There are some times I can’t believe I get paid to do this, and Friday night was just such an occasion.
Well over 800 people flocked to the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts at Hall and Garfield roads in Clinton Township to spend an hour with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer and a true revolutionary in the computer industry. Tech writer Mike Wendland handled the interview, while I handled the Q&A.
The Wonderful Wizard of Woz spent a lot of time talking about his childhood and early career.
“I was always a geek,” Wozniak said. “It goes back about as far as you can imagine. My mom tested me at home on flash cards for multiplication, and I went to school and got them all right and the teachers said it was the first time anyone had beaten the girls.”
Wozniak learned early on that he had a gift for mathematics — and, through science fair projects, for science. And he was in the right place at the right time, born in 1950 in San Jose, Calif., just as Hewlett-Packard was transforming it from a sleepy fruit-growing region to Silicon Valley. Lots of scientists moved into the valley during his childhood — Wozniak recalled seeing orange groves torn up for new housing and commercial development — and back then, he said his California public school education was top notch.
As far back as grade school, Wozniak said he started hearing about binary code and logic, and he got a ham radio license before he hit junior high. He said everything he ever built for Apple purposely didn’t require higher level math, just basic logical thinking. And he credited his father with explaining electronics in detail to him — even the physical processes of moving electrons — along with his elementary and high school teachers as major reasons for success. He said he was pretty much a hermit in junior high and high school, painfully shy and without a social life — and advised the students in the audience not to waste time partying, time they could be spending innovating. His great gift, he said, was a knack for getting the maximum performance out of a minimum of electronic components.
He became friends with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 1970, when Jobs got a summer job at the same business where Wozniak was working on building a mainframe computer. He attended the University of California-Berkley, (years later he would finally complete his senior year under an assumed name) and worked for HP, designing the first hand-held calculator, an incredible hit at the time. He said his thinking about electronics was further transformed by the first video games like Pong, and by the 1970s predecessor to the Internet, which back then linked only university computer centers.
Wozniak said he and Jobs founded Apple on only about $1,000 — he sold an expensive calculator for $500, and said he actually got stiffed by the buyer for the last $250, for his part of the initial investment. But very quickly, Wozniak said he and Jobs got their first order for computer systems for $50,000. The system was basically the innards of a computer — the user had to supply things like input devices, cases and displays.
How’d they build them without cash or financing? They got the parts on 30 days’ credit, assembled them around the clock, and delivered them personally to stores, where they were paid in cash.
Wozniak also invented a way to use a computer chip to produce color and graphics on a screen, rather than adapting an expensive color TV.
He recalled how companies like Commodore and Atari rejected their version of computer technology, and how venture capitalists didn’t lend them money because they had no firm grasp on the size of the potential market for a home computer.
“They asked me what the market was, and I said, ‘A million.’ And they said, ‘How do you know it’s a million?’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s a million ham radio operators, and this is going to be bigger than ham radio,’” Wozniak said.
He said he decided to leave Apple rather than become a businessman because “I’ve very much a pacifist,” not much interested in power or office politics.
He urged Michigan to dream and innovate big when it comes to its key industry, automotive, saying that “how you built cars in the past really gets in the way.” He also said he was a major backer of Net neutrality, the concept of forcing the owners of data networks to treat all data traffic equally, including their own and that of their content subsidiaries.
Today, Wozniak is chief scientific officer of Fusion-io, a Salt Lake City, Utah electronics and software company. Its goal? What else, Wozniak said — to get maximum performance out of minimum parts, for maximum computing efficiency.
Wozniak’s speech was part of a fall exhibit at Macomb Community College’s Lorenzo Cultural Center, called “American Ingenuity: Embracing the Freedom to Dream.” It’s open just another week, until Sunday, Nov. 21, and its exhibits are definitely worth a visit. They’re open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (586) 226-4759 or visit www.LorenzoCulturalCenter.com.
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