[Read part 2 of our Profiles in Computing: Steve Wozniak]
Steve Wozniak, or Woz, as he is most well-known, is an inventor and the founder of Apple Computer. Born in San Jose, California, he was interested in engineering from a very young age. In 1969 he attended University of Colorado Boulder for less than a year before he was kicked out for hacking the school’s computer and sending prank messages. He moved back to the Bay Area where he enrolled in De Anza College in Cupertino, eventually transferring to the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1971, Woz set out on a DIY project to build his own computer. With the help of friend Bill Fernandez, they created the Cream Soda Computer, named after the pair’s favorite beverage, Cragmont Cream Soda. Made with 20 TTL Chips that were donated to Woz from a Tenet executive, the computer didn’t have a display or keyboard and programs were loaded using punch cards. This was at a time when microprocessors were not yet available. A reporter accidentally stepped on the power supply while writing a story about this exciting system and blew up the whole computer! Woz wouldn’t attempt to build another computer until 1975 with the Apple 1.
Hired in 1971, Woz went to work at Hewlett Packard designing calculators. He also dropped out of school at this time. That same year Fernandez would introduce his friend Woz to a young Steve Jobs. They discovered a shared love of electronics and pranks. Steve Jobs was still in high school at the time but was also working a summer job at HP. Their business relationship would blossom later that year. In October of 1971, Woz stumbled on an article in Esquire magazine about a new “phreaking” device called a Blue Box, an illegal hacking device that allowed the user to call long-distance for free. The device used in-band signaling that was previously generated by telephone operator consoles to control telephone switches. It allowed the user to bypass the telephone toll mechanisms and control long-distance call routing. With Woz as the engineer for the project and Jobs as the as head of sales, the boxes sold for $150—generating $110 profit on each one sold! The pair managed to sell two hundred Blue Boxes. Steve Jobs would later go on to say that without the Blue Box, Apple might not exist as a company.
By 1975 the microprocessor was finally available on the consumer market. With the popular MITS Altair 8800 kit computer in such high demand, people were initially willing to add their names on a long wait list for their Altair. The unpredictably high demand for this product meant that many of the Altair kits were rushed and left production with missing parts. All these failures to keep up with demand created a surge of DIY hobbyists venturing out and making their own computers instead of waiting.
If it was so accessible to build a computer, why not make your own instead? This spirit gave birth to the hacker revolution in the 1970s. Groups like the Homebrew Computer Club and the People’s Computer Company gave a community to individuals interested in the new percolating counterculture of homemade computers. That same hacker spirit also give birth to the Apple Computer Company. Woz and Jobs were both members of the infamous Homebrew Computer Club, and Woz began to design and experiment with the first Apple computer in 1975. In June of that year, Woz tested his prototype of the Apple 1. It would be the first time a computer-generated character would be displayed on a TV screen, paving the way for many television-based computers that were popular in the 1980s. It was also an advanced and highly modern design for the time. Computer displays very expensive and hard for hobbyists to come across. Many programmed their Altair using only the switches on the front panel. Display screens would become standard in part because of Woz’s invention that allowed computers to utilize televisions as monitors. In many middle-class homes, the television was an integral the part of the first home computers.
Just like with the Blue Box business model, Woz was the engineer and inventor and Jobs was the salesman and marketer. Initially, Woz was only trying to impress his fellow computer nerds in the Homebrew Computer Club, and he wanted to give the schematics to the Apple 1 away for free! It was Jobs who stepped in and convinced Woz that they should sell their computer. By March of 1976 the first Apple computer was completed by Steve Wozniak. Woz was the sole designer and engineer of the computer, creating the hardware and software based around a $25 MOS 6502 microprocessor. After five failed attempts to sell his product to his bosses at HP, Woz and Jobs decided to venture out and create their own computer company. Jobs convinced Woz to start Apple Computer by telling him that even if the company failed, they could at least tell their grandchildren that they had started their own company. Woz and Jobs set out to make their computer company on a shoestring budget. Woz sold his HP scientific calculator and Jobs sold his Volkswagen Van to fund the initial start of Apple, their new company.
Apple Computer Company was legally founded on April Fool’s Day in 1976. Woz and Jobs made one last visit to the Homebrew Computer Club to demonstrate the finished Apple 1 product. Since the project was self-funded, the finished product of the Apple 1 came without power supply, a keyboard, a display, or a case for the circuit board. A customer who bought an Apple 1 was expected to supply all of these components to make the computer complete. Paul Terrell was at this demonstration and was so impressed by the product he decided to purchase 50 Apple 1 computers for his new store, The Byte Shop, in Mountainview, California.
Terrell told Jobs that he would pay $500 for each finished computer. They didn’t have money to rent a space, so all 200 Apple 1 computers were built in either Jobs’ childhood bedroom or Jobs’ parent’s garage in Palo Alto, California. The Apple 1 retailed for $666.66 because Woz had a love of repeating numbers. After the initial order from the Byte Shop, Woz and Jobs received significant funding from Mike Markkula, a semi-retired product marketing manager and engineer at Intel. Woz resigned from his job at HP to become the full time Vice President of Research and Development at Apple. With all the new time to devote to Apple, Woz set out to design a new machine that would eventually be known as the Apple II computer.
Read more in Part 2 of our Profiles in Computing: Steve Wozniak