doing engineering work at a startup. And the more code he wrote, the more interested he became in the philosophical, grander perspective of how computers and software affect the world. This was also in the heat of the covid pandemic, when a lot of people were suddenly looking at their lives and surroundings in new ways.
After his trip to the Met, McNamara began to seek and see this kind of design everywhere. He started to research the car industry and how it is that mass-produced Camrys and CR-Vs can successfully share the road with the hand-crafted body of a Bugatti or the sumptuous leathery interior of a Pagani Huayra. He grew obsessed with guitar luthiers, who make exquisite instruments in their shops and sell them for far more than a Gibson or a Fender. “And it works! It’s a sustainable lifestyle.” Obviously, not everyone can afford the high-end stuff, and not everyone wants it. But to McNamara, the extravagance isn’t the point. It’s that you can see, feel, and experience the care and consideration that went into building the specific object in front of you. McNamara is convinced that matters. And that the computer world needs a little more of it.
Not long after that moment at the Met, McNamara decided to build himself a computer. It started as a side project in his free time from his job at a startup building fundraising tech but, in early 2023, became his full-time job. He wasn’t planning to start a company or make a statement — he just wanted to see if he could craft the kind of device he wanted. Something that wasn’t a metal rectangle. Something that didn’t demand too much of his time or offer infinite distractions at every turn. A computer that felt both unique and uniquely his.
Starting from scratch
Most people who build their own computer do it by selecting a series of parts: this case, this processor, this RAM, this keyboard. Building a computer requires some knowledge and skill but has gotten easier and more accessible over the years. You can get everything you need with a few searches on Newegg or Amazon.
McNamara’s journey, on the other hand, started at House of Hardwood, a huge lumberyard in West Los Angeles. He went over and over, trying to learn as much as he could about the types of wood he could use, the jargon he’d need to buy it, and the tools he’d need to work with it. He landed on walnut and maple, two woods that looked nice together, came in pieces large enough to build a computer from, and would be easy enough to work with.
Once he had the right wood, he began to slowly chisel it into shape using only a set of hand tools. Power tools would have been faster, sure, but there was something about the intention and tactility of shaving the wood by hand, a strip at a time, that connected him even closer to the process. On the wall behind him as he works is a handwritten piece of paper, stuck with orange tape, with a phrase from the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras: “It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” McNamara cut the rough forms with a Japanese hand saw, worked the curves with a mallet and chisel, and used a spokeshave and card scraper to smooth everything out. He used hide glue to put all the pieces together. He had used some of these tools before but also spent countless hours watching tutorials on YouTube, learning new tricks and techniques.
In the meantime, McNamara was also refining the design for his new machine. First in crude drawings in his notebook, then in even cruder form with modeling clay, he began to coalesce on something like a modernist typewriter in the curvy body of a sports car. He wrote phrases like “A single purpose computer appliance” and “artisan computation” in his notebook. “It should feel like a Pagani Huayra,” he wrote in red ink next to his first sketch, “but have the simplicity of a platonic form and the elegance in software of functional programming.”
Figuring out the actual computer parts was actually the easy part. Ultimately, what McNamara wanted was a writing machine: he could work on code, continue the stub of his novel, and keep a daily journal. He didn’t want something that could play games or run a web browser because that would distract from the simplicity and serenity he was looking for. “Are you going to, like, download macOS and then delete a bunch of apps and come up with some janky way of reducing it down to what you want?” he asks. “Or are you going to find another system that builds and is additive?”
The first part he chose was the Intel NUC, a customizable board based on a 4.1GHz Core i3 processor. “The easier option would have been just a Raspberry Pi; they expose a bunch of pins and make it easy to make stuff.” But McNamara knew he wanted power, even for the few things he wanted his computer to do. “When you’re making something that’s luxurious and feels beautiful, you don’t want it to be stunted by the electronics. You want it to feel blazing fast.” That’s also why he added 8 gigs of RAM and 250 gigs of storage, both vastly more than he’d ever need for the kind of simple single-tasking he expected to do.
