An Interview with Steve Wozniak
Photo of Steve Wozniak

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and John Leyba

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


John Leyba

Steve Wozniak, the son of a Lockheed engineer, grew up in Sunnyvale, where he dreamed of having his own computer. The rest is Silicon Valley legend.

At the Homebrew Computer Club, he passed out copies of his original designs. With Steve Jobs, he began working on a commerical model and in 1977, the Apple II made its debut. Three years later, Apple went public. The 30-year-old ''Woz'' was suddenly worth millions and became a symbol of free-wheeling nerd enterprise and ingenuity.

In early 1981, a high performance plane Wozniak was piloting went down and he was seriously injured. After recovering, he took a leave of absence from Apple. He sponsored two large rock concerts -- the U.S. Festivals -- and devoted himself to his growing family, to community projects and to education. Today, in a small office in Los Gatos, he teaches computer skills to local students and advises school districts on how to get wired.

Recently, Wozniak, 46, returned to the Apple fold as an advisor. He spoke with writer Jill Wolfson and student John Leyba before that announcement.

Wozniak: OK, you have questions, I presume?

Leyba: What initially got you interested in technology and science? When did you get started?

Wozniak: Around 4th grade, I'd say. I started reading "Tom Swift" books. They were about this young guy who was an engineer who could design anything, and he owned his own company, and he would entrap aliens, and build submarines, and have projects all over the world. It was just the most intriguing world, like the first TV shows you ever watched.

"Teachers started recognizing me and praising me for being smart in science and that made me want to be even smarter in science!"
Also, my father was an engineer and he helped to guide me into some science fair projects that were electronics, so my love grew. Teachers started recognizing me and praising me for being smart in science and that made me want to be even smarter in science! Eventually, by 5th grade, I was building very large computer-like science fair projects. In 6th grade, I built one that really was a computer; it played Tic-Tac-Toe.

I was also real bright at mathematics and got my HAM radio license in 6th grade. So, I got an early start. Then I continued throughout the years, building more sophisticated computer projects, eventually designing complete computers and building them through high school and college.


"And in designing computers, which had become the love of my life, it was like solving puzzles. I tried to get better and better and better."

It was all self-done; I didn't ever take a course, didn't ever buy a book on how to do it. Just pieced it together in my own head. I loved doing it, because when we were in elementary school and junior high school and even high school, it was neat to have other friends in electronics down the block. We would run house-to-house wired intercoms and somebody would build a neat little sound maker, and we'd go down to Sunnyvale Electronics and buy the parts. It was neat to grow up with a crowd of electronics kids. That was a big part of my life. That was how we had our fun.

Wolfson: This is a question from my ten year old. He wants to know how you got the idea for the first Apple. Was it hard to make, or are you a genius?
Wozniak: In some parts of life, like mathematics and science, yeah, I was a genius. I would top all the top scores you could ever measure it by. And in designing computers, which had become the love of my life, it was like solving puzzles. I tried to get better and better and better. If I designed a computer with 200 chips, I tried to design it with 150. And then I would try to design it with 100. I just tried to find every trick I could in life to design things real tiny.

The first Apple was just a culmination of my whole life. My whole life had been designing computers I could never build. And all of a sudden -- well, for a few years I had gotten out of computers because I worked at Hewlett Packard designing calculators, which is a different kind of computer. And then all of a sudden, I discovered that the prices of some parts called "microprocessors" and "memory chips" had gotten so low, that I could actually afford, with maybe a month's salary (if I saved for a little while) I could afford to design and build my own computer.

When I was in my first year of college, I told my father that I was going to own a 4K computer someday! And he said, 'Yeah, but they cost about as much as a house!' And I said, 'Well then, I'll live in an apartment.'

All the little computer kits that were being touted to hobbyists in 1975 were square or rectangular boxes with non-understandable switches on them, and some wires that could connect to this, and maybe you could get a teletype machine. These things were kind of strange because I'm a normal person who believes in the very middle road and just having a normal life and doing what normal people do.

I had a TV set and a typewriter and that made me think a computer should be laid out like a typewriter with a video screen. I'd learned enough about circuitry in high school electronics to know how to drive a TV and get it to draw - shapes of characters and things. So it's like all these influences came together and out came a product that I knew would be easy to use the way I liked to use a computer at my job at Hewlett Packard, which was to solve engineering problems, and occasionally to solve a puzzle, and also to play games.

