The Wizard of Woz: How Steve Wozniak Changed the Computer Industry Forever
We all know about Steve Jobs. Inventor of devices that revolutionized the music industry and smartphones. But at the backdrop of sensation that is Apple and Jobs stands one humble engineer that often gets overlooked, Steve Wozniak, the Woz. Without Woz’s engineering genius, the Apple of today would never be. And the computer industry? Someone else would have had to design the first personal computer. This is the life of Steve Wozniak as we know it today.
Loving Electronics Early
Woz grew up loving electronics as a kid and made a ton of devices from scratch including a voltmeter, ham radio, calculator, and various games. His interest in electronics likely stemmed from his father, an electrical engineer that worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California. Sunnyvale had yet to be dubbed the now famous Silicon Valley.
Wozniak reports that he always had a gift for mathematics, science, and electronics, and so that’s the path he pursued. After finishing high school, he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1968, then dropped out a year later. When he returned to California he attended a community college, then the University of California, Berkeley. Again his tour with formal education ended early. The Woz was clearly a self-starter.
Throughout the 1970s Steve worked at several electronics companies in San Francisco before landing a position at Hewlett-Packard in 1975. It’s during this time that Woz’s true engineering genius really came to shine.
The Blue Box
One of the first well-known devices that Wozniak designed was a digital version of the Blue Box. This inconspicuous little device used a 2600hz tone to control telephone switching. By emitting a specific tone, Woz’s device was able to enter AT&T’s operator mode, which allowed a user to jump from trunk to trunk on AT&T’s telephone network to route calls wherever you pleased. All for free.
It was also during this time that Wozniak met Steve Jobs. The duo ended up teaming up on the Blue Box, with Woz designing it and Steve selling it to his fellow students. As Jobs goes on to explain, the Blue Box played a huge role in Apple’s future success:
“If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there would have been no Apple. I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.”
The Woz and Jobs reportedly called the Pope with his famous Blue Box by faking the identity of Henry Kissinger. As the story goes, the Pope was asleep at the time, and so the cardinal staff started to wake up management in succession until the Woz and Jobs couldn’t hold their joke together. Just two kids having a good time.
Unfortunately, the Blue Box trick doesn’t work anymore as all telephone systems have been converted to digital signaling. However, if you’re dying to build a replica of Woz’s design, you can always take a trip down phone-phreak memory lane with this Blue Box replica design project. The schematic and PCB layout are already ready-to-go for EAGLE. It’s a pretty simple design, consisting of a set of audio oscillators, a telephone keyboard, audio amplifier, and speaker.
The Birth of Apple
Now that Woz and Jobs knew they could team up to create a product together, it was time to set their sights on something bigger. 1975 started it all. It was during this year that the Altair 8800 microcomputer kit was released, which was based on the world’s first microprocessor from Intel.
Woz couldn’t afford the Altair kit, so he decided to design his own while working as an engineering intern at HP. Woz took his completed computer circuit board to HP’s management to develop, but they weren’t interested. Steve Jobs was though, and he saw an opportunity to market what is now known as the Apple I. It was just a circuit board with several memory chips, but it was far more capable than the Altair 8800.
To get their first preview started, Woz sold his HP scientific calculator and Jobs sold his Volkswagen van. This gave the duo just enough money to put together their first prototype to debut at the Homebrew Computer Club in 1976. It’s here that Paul Terrell, owner of a computer chain store, decided to buy 50 assembled Apple I’s from Woz and Jobs for $500 each. The team had a problem, how were the two going to get all of the money to fulfill the order?
With some careful negotiations by Jobs, the duo was able to secure the parts they needed with a loan from a supplier. With the help of some friends, Woz and Jobs put delivered Paul Terrell’s 50 “assembled” computers and paid off the loan from their supplier the day before the bill came due.
