Steve Wozniak told a packed audience at the Salomon Center in November that, when he was starting off in computing, he didn’t know whether he was a nerd or not. “I would go to bed thinking about a computer design problem,” he said, “wake up in the middle of the night, and the solution would pop into my head.”
Wozniak The Woz is the cofounder with Steve Jobs of the computer giant Apple and the creator of the Apple II, the first popular home computer. Wozniak, who grew up in what later came to be known as Silicon Valley, remembered that even as a child he was fascinated by electronics. While other kids were reading Nancy Drew mysteries, Wozniak devoured the Tom Swift Junior series, about an engineer who built submarines and space ships. His parents tried to impose a reading curfew on the young Woz, but he would read with the aid of the streetlight outside his bedroom window.
Among Wozniak’s early projects was a rudimentary calculator that could add and subtract binary numbers. That eighth-grade project, which came long before hand calculators, won him top honors in a Bay Area science fair. When he started college at the University of Colorado, Wozniak’s skills turned to pranks. He built a TV jammer that could interfere with the picture of a nearby television on command. By turning the device on and off, he convinced other students they could fix the picture by placing their arms and feet in various positions.
Wozniak’s more serious accomplishments came later, when he designed and built a circuit board to impress his friends in the Homebrew Computer Club the precursor to Apple. Together with Jobs, Wozniak built and tested the Apple I in the Jobs’ family garage, and sold the computer to a Palo Alto retailer for a handsome profit. When Wozniak came up with the design for the Apple II a simple, small computer with a built-in keyboard that came equipped for sound and color graphics he and Jobs revolutionized the way people thought about computers and began netting millions in the process.
But the money wasn’t important, says Wozniak, nor did he have any interest in running a business. He was even reluctant to leave Hewlett-Packard, where he had a day job designing calculator chips, to join Apple full-time. “I was the engineer, Steve was the amazing hustler,” Wozniak said.
After making his mark with Apple, Wozniak decided to pursue a different dream: helping kids use computers. He now spends his days operating a Web site, answering all his e-mail, which can take him up to five hours a day, and teaching free classes. “In sixth grade, I wanted to be an engineer like my father,” he said, “or a fifth-grade teacher.”