Idea Festival: Woz. Wow.

Steve Wozniak is the featured speaker at the second night of the Idea Festival. After a long introduction, he takes the stage and tries to debunk a small part of the Woz myth, saying, “I wasn’t a college dropout. I was just broke, and had to take a work year, which turned into Apple and to so many other things.” He explains that he returned to college post-Apple, under a fake name: “Rocky Raccoon Clark”.

Woz was “an electronics kid”. “I was lucky. Electronics was my passion, and I was living in the Santa Clara valley, which became the Silicon valley.” He and other electronics kids wired their houses, builing intercoms that they could use to signal each other in the middle of the night. They’d do yardwork for neighbors and ask to be paid, not in money, but by being given the opportunity to search their garages for interesting electronics. This spirit of exploration in the valley turned into the spirit of starting your own company, Woz argues.

His path to computer design began with soldering a ham radio out of tubes – he refers to the process as “getting online”, and says that the radio made him “feel like a Superman – an unknown at school, but I was reaching out to other states. I was more powerful than the other kids at school.” Once he got a transistor radio, it felt like a personal technology – “it feels like yours, you can sleep next to it.” His father mentioned that Lockheed, where he worked, was putting six transistors on a chip to make missles lighter. Woz argued that this would make better radios – his father said, “Well, eventually, but it could take years.” Woz thought “I hope that eventually the push for technology would come from consumer products, not from the military.” And that’s certainly the case today.

Educators had a huge effect on Woz’s life, and he decided he wanted to be “an engineer first (like his father) and then a 5th grade teacher.” And indeed he did, teaching fifth grade for eight years after a plane crash gave him amnesia and changed his life. “You end up with a bigger family than your own – you go to their college graduations and realize you were part of their lives, getting there.”

In sixth grade, he built a tic-tac-toe computer from transistors – the game is just a series of rules, perhaps a hundred, perhaps 20 if you’re very clever – which means it can be implemented in a complex circuit. At an eight grade science fair, he saw a computer that did instructions at one per second using a stepper motor. But the real breakthrough was when his high school engineering teacher, realizing how much electronics Woz already knew, let him go to a company in Sunnyvale and learn to program Fortran. The machine was amazing – it ran a million instructions per second! He wrote a program to solve the knight’s tour chess problem, and started it, wondering if it worked. It did, but it was a backtracking algorithm – when it didn’t solve the problem, it backtracked and tried another solution. He realized that it would take 10^25 years to solve the problem this way – longer than the existence of the universe. He realized, “With all this power, I wasn’t going to be able to solve this problem that human beings could solve.”

Woz turned his attention to designing the computers he loved so dearly. He began building a PDP-8 on paper – “the way that, with the knowledge of lumber and glass, you could design and build a builing.” These machines didn’t exist in the real world – he couldn’t afford any of the computer parts. The reason for building these machines was for the intrinsic reward. “Extrinsic rewards are the ones people see – your title, your salary, the grade you get in a class, what you wear, how many yachts you have. But the intrinsic rewards – something that’s very satisfactory to you, watching certain movies, doing crossword puzzles, can be much more powerful.”

To learn more about microcomputers, Woz and another friend began visiting the Stanford Linear Accelerator center, showing up on Sundays and looking for open doors. He’d break into the library, read computer magazines and the manuals in the library, and sending away for his copies of computer magazines. In reading these magazines, he discovered the Data General Nova, a machine that dealt with instructions radically differently. Woz thought it was very strange at first, but discovered that designing the machine this way required roughly half as many chips. “I realized that someone who knew the construction materials had designed the architecture of the computer.” The design philosophy he learned from this experience was to make technology “short, simple and direct”.

Woz told his father “I’m going to own a 4k Nova some day.” 4k was the minimum needed to run a computer language, not just program in assembler. His father pointed out that this sort of computer cost as much as a house. “Well, I’m going to have an apartment,” Woz responded.

He headed to the University of Colorado as an undergrad and began taking a graduate school design course as a freshman. He got an A+, but found himself in great trouble. “Just because you were in a computer class doesn’t mean you can run all the programs you wanted. They had a budget. And they made it sounds like they might charge me more than annual tuition to go back to school.” As he reminisces about the machine – a CDC 6400 – he sounds as if he still misses it today.

When he moved to UC Berkeley, Woz became a prankster. He wired a coil to a high-speed transistor and discovered he could jam a color TV. His friends would hit the TV to “fix” it, and he’d stop jamming. He discovered that he could force friends into strange configurations, spending an hour standing on one foot to see a show. “I should have gotten a psych degree.”

Around this time, his friends introduced him to Steve Jobs, who’d gone to the same high school. They sized each other up based on the pranks they’d executed, and then with the electronics projects they’d implemented. In the process, “we became best friends for eight years.” Woz offers some interesting psychological insights on Jobs – “He believed in ‘precious people’, sages who really made the world work.” This contrasted to Woz’s view of the world and his enthusiasm for “ordinary engineers” like his father.

