Wozniak produced several key technical innovations of the microcomputer era, including chip designs and circuit boards that used electronics more efficiently than previously thought possible.
Born:August 11, 1950; San Jose, California Also known as:Stephen Gary Wozniak (full name) Primary field:Computer science Primary inventions:Personal computer (PC); Breakout (video game)
Stephen Gary Wozniak (WOZ-nee-ak) was born in San Jose, California, the son of an electrical engineer. His father, Jerry, worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other government agencies during Steve’s childhood. When young Steve asked his father questions about work, the elder Wozniak would always answer that he was a man of his word. Steve eventually figured out that his father was working on secret projects and had promised not to talk about them. This understanding instilled in Steve a powerful ethic of honesty.
However, the young Wozniak differentiated between lies and pranks. His nimble technical mind allowed him to come up with very complex pranks that could even fool adults. For instance, he once designed a very convincing fake bomb using two old-fashioned stick batteries and an electronic oscillator that produced a realistic ticking sound. When he planted it in a friend’s locker, intending to startle the unwitting friend, he instead created a panic. The school principal, thoroughly convinced that the device posed a deadly threat to his students, scooped it up and sprinted to the football field, where he disassembled the device. Wozniak was quite surprised to be arrested and put in juvenile hall for his prank, since he regarded it as an example of his skill with electronics rather than anything truly dangerous.
While still in high school, Wozniak got an internship at GTE Sylvania, a company producing microwave relay systems for telephone networks. There he worked with his first computer, an IBM 1130 mainframe that ran on punch cards and occupied a case the size of a refrigerator. Wozniak appreciated the privilege of being able to work with this computer; the experience taught him to move beyond purely hardware approaches and to understand the importance of the instructions that made a computer work. (The term “software” was relatively new at that time.) He learned FORTRAN, one of the earliest computer languages, and how to write programs for the 1130.
After dropping out of the University of Colorado, Wozniak met a new friend, Steve Jobs. The two young men shared interests and, like many computer geeks, considered technical know-how the currency of status within their subculture. The two men soon became involved in phone phreaking, building “blue boxes” to spoof telephone switching systems and gain free calls. Once they had a close call with a suspicious police officer, but Jobs convinced him that the illegal device was a music synthesizer.
In 1973, Wozniak left school to get a job with the electronics company Hewlett-Packard (HP). A year later, Jobs found work with the video game manufacturer Atari. Jobs was asked to design a new game, Breakout, and soon pulled Wozniak into the work, agreeing to split the money. In fact, Jobs had been promised a hefty bonus for certain design features, which he quietly pocketed. Wozniak would not find out about this for more than a decade, when he was helping a researcher write a history of Apple Computer (later Apple). Wozniak was not so upset about the money—he would have done the job for free just to be able to work on such an intellectual challenge—but the deception and betrayal stung bitterly.
At the time, Wozniak was simply happy to have successfully completed the challenge. He became involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of computer hobbyists, in his spare time, and he designed an innovative microprocessor-based machine, originally to impress his friends. However, Jobs saw commercial potential in it, and both men sold a personal prized possession to raise capital: Wozniak, his HP programmable calculator; Jobs, his Volkswagen bus. On April 1, 1976, they officially founded Apple Computer, and a few months later they delivered their first shipment of assembled circuit boards to the Byte Shop, an early Silicon Valley computer store.
Their first computer’s relatively crude appearance appealed only to dedicated hobbyists, so Jobs and Wozniak designed a successor, the Apple II, which came in a tan plastic case, in order to appeal to the general public. Wozniak did most of the circuit design, while Jobs concentrated on developing Apple’s new logo, a rainbowcolored apple with a bite out of it. When users of the earliest Apple II model complained about the slow loading of programs from cassette tapes, Wozniak designed a controller for a floppy disk drive, and the Apple II became one of the first microcomputers to boast floppy disks. The Disk II system allowed the Apple II to run business programs.
When Jobs launched the Macintosh project, Wozniak was instrumental in developing the disk controller for it, the Integrated Wozniak Machine (IWM) chip. However, the discovery of Jobs’s betrayal over the Breakout money and other issues with Jobs’s management style drove Wozniak away from the company he had helped found. Still, he remained active in the electronics industry, developing such diverse items as the first programmable universal television remote control and wireless Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. He concentrated largely upon practical devices that help improve the lives of ordinary people.
Wozniak also became involved in various charitable causes and social activities. He sponsored two US Festivals, free concerts held in Southern California in 1982 and 1983. He used his engineering expertise to work out a realistic approximation of how many portable toilets would be needed for the expected attendance. He also made both financial and intellectual contributions to the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose. The street in front of the museum was subsequently renamed Woz Way in his honor.
Wozniak was an early adopter of the Segway personal transport, and he became involved in a game known as Segway polo, showing that his quirky sense of humor has not diminished as he has aged. The top prize in this new sport is the Woz Challenge Cup, named in his honor. His sense of humor and good nature were underscored by his appearance as a competitor on the television talent show Dancing with the Stars in 2009.
Although Wozniak was less interested in business than was his friend and collaborator Steve Jobs, his technical expertise was critical in the founding of Apple Computer and its early success, even into the Macintosh era. He designed computers that needed fewer chips than previous models, and his simple, elegant designs laid the groundwork for future product lines.
—Leigh Husband Kimmel
Carlton, Jim. Apple: The Inside Story of Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders. New York: Random House, 1997. Corporate history of Apple, from its founding by Jobs and Wozniak to Jobs’s return. Linzmayer, Owen W. Apple Confidential: The Real
Story of Apple Computer, Inc. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 1999. A fascinating walk through the early days of Apple, with interesting trivia and a few dark revelations. Malone, Michael S. Infinite Loop: How Apple, the
World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane. New York: Doubleday, 1999. Company history, including a great deal of information on the early days when Jobs and Wozniak were working together. Moritz, Michael. The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple Computer. New York: William Morrow, 1984. Written just as the Macintosh was coming out, the book focuses primarily on the early years when Wozniak was still part of Apple. Rose, Frank. West of Eden: The End of Innocence at Apple
Computer. New York: Viking Press, 1989. Focuses on Apple’s “adolescent transition from a small business led by two computer geeks to a major corporation.” Wozniak, Steve, with Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Autobiographical account focusing on Wozniak’s early years and growing interest in electronics.