The modern quartet of computer, keyboard, monitor, and mouse is now as familiar as the automobile, but not long ago, such a setup constituted a radical technological idea. In 1975, a young techno-geek named Steve Wozniak first united those components. While he never sought the fame or wealth that his invention eventually brought him, Wozniak was driven, and particularly well-equipped, to design the personal computer as we know it today.
Growing up with a high-level engineer father couldn’t have hurt. “My dad worked for Lockheed, working on all sorts of military projects that he couldn’t even talk about,” said Wozniak over the phone from his Silicon Valley home. “He always supported my electronics projects. I wasn’t pushed in the direction of engineering, but I just loved it so much. My father was able to guide me, to explain things to me on a blackboard, to show me how atoms worked and what electrons were.”
In addition to a zeal for electronics, Wozniak developed an early love for logic after discovering the subject in one of his father’s discarded engineering journals. “I came across an article about ones and zeroes. I said, ‘Hey, this is just as easy as arithmetic in school; you don’t need higher-level math filled with strange symbols.’ Logic became my favorite pastime. I learned there were these things called ‘gates.’ They were what computers were made out of, and no other fifth-grader knew about them.”
The confidence he gained from studying such technical subjects led him to produce highly ambitious science projects. “My first big project was a display of an atom,” said Wozniak, “showing 92 electron positions. You’d flip the switch for carbon, and six lights would turn on, which involved hundreds of parts: relays, switches, wires. It was not a typical elementary school project. In sixth grade, I built a tic-tac-toe computer with hundreds of transistors. I’d work for weeks, knowing that every little addition helped a lot. I had no idea that I was on the exact right path to understand and design computers. I was just doing a fun thing that I loved.”
It didn’t take Wozniak long to find what lay at the intersection of logic and electronics: computing. “I told my dad that someday I’d have a computer that I could write programs on. He said that would cost as much as a house. I said, ‘Well, then I’m going to live in an apartment.’ I started designing computers on paper in my bedroom. I could never afford the parts, so I played a game: How can I design a computer this weekend using fewer parts than I did last weekend?”
Wozniak’s eureka moment came when he was finally able to afford the components for the personal computer he’d been envisioning for so long. He added a television and a typewriter keyboard to his computer, resulting in a novel experience: When he typed letters, they’d appear right there on the screen. “It was the thrill of my life,” he said. “I knew I had a complete computer, not a little toy, not a box of switches that just puts out ones and zeroes, and I knew that, for the rest of my life, I’d never run out of things to do.”
Through it all, Wozniak has maintained a reputation as a brilliant technological thinker who never neglects the human side. “Engineers often don’t consider what works best for humans,” he said. “One example is an Apple mouse that feels nice, like a stone in a creek, or calling the screen a ‘desktop’ because everybody is familiar with the concept of a desktop. These human metaphors let us do things our way instead of having to adapt to the technology’s way.”
After taking a step back from Apple, Wozniak acted on his long-standing desire to teach. “I never started a company for money,” he said. “I wondered, ‘Who would I have been if Apple hadn’t happened?’ I went back to college and eventually taught fifth-graders at local schools. I didn’t want to teach them to become technical nerds like myself; I took normal subjects, the things kids learn at the local public school, and showed them how to use computers to make their homework look exceptional, to do a better job, to show things on graphs or use spreadsheets.”
In recent years, Wozniak has focused on philanthropy, helping organizations and individuals with anything from world-changing technological schemes to smaller-scale plans to improve their communities. “I was never attached to my wealth,” he said, “so whenever I ran into good people who had great ideas, motivation, and passion, but were lacking money, I contributed. Not to what was being built, but to the people themselves and their dreams. I love to see young people trying to start something of their own, just like Steve Jobs and I did with Apple.”
Steve Wozniak will discuss his experiences in computing and his thoughts on the future of information technology at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, April 2, at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.