Steve Wozniak — technology icon and philanthropist — is the free-spirited inventor of the personal computer and co-founder of Apple, Incorporated. Wozniak recently ended his long silence about his private life and co-wrote his autobiography, titled "iWoz," with journalist Gina Smith. In a conversation with VOA's Andrew Baroch, Wozniak began with an explanation of the book's odd title:
"I'm known as 'Woz,'" says Wozniak. So 'I am Woz' fits, and the little 'i' signifies things of the computer era, says Wozniak. It's sort of a symbol, like 'i phone' and 'ipod,' that sort of thing."
Steve Wozniak's life has been linked with computers since his boyhood in the early 1950s, when he says he "just accidentally stumbled into computer literature journals that were in our hall closet when I was young."
Well, not so accidently. Wozniak grew up in Sunnyvale, a quiet residential development outside the city of San Jose, which was slowly turning into the high-technology capital of the world. His father Francis worked as an engineer for Lockheed Corporation, the big aerospace defense contractor, and Steve Wozniak made sure he was around his dad a lot.
"I would go to his work, see what he did," Wozniak remembers. "I'd see him drawing on papers at home, so I was also inspired as a direction in my life to be an engineer like he was."
Wozniak had a stable family home, a loving mom, two brothers and a sister. But Woz was the one who seemed taken most with the bundles of Lockheed electronic spare parts, wires, radios, and weird-looking antennas scattered around the house. Wozniak tinkered along with his father — developing a knack for quickly disassembling and re-assembling electronic components.
By the time he entered his elementary school science contests, Wozniak had won the nickname "wizard" from some of his teachers. At one memorable science fair, he built a huge working display of the atom, with different orbits for all 92 possible electrons. "Ninety-switches," Wozniak recalls. "You could key in a particular element like carbon, and then you'd see the right six lights light up in the right places. So you could see where the right electrons were in every atom. Then the next year, I had a huge project with hundreds and hundreds of transistors, diodes, and resistors — electrical parts all soldered to nails I pounded into a piece of plywood. Every transistor was one rule of the game of tic-tac-toe. If you make up enough rules, you won't lose tic-tac-toe. So this machine would play and not lose it. That same year, I built a ham radio, which was also hundreds of parts. You sit down for a couple of weeks, put all the parts together, bolt in screws, strings on dials. These were very large projects. I had no idea, but the the size of them put me way ahead of kids that age."
And set him apart from most other kids, socially, too.
"A lot of the kids just ignored me in school," Wozniak says. "Maybe they thought I looked weird or thought I was weird. I don't know. That got to me and made me more shy. I was always sitting in the back of classrooms, very quiet. Yeah, horrible anxieties if I was ever caught in a social situation with a few people around — other than my close electronics friends."
Wozniak's close friends, who nicknamed him "Woz," would later marvel at his ingenious, electronically-inspired pranks — like the time, in the 1970s, he built a machine that could tap into international telephone lines. At one point, he managed to dial into an office in the Vatican, and pretended to be U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But in March of 1975, Wozniak and fellow prankster and high-school friend Steve Jobs got serious about computers. They helped start a group they called the Homebrew Computer Club.
The club's mission, Wozniak says, was "to bring computer technology within the range of average people, and make it affordable and easily understood." At that time, only big companies like IBM had computers. Steve Wozniak wanted to start a computer revolution — in his words, a tool that would lead to social justice.
As Wozniak saw it, "low-cost computers would empower people to do things they never could before." The same year the club started, Wozniak invented the first personal computer, partly inspired, he says, by his job designing calculators for the Hewlett-Packard technology company.
"I said, 'You know, our calculators at Hewlet-Packard really are computers. They hide the computer inside and put a human calculator pad on the front of the machine. Why don't I do that? Why don't I just get a keyboard I can type on and put a little program in, so when you start up the computer, the program says, 'What's being typed? What's being typed?' — and waits for you to type things, saves it, and lets you type in commands, rather than having to toggle them in on dumb little switches?"
Wozniak's personal computer — assembled, famously, in Steve Job's family garage — was the first in history to have a typewriter-style keyboard and a television-like screen. In 1976, he and Jobs co-founded the Apple Computer company and started selling computers to local dealers. Why the name "Apple?"
"'Apple' is a good, healthy word for the home," Wozniak explains. "Everybody has apples at home. We were going to build computers for the home. 'An apple a day' for the teacher — you know, good-sounding things. So you didn't need a big, technical name for this small computer."
Steve Wozniak will always be remembered for inventing the personal computer. In 2000, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But he says the time he's valued most was the nine years he spent teaching public elementary school in the 1990s — as well as the private time with his three children. His inventions have earned him millions of dollars — and over the years he's given away millions to support charitable groups, educational technology initiatives and international exchange programs. He's seen adversity, too — surviving a private airplane crash in 1981 that erased his memory for five weeks.
Steve Wozniak got his memories back, thankfully, and he's sharing them in his new autobiography titled "iWoz — How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It."