“When you’re making something that’s luxurious and feels beautiful, you don’t want it to be stunted by the electronics. You want it to feel blazing fast.”
He also bought a high-res 8-inch display, though not a terribly fancy one. “When you’re not a megacorp, it’s really hard to get those really high-performance, high-refresh-rate screens,” he says. He doesn’t even know who made it, “which sucks,” he says. “I wish it was some dude in his garage making it.”
Sourcing just the right keyboard, on the other hand, became a bit of an obsession. He purchased the circuit board from KBDfans, landed on the Glorious Pandas for key switches, and used two different sets of keycaps to get the exact look he wanted. But it still didn’t sound right, so he cracked open the key switches and lubricated each one by hand. “If you have dry rubbing of plastic, it doesn’t sound thock-y. It just sounds cheap,” McNamara says. “You can buy these ones pre-lubed, but I just trust myself.” He picked the beige-colored keys because they reminded him of an old IBM machine. “This is a god-tier mechanical keyboard,” he says, laughing but not even remotely kidding.
For the operating system in his computer, McNamara decided to use NixOS, a version of Linux that uses a package manager called Nix to create an extremely modular operating system. NixOS can have lots of apps, file managers, and interface tools. Or it can basically be a command line, which is how McNamara set up his computer. “I’m using, like, the minimum viable installation of NixOS,” he says. All he really needed was a text editor, so he got Emacs up and running, and that was about it.
Ultimately, the Mythic I runs NixOS for the same reason it’s made of wood. “If you make it do the bleeding edge of what’s possible today,” McNamara says, “it’s going to get phased out. There’s going to be some new version of something, and it’s just going to turn to shit. But if you do things that are timeless, like text editing and reading… in order to make something last forever, just build it using stuff that has lasted forever.”
In early 2023, after months of woodworking, software development, and electrical engineering, McNamara sat down at his new machine, turned the key, and flipped the switch. The lights on the left side flicked from red to yellow to green, and the computer booted. “That was a top 10 Keegan life moment,” he says. For the ceremonial first message typed into his new computer, McNamara typed an Echo command on the keyboard: “echo ‘hi brennie,’” a note to his friend, Brennie, who had been a champion of his project all along. He took a video of the computer responding by repeating the phrase: hi brennie.
With his computer finished, McNamara decided to post about it. He says he was just doing it to update his friends and acquaintances on what he’d been up to for months, but it’s clear from his posts that he was proud of what he’d made. “I wanted a beautiful computer and couldn’t find one, so I made my own,” he posted to a number of different subreddits with a picture of his new PC. He tweeted the same thing. He also posted a link to a new website, mythic.computer, which contained an essay explaining his process and his philosophy.
Generally speaking, the reception on Reddit and Twitter was quite positive. People liked the throwback design, the retro-futuristic vibe, and the idea of making computers that last. They loved the key ignition. But not everyone saw the world the way McNamara did: he remembers Hacker News, the developer-focused site, being particularly brutal. “Oh lord, another hipster,” one commenter wrote. “Hurray for their 4 years of instant mastery.” “The psuedo-intellectual trad vibes were overwhelming,” said another. “It’s really cool that this 25 year old invented PC case modification,” another deadpanned. There were a lot like that.
The response definitely got to McNamara a bit, though he chalks a lot of it up to his maybe-a-smidge-pretentious writing style rather than the product itself. (Sentences like “The Faustian fixation on infinite expansion of power via software and hardware has had horrible effects on the everyday personal computer user” probably didn’t help his case with the developer crowd.) “But I actually believe these things,” he says. “I actually believe that computers are ugly and that they went down a design route and have converged aesthetically into something not good.” And here he reminds me again that he doesn’t need everyone to agree with him. The whole point of his project is to show that we don’t all have to have the same things.
