Electronic Design

Wizard Of Woz Keeps Casting His Spells

What would you do after founding a technology giant? Steve Wozniak uses those resources to keep innovating and following his creative impulses.

For many, "Vice President in charge of R&D" sounds like a good job - reputable, good pay, and maybe even exciting. But tack the words "at Apple Inc." to the end of that title, and you have, well, a whole different barrel of apples.

Steve Wozniak didn't earn this job with a good resume. He forged it, inventing the first single-circuit motherboard with embedded ROM in 1975. He and Steve Jobs had to sell their most valuable possessions to assemble a product line of Apple Is. Some people can't put a price on fame and fortune, but they can. About $1300 and a few IOUs later, they kinda made their money back.

Follow the Silicon Road

Wozniak didn't want to become an entrepreneur or take the world by storm. He was content with his job at Hewlett-Packard and even more content as a hobbyist. Wozniak worked at a bench from 1973 to 1976, optimizing designs for calculators other EEs developed.

"I wanted to be an engineer in a lab," says Wozniak. "The spirit of engineers was most important. I loved the engineers, loved the project, loved the company!" He spent his days at the plant and his nights batting around design ideas and inventions with the Homebrew Computer Club. "I'd be off in 'computer design world' and Steve \[Jobs\] would ask where it could go," he says.

This dynamic led to the sale of a wood-cased CPU comprising roughly 30 chips for $500 (then $666.66 after a markup) and the beginning of a revolution. "After Apple I, every computer used a keyboard," Wozniak says. "Before, they used geeky switches. It was a trading transition in history." The Apple I was a quantum leap in the available technology. Before Wozniak threw his hat into the ring, the Altair 8800 was the closest thing to a personal computer.

"You could turn it into a computer, but it was basically an Intel processor," Wozniak says. "A computer to me has to have the ability to program. Altair couldn't. You had to buy extra cards. I was well past that point. Sure, it used ones and zeros, but I wanted a real computer my whole life. I would've sold my house for a computer, but it had to run a program."

He created a motherboard and compatible components, but the product was more for a hobbyist or engineer than a consumer because users would have to add input sources, a keyboard, casing, and a display themselves. He wanted to bring it all together so anybody and everybody could operate an Apple right out of the box.

Playing Games

Born in 1950, he didn't have much technology available to him as a child, but he would stumble onto information about technology here and there. Picking up little scraps wherever he could, these bits of info would be like "little secrets" to him and his young mind - information he would keep that other people would flat-out ignore.

When he was 10, a book about a ham radio operator inspired him to not only earn a ham radio license, but build a transmitter and receiver by hand as well. He also conjured a game where he would experiment with adding and subtracting transistors to his gadgets. "It helped me very much. You sit down, think, plan, and make sure what you build is efficient. It's good practice for what engineering involves," he says.

Wozniak left HP in 1976 and formed Apple Computer with Jobs, asking himself how he could put these things in his head into the smallest number of chips. As a result, he would write his own Basic, even though he never programmed in Basic in his life. But that wasn't the only thing he would have to do on the fly. "Everything was created from scratch," he says. "Everything I did had to be made up for the first time."

Wozniak abandoned the wooden frame for plastic, added dynamic memory, had tape interfaces, and added color graphics and sound. "The Apple II connected everything. \[It\] was a 'Woz' from the ground up," Wozniak says. Users could also plug in cards to add floppy-disk or printer functions - or as Wozniak calls it, a true "plug-and-play" device.

Seeking Alternative Routes

Because of Wozniak's work with Apple, he had to bury other projects. You would think such a computing mind wouldn't drift toward other desires, but an urge to impart knowledge hibernated in his mind. After he left Apple in 1985, he formed his own company, CL-9 (Cloud 9). But after two years, he moved on from that to other endeavors, including teaching kindergarten.

"I wanted to be a teacher my whole life," he says. "Secretly, I wished it. I can't tell you how much fun it was when they learned something." Though he doesn't believe it would work for other people, discovering how much you can smile over how much you can frown is a lifestyle. "I was just doing what was fun for me," Wozniak says. "I would be doing this at home if there was no money."

He misses his time with the Homebrew Computer Club and Apple, though today you can find him playing polo on a Segway, working at Jazz Semiconductor, or off promoting his autobiography. "I miss the technical camaraderie," Wozniak says. "The whole feeling of being on a revolution, on the edge. I miss the intuitive philosophies."

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