Woz seemed determined to go down the path of the “ordinary engineer”. He began working at HP to support his education and found himself working on the team that had built his precious HP35 programmable calculator, “the hottest things in the world.” He loved HP, a company where engineers were the very heart of the organization. Seeing a world filled with greying engineers, he realised, “My god, I could be an engineer for life.”

He continued to hack in his free time, playing with satellite TV, an early VCR and building an early video on demand system. And he built the Bay area’s first dial-a-joke service, which was quite a hack, as it involved renting equipment from the phone company designed for movie theatres, as you couldn’t legally own your own phone or answering machine. The service specialized in Polish jokes, which Woz figured were safe, until he got threatened with lawsuits for defaming the Polish people. But what was most important was that the joke line let him talk to other people – “it was like chatting online”, he remembers, and it led him to meet his first wife.

Woz became obsessed with Pong, which he saw for the first time in a bowling alley. “Who would have imagined that a television set would play a game.” He wanted one, and started working on a system to output graphics to a TV. HP supported the work, giving him access to free chips, and he built a pong clone that flashed a four-letter word on the screen every time you lost.

Steve Jobs came back from college and took a job with Atari, designing hard-wired videogames. He secured a job offer for Woz, but Woz was loyal to HP. But he did agree to help design a “one-person pong”, a game that became known as Breakout. “I would like nothing more than to design a game that people played in a bowling alley,” Woz remembered as motivation. He thought it would be a six man-month job, “but Steve said we had to do it in four days.” They did it, and both got mono in the process.

Visiting John Draper – the infamous Cap’n Crunch, who used a cereal toy whistle to get free phonecalls – he saw a teletype machine, a device that cost as much as a car, but which let him log onto computers across the country. Like with Pong, he wanted one, and he began to adapt his video output circutry to output letters on a TV screen. The challenge was entering input, which required a keyboard. He finally found a keyboard for $60 – perhaps $500 in today’s dollars – and had a usable timesharing terminal… which Jobs immediately began marketing to the local computing community.

The next breakthrough for Woz was attending meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, where local geeks had become microprocessor enthusiasts. Once Woz realized that these inexpensive chips were basically the machines he’d designed in high school, he knew he was close to building the 4k machine he’d dreamed of in high school. As he built the machines, Jobs kept pressuring him for features – could it have a floppy drive? Could more than one person use it?

Woz circulated his design and schematics to Club members, which proved a very satisfying way to make social connections. He realized that people knew Bill Gates’s name and thought that, if he built a BASIC the way Gates had, perhaps people would know his name as well. Jobs realized that the boards Woz had designed, plus a BASIC, was a marketable commodity, and worked out a plan to build boards cheap and sell for twice the cost.

Ever loyal to HP, Woz went to his bosses and begged them to build am $800 computer based on this design. But the corporate culture wasn’t right. He finally met with the legal department, and every department on HP signed off that they wanted nothing to do with his computer design… including the Capricorn team, which was building a similar computer using similar technology. So he was free to start Apple. Jobs bought parts on 30 days credit, they assembled machines, delivered them to the local computer shop and used the proceeds to pay off the creditors.

As the machines sold, Woz aimed his sights higher – a machine with color graphics at the core. He engineered a computer with half the chips of the Apple 1 and ten times the power. “You could put a six into a location in memory, and a blue box appeared on the TV. You put a seven in another and got purple. And you could do animations. No one imagined color would come to low cost computing.” Woz realized he could program Breakout for the machine. When he did it – in about half an hour – he found himself literally shaking with excitement that something that would have required years in hardware – trying hundreds of colors and configurations – took seconds in software.

In his last story, Woz tells us that he discovered the Apple II was going to be shown at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, and wanted to see the city, but only marketing guys were going, and he was an engineer. He realized that if he designed a floppy drive, they’d have to bring him. So he did. In two weeks, using five controller chips instead of fifty. And they took him to Vegas.


Woz has a reputation of being a shy man, not accustomed to the spotlight, and I expected a somewhat reluctant talk. But his speech was basically a torrent of stories and enthusiasm, boundless self-confidence and geeky desire to make cool stuff. It was a real inspiration for me, someone who well remembers that beautiful moment when I figured out how to make colored pixels appear on an Apple II screen.

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5 Responses to Idea Festival: Woz. Wow.

  1. This is a brilliant story. It just goes to show if you follow your passion, you will most likely end up with a happy and successful life. Finding your passion is far from easy though.

  2. Henok says:

    What a story—I did not think he ever take a break or sleep. Inspirational story. Thanks Ethan.

  3. BRE says:

    Steve Wozniak is one of the “great ones” of my generation. It’s a pity that his 2001 startup company “Wheels of Zeus” didn’t take-off as planned. Can’t wait to learn about what he is working on at present because surely Woz has not run out of ideas.

  4. Pingback:   A mágica de Woz by Meira da Rocha

  5. Harbles says:

    If you liked this please see this.

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