The Apple I sold for $666.66. Woz and Jobs were unaware of any satanic relationship to the numbering, and Woz has always insisted that he just had a love for repeating numbers. Looking at the specs of the Apple I reveals some interesting genius from Woz. The motherboard came with 4K RAM, which was expandable to 65K with some clever hacking skills. The full specs include:
- Processor: MOS Technology 6502 processor at 1.023 MHz
- Memory: 4K RAM, expandable to 8K
- Ports: Accepted any ASCII keyboard and monitor
- Storage: Cassette interface available
OS: Firmware in ROM, Apple BASIC on cassette
- Display: 60.06 Hz frame rate that supported 40 characters per line at 24 lines with auto scrolling
The operating system is where Woz’s genius really came to life. He built the Apple I to run BASIC, which allowed a user to program and play games on it. He also wrote his own BASIC language assembler into the ROM. The philosophy was simple; every user should be allowed to modify and know about every detail of their computer. My how times have changed.
The Apple II and Public Offering
With the Apple I hitting the ground as a success, it was time for its successor. In 1977, Woz decided to quit his job at HP to form Apple Computer, Inc. with Steve Jobs. Woz began work on the Apple II, which included a built-in keyboard, central processing unit (CPU), color graphics, a floppy disk drive, and support for a color monitor.
The Apple II is ultimately what skyrocketed Apple on the path of success, all thanks to Woz’s genius engineering work and Job’s sense of aesthetics. Their goal was to build a computer that was made for the average user, not just hobbyist circles, and they did it.
The next few years are a bit of a blur. Apple went public in 1980 with a market value of $117 million. Three years later Apple was valued at $985 million. Both Woz and Jobs became millionaires basically overnight.
During these years Woz used his engineering expertise to design a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive for the Apple II, added new features in the Apple OS, and developed other software applications. Overall, Woz was the engineering foundation for Apple and a pivotal contributor to the company’s success.
All was working out well for Woz until 1981 when he crashed his small airplane on a runway. The accident left him with traumatic amnesia, and he spent the next two years trying to recover. During his recovery, Woz decided to return to Berkeley under the name of Rocky Clark to finish his electrical engineering degree. He dropped out again, but Berkeley later gave him credit for his work at Apple and awarded him a B.S., in Electrical Engineering in 1987.
Woz returned to Apple in 1982 after a full recovery from his plane crash. He was pushed many times to climb the ranks of Apple management but was comfortable being an everyday engineer. In 1985 Woz and Jobs received the National Medal of Technology award by U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan. This also marked Woz’s official retirement from Apple.
Woz recounts his time starting Apple fondly,
“It was like a revolution that I’d never seen. You read about technological revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and here was one of those sort of things happening and I was part of it.”
Life After Apple
Woz is alive and well living his life after Apple. These days he leads many philanthropic and business ventures to keep the spirit of engineering live. Here are just a few of the ways Woz is helping out the world:
Los Gatos School District
In 1996 Woz began supporting the Los Gatos School District to train teachers and students in the latest technologies. This has been a massive project, thanks in part to a huge financial donation from Woz, which helped to build:
- 11 modern computer labs
- School and district LAN and WAN planning
- Basic computer usage classes for teachers
- Computer fundamentals, maintenance, and networking classes for 5th-grade students.
- Advanced graphics, photography, video, sound, networks, and programming classes for 5th through 8th-grade students.
In 2006, Woz published his very own autobiography, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. If you’re an aspiring engineer, then this is definitely one book to add to your reading list.
In 2009 Woz became the chief scientist at Fusion-Io, which was a company that produced solid-state storage devices. Fusion-Io was sold to SanDisk in 2014, and Woz left the company to become chief scientist at Primary Data which handles data virtualization.
In a recent 2017 development, Woz released an online learning platform based out of Arizona that focuses on curriculum for computer support specialists and software development. Courses include topics on data science, mobile application development, and cybersecurity. Woz is known to be a passionate educator, and he goes on to explain his goals for Woz U:
“Our goal is to educate and train people in employable digital skills without putting them into years of debt. People often are afraid to choose a technology-based career because they think they can’t do it. I know they can, and I want to show them how. My entire life I have worked to build, develop and create a better world through technology and I have always respected education. Now is the time for Woz U, and we are only getting started.”
The Wizard of Woz
The Wizard of Woz
It’s hard not to love Woz. Throughout all the years of Apple’s success, the spotlight was always shining on Steve Jobs. Woz always seemed comfortable sitting back and letting others have the glory, knowing that he made a difference in the world. Woz is just comfortable being Woz. He’s intent on making a difference and seeing that the young minds of tomorrow become brilliant engineers. Our hats go off to you, Woz.
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