And for all the people who said McNamara was full of it, there were others who immediately understood what he was going for, which is how Mythic Computer turned from a summer project into what McNamara thinks could become his career.
Craftsmanship at scale
One of the people who liked the Mythic I was Max Novendstern, who is, among other things, a co-founder of the crypto startup Worldcoin. He had actually been dreaming about a device like this for a while. Not long before McNamara first posted about the Mythic I, Novendstern tweeted his desire for basically the same thing. “Give me an e-reader with a chatbot and notes system and nothing else,” he wrote. “Give me a typewriter with the same. Strip computers of their dopamine faucets, leave their crystal balls.”
“Give me a typewriter with the same. Strip computers of their dopamine faucets, leave their crystal balls.”
Novendstern and McNamara had known each other for a while, actually — they met a few years ago at Bitcoin Miami and kept in occasional touch. When McNamara posted the Mythic product and vision, he says Novendstern reached out right away. (Novendstern remembers it slightly differently, that McNamara reached out after his e-reader tweet. It doesn’t really matter.) The two men immediately began to talk about what they might make together. No dopamine faucets, just crystal balls.
Ultimately, Novendstern decided he wanted four things: a good word processor for longform writing; built-in audio transcription, so he could pace his office and dictate notes; access to ChatGPT for research and inspiration; and a receipt printer so he could take lists or texts with him when he was finished. “It’s like a typewriter, a secretary you could dictate to, and a researcher you could ask questions that will give you, in plain text, answers to those questions,” Novendstern says. They settled on a price, which both decline to name exactly — but think used-car money, not MacBook money.
When I first visited McNamara in May, he was just beginning the woodworking on Novendstern’s computer, which ultimately became known as the Mythic II. He spent his days sawing and chiseling the wood into a similar shape as his prototype but had sourced new leather colors, different keycaps, and some new internal tech — a 10.1-inch screen, 2TB of storage, 32GB of RAM, and an upgraded NUC with a 4.7GHz i7 chip — to make Novendstern’s ideas possible.
By late July, he was finished. It didn’t take as long to build as the Mythic I, but he tried to do it with the same attention to craft and detail as before. He drove it from LA to the Bay Area and delivered it to Novendstern’s door. (Novendstern is currently on vacation and hasn’t had a chance to use his computer yet but says he’s very excited to get home from Italy and put the Mythic II to work.)
The commission for the Mythic II will keep McNamara afloat for a little while, and he’s already working on another commission, but he has no idea how many other people might ultimately want the kind of computer he wants to make. He does seem to hope that this could be his life, at least for a while. He could be the guy who makes one-of-a-kind computers in his workshop, who shows that that’s even a thing that can exist. And maybe, if it really works, he could help spark a different kind of computing revolution.
“I can imagine a world where there are eight different people spread all over the place, and each is interested in one specific portion of a computer,” he says. “You’ve got the one who’s doing the processors in their garage. You’ve got the one that’s doing the woodworking.” He’s a big fan of Sam Zeloof, another 20-something who is building chips in a garage. They can’t compete with Intel or Apple’s latest, but that’s okay. “A lot of the time,” McNamara says, “you don’t need the modern capabilities — you can get away with worse hardware.” A computer that can do less might be exactly what a lot of people need.
Maybe, McNamara allows, there’s a version of Mythic that is bigger than what he can build with his own two hands. He has some ideas of other products he could build that wouldn’t take so long or be so expensive. He points to Teenage Engineering as an inspiration on that front: a company that makes products at something like scale, but without compromising on quality or jumping on the latest gadget trend.
But even if that happens, even if Mythic turns into something more than a one-man operation, McNamara plans to keep building computers in his workshop. “Working with wood and leather and hand tools, it can kind of seem like kitsch up front, maybe,” he says. “But I think that what you end up having, in terms of the felt weight and the psychological weight of the object after it’s created — it’s just warmer, it’s nicer, it feels more personal. It feels just… better.” It won’t be for everybody. But that’s fine. A computer doesn’t have to be.