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Woz was born 60 years ago today on 11th August 1950. As co-designer of the Apple computer he is one of the computer pioneers who have changed the way we work and play. But he was also something much rarer today, an electronics genius.
The computer business is just that - a business - and the history that it writes for itself often remembers the entrepreneurs first and foremost - the technicians are nearly always forgotten. If you discover or invent something really new then the academic history will take care of you but if you simply design something really well your place in posterity is far from guaranteed. We all know how important the Apple II was in the development of the personal computer but - who created it? You probably think that it was something to do with the famous Steve Jobs and indeed it was, but it was much more to do with a lesser known Steve - Steve Wozniak. This is the story of the Apple II, an important machine, but it is also the story of Woz.
born 11 August 1950, San Jose, CA
Steve Wozniak was the son of a Lockheed engineer with a Caltech degree who designed satellites for a living. Electronics seemed to be a natural interest and Woz took to it enthusiastically. He read all he could find on the subject and designed and built his own electronics designs from an early age. A science fair project that he completed was a simple computer - it won. He was already fascinated by computers, even though the components he needed to build one cost far more than he could afford. It was in these early days that he met Steve Jobs via a mutual friend, Bill Fernandez. All three were interested in electronics but Woz, being five years older and with a natural gift for the subject, was the mentor and teacher.
Steve Jobs (left) and Woz (right)
Woz studied computer science for three years, the last year at Berkeley. While he was there his ability to design elegant and intricate circuits became clear. Phone Phreaking was the current fashion and Woz became intoxicated with the power of being able to phone anyone anywhere. He designed a "blue box", a multi-tone frequency generator that used fewer and cheaper chips than anyone else. Of course Steve Jobs got in on the act and arranged to manufacture and sell the devices - what a combination!
He planned to take a year off to earn money working as a technician at Hewlett-Packard but things didn't work out quite as he imagined. The distance was too far to commute back to Berkeley and studying at the local university would have involved starting over again. Anyway he was having far too much fun at HP to give it up and go back to Berkeley just yet. For the next three years during the day he worked on chip layout and in the evenings he became an electronic hobbyist. Back in Berkeley he had been keen on designing computers. He had designed over 50 different machines - but only on paper. Resources were so limited that even the output from the machines he designed had to be displayed on standard oscilloscopes rather than special purpose monitors.
Woz first encountered the start of the microcomputer age when he saw one of Nolan Bushnell's Pong games at a bowling alley. A lesser man than Woz might have become hooked on the game - but not Woz. He became hooked on the game's innards - he built his own version of the game. Later Steve Jobs persuaded him to build a hard wired implementation of the "breakout" game for Atari. Nolan Bushnell was getting worried about the 150 plus chip count that most new games involved and he had heard of Woz's ability to design clever low chip count circuits - his pong used only 30 chips. The deal was that a design with 50 chips would earn $750 and under 40 chips would earn $1000. Woz's first design used 44 chips and he was so tired, the complete design had to be complete in four days, that it stayed above the magic 40 count and they only got the $750. This anecdote fails to convey the amazing achievement of getting a complex video game design down to 44 chips at all. A less inspired designer would have needed double that count!