Wolfson: Was there a specific moment that you knew that you actually had something revolutionary?
Wozniak:Yes and no. I had designed so many computers in my life that I knew what exceptional things I had done and could do. I had even built a small computer five years before, around 1970.

And it was very equivalent to all the computers that were popping up in '75. What I was proud of was that I used very few parts to build a computer that could actually speak words on a screen and type words on a keyboard and run a programming language that could play games. And I did all this myself.

As soon as I had this "Apple One" (except it didn't have a name then), I actually brought it into work and solved some engineering and design problems I was working on, so I knew I had something good.

In those days, there was no idea there was going to be a huge computer market; that they were going to enter everyone's lives so pervasively as they have. At our computer club, we talked about it being a revolution. Computers were going to belong to everyone, and give us power, and free us from the people who owned computers and all that stuff. But, pretty much it was a small time little hobby like HAM radio activity that only went to a very few people that kind of understood all the bits and bytes of computers. And big companies that ran big businesses - IBM, Hewlett Packard, companies like that - sneered at these little products, based on microprocessors.

I had people who started gathering around me, and I was very shocked. They gathered and asked questions like I was the leader of a different technology. I was helping people build their own computers. I would pass out schematics. I went over to friends' houses and sat there, hour after hour, soldering the wires together to make their computers.


"And really, we didn't take a risk - I didn't give up my job; Steve just lived at home with his parents"

Steve Jobs saw this and said: 'Why don't we make a PC board?' Basically it was like a $1,000.00 investment and we'd have to sell fifty to get our money back, because we'd build the boards for $20.00 and sell them for $40.00. And boy, I remember not being sure we'd sell fifty of them at the club. But, you know, Steve thought there were surplus dealers and all that. And then finally he said, "Even if we lose our money, at least we had a company." And we were young back then. And when you think of it that way, you know, obviously we were going to do it. Sure, just to have a company, I'll gamble a few bucks on that. And really, we didn't take a risk - I didn't give up my job; Steve just lived at home with his parents; we didn't change our lifestyle.

I sold my most valuable possession, but I knew that because I worked at Hewlett Packard, I could buy the next model calculator the very next month for a lower price than I sold the older one for!


"You didn't have to have a real specific reason for choosing a name when you were a little tiny company of two people; you choose any name you want."

So we didn't really take a big financial risk or something like that, we just said, hey, this is a neat thing; let's be part of this new, developing industry. And sure enough, one of the most amazing things is, we got this name, "Apple". And Apple started being heard all over the world. We started feeling proud of it.

Leyba: How did the Apple name come about?
Wozniak:Steve said he had an idea for a name - Apple Computer. He doesn't always let on where ideas come from, or how they come into his head. That was constantly true all the time. We both tried to think of names that were more suggestive or technological words for the name of the company.

The more we thought, the more they all sounded boring compared to Apple. You didn't have to have a real specific reason for choosing a name when you were a little tiny company of two people; you choose any name you want.

Wolfson: I had read somewhere that Steve had just come back from vacation in Washington or something and had been in some apple orchards. Any truth to that?
Wozniak: He did work in an orchard up in the state of Oregon. Maybe it was Washington; I think it was Oregon. It was just my opinion that maybe they had apple trees in their orchards, you know? Maybe that's where the idea popped in. Maybe it was just listening to a Beatles' song.
Leyba: To a lot of young people, you are a hero and a role model. Who did you look up to?
Wozniak: My 4th and 5th grade teacher was a real inspiration to me - just that she seemed to care about students so much. It was at the time that my other hero, my father, was teaching me the values of education -- why children have to learn to make this a better world than the parents had made and why school is so important to your life. I decided I wanted to be an engineer like my father, and second, I wanted to be a 5th grade teacher. Another hero was Tom Swift, in the books. What he stood for, the freedom, the scientific knowledge and being and engineer gave him the ability to invent solutions to problems. He's always been a hero to me. I buy old Tom Swift books now and read them to my own children.

"Bob Dylan was a hero; for early folk songs and the like. Just the way he put words together - strong meaning of very few words - just like trying to build a very good computer with very few parts."

My high school electronics teacher was another hero. He didn't just use a course out of a book. He wrote his own courses. He wrote his own assignments.That's how I run my computer classes now.

And then, in the arts, I'd say Bob Dylan was a hero. Just the way he put words together - such strong meaning in so very few words. It's just like trying to build a very good computer with very few parts.