Electronic Design

iWoz

By Steve Wozniak (with Gina Smith)ISBN: 978-0-393-06143-7

It may not have all the techno details you'd hope for, and it's written more for a mass audience than for dedicated computer-history buffs. But Steve Wozniak's take on his own journey from electronics-entranced son of an aerospace engineer through ham radio and phone phreaking to co-founder of Apple Computers and beyond is still an entertaining read.

Despite the book's somewhat self-congratulatory tone, what does come leaping off the pages of iWoz is the basis for Steve Wozniak's well-earned reputation as a "geek's Geek." A member of the National Inventors' Hall of Fame and winner of the National Medal of Technology, Wozniak's lifelong love affair with technology and electronics is the star of this story, and it's one that is inspiring.

Wozniak's story is one that should be told and retold to youngsters; his drive and determination as a boy to be the best at math and science is a message I'd love to get across to my own 10-year-old daughter. Much of his drive to excel at all things technical came from his desire to please his father, an engineer who worked at a top-secret job in Lockheed's missile program.

Yet another aspect of Wozniak's personality that comes across loud and clear is his playfulness and love of pranks. During college, a friend's engineer father made the mistake of showing Wozniak how to build a tiny circuit that could be tuned to wirelessly jam television sets. Wozniak had a lot of fun with that circuit, both in dorm rec rooms and in lecture halls.

Later, while designing calculators at Hewlett-Packard by day, Wozniak started the Bay Area's first Dial-A-Joke line, on which he'd read jokes from "The Official Polish-Italian Joke Book" in a made-up Slavic accent. This led to complaints from the Polish American Congress about jokes defaming people of Polish descent. The irony: 12 years later, that same organization would bestow its Heritage Award on Steve Wozniak, its highest award for achievements by a Polish-American.

But the meat of the book, naturally, is Wozniak's development as a computer designer and programmer. Wozniak learned early on how to design logic circuits with the fewest components possible. He exercised his talent by redesigning, on paper only (because he couldn't afford the parts to actually breadboard his work), the leading minicomputers of the day from Data General, Varian, HP, DEC, and others. The skills Wozniak polished then came in handy later, when he designed his first real computer. The "Cream Soda Computer" (so dubbed because of the copious amounts of cream soda consumed while he and a friend built up his design) used only about 20 ICs, but it could run a program and deliver results.

That project was significant in other ways. It used 256 bytes of RAM, and was surely an early instance of the use of RAM in a computer design. It also was the catalyst for Wozniak's meeting Steve Jobs. Though he was about five years younger than Wozniak, Jobs was also an electronics buff and a prankster to boot. In fact, says Wozniak, his first conversation with Jobs was about circuits they'd built and pranks they'd pulled off. Later, they'd venture together into "phone phreaking," working out ways to exploit Ma Bell's system to make free calls using "blue boxes," or tone generators, that would trick the system into putting calls through without billing anyone.

Wozniak's real breakthrough came some five years hence, and was the result of his presence at the first meeting of the now-famous Homebrew Computer Club in March of 1975. There, Wozniak came face-to-face with the MITS Altair kit computer. That very night Wozniak hatched the initial concepts that would eventually be realized in the Apple I computer. The Altair, like other hobby computers of the time, was programmable only in the most limited sense, and could only be made to flash a series of lights in various ways. Wozniak realized that he'd already built an "Altair" in the form of his Cream Soda Computer.

What the Altair did have going for it, though, was a microprocessor. Wozniak coupled that concept with work he'd already done with video terminals to come up with a vision for a truly "personal computer," one that would enable programming to be input via keyboard and that would send its output in text to a display terminal instead of lights on a front panel. And from that point on, the underpinnings for what would later become Apple were pretty much in place. Just two years later, Wozniak and Jobs would file incorporation papers to start their venture together.

If you're looking for deep insights into system architectures, software schemes, or other nitty-gritty technical details of Wozniak's historic work, iWoz may disappoint. But if you're interested in what motivated this pioneer of the personal-computer industry, iWoz delivers nicely. As a bonus, you even get a photo of Woz with Van Halen's David Lee Roth at the US Festival in 1983.

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