Steve Wozniak

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Steve Wozniak (b. August 11, 1950) is universally credited with initiating the entry of computers into private homes. Although his contribution may be seen as a compilation of a few well-known ideas that have perfectly coincided with the technological readiness for a mass-produced computer, Steve Wozniak's ingenuity and relentless creativity made him uniquely suitable to pick up the credit for starting the PC revolution.

Successor to Tom Swift

Wozniak's early inspirations came from his father Jerry who was a Lockheed engineer, and from a fictional wonder-boy: Tom Swift. His father infected him with fascination for electronics and would often check over young Woz's creations. Tom Swift, on the other hand, was for Woz an epitome of creative freedom, scientific knowledge, and the ability to find solutions to problems. Tom Swift would also attractively illustrate the big awards that await the inventor. To this day, Wozniak returns to Tom Swift books and reads them to his own kids as a form inspiration.

Woz's values were shaped and strengthened over years by his family, Christian philosophy (turning the other cheek), radio amateur ethics (helping people in emergency), books (Swift's utilitarian and humanitarian attitude) and others.

As a lasting Swift legacy, throughout his life, Wozniak loved all projects that required heavy thinking. He learned the basics of mathematics and electronics from his father. He would at times be so absorbed in his projects that his mother would have to shake him back to reality. When Woz was 11, he built his own amateur radio station, and got a ham-radio license. At age 13, he was elected president of his high school electronics club, and won first prize at a science fair for a transistor-based calculator. Also at 13, Woz built his first computer that laid the engineering foundation of his later success.

First home computer

With all engineering skills at hand, it was not hard for the Wizard of Woz to envisage a simple computer of his dreams. The keyboard would work like a typewriter. The messages would be displayed on a TV-like monitor. All that could be assembled with relatively cheap circuitry. By 1975, Woz would drop out of the University of California at Berkeley and would come up with a computer that could sweep the nation. However, he was largely working within a scope of the Homebrew Computer Club, a local group of electronics hobbyists. His project had no wider ambition. As it often happens in history, Woz was just one hemisphere of a genius brain. The other was Steve Jobs, whom Wozniak met when he was 16. Jobs, 5-years Woz's junior, who himself had dropped out of Reed College in 1972, was a perennial starry-eyed visionary who could see far beyond the possible. Jobs and Wozniak came to the conclusion that a completely assembled and inexpensive computer would be in demand. They sold some of their prized possessions (e.g. Woz's scientific calculator), raised $1300, and assembled the first prototype in Jobs' garage. Their first computer was quite unimpressive by today's standards, but in 1975 it was an engineering breakthrough that would change the course of history (picture). In simplicity of use it went years ahead of the Altair, which was introduced earlier in 1975. Altair had no display and no true storage. It received commands via a series of switches and a single program would require thousands of toggles without an error. Altair output was presented in the form of flashing lights. Altair was great for true geeks (Bill Gates and Paul Allen were among the first), but it was not really usable for a wider public. It would not even come assembled. Woz's computer, on the other hand, named Apple I, was a fully assembled and functional unit that contained a $25 microprocessor on a first-ever single-circuit board with ROM. On April 1, 1976, Jobs and Wozniak formed Apple Computer Company. Wozniak quit his job at Hewlett-Packard and became the vice president in charge of research and development at Apple. Apple I was priced at $666. Jobs and Wozniak made a killing by selling their first 25 computers to a local dealer.

Wozniak could now focus full-time on fixing the shortcomings of Apple I and adding new functionality. His genius was in full creative swing. Apple I earned his company close to a million dollars. His new design was to retain the most important characteristics: simplicity and usability. Woz introduced high-resolution graphics in Apple II. His computer could now display pictures instead of just letters: "I threw in high-res. It was only two chips. I didn't know if people would use it." By 1978, he also designed an inexpensive floppy-disk drive. He and Randy Wigginton wrote a simple disk operating system. In addition to his hardware wizardry, Wozniak wrote most of software that ran Apple. He wrote a Basic interpreter, a Breakout game (which was also a reason to add sound to Apple), the code needed to control the disk drive, and more. On software side, Apple II was also made more attractive to a business user by the famous pioneering spreadsheet: Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston's VisiCalc. This unique combination of new ideas resulted in a screaming market success. In 1980, the Apple company went public and made Jobs and Wozniak instant millionaires. At the age of 27, Jobs was the youngest Fortune 400 man in 1982 -- a rare case before the dot-com era. Incidentally, in 1978, when the company cut the price of Apple II, it helped to launch yet another meteoric software career, that of Mitch Kapor. Kapor scraped enough money to buy his own Apple. Inspired by VisiCalc and a meeting with its inventors, he went on to develop Lotus 1-2-3 and swept the spreadsheet market place for years to follow.

Plane crash

In February of 1981, Wozniak nearly lost his genius in an accident that could have easily claimed his life at age 30. While taking off from Scotts Valley airport, an engine failed in his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane and it crashed. In addition to facial injuries, Woz experienced a retrograde amnesia. This means that he could not recall things from before the accident. He had also problem with forming new memories. At worst, years of training could have been permanently erased from his memory. Those memories laid the foundation of his genius thinking. Luckily, five weeks after the accident, his memory powers returned. The genius was ready for more breakthroughs, but his passions shifted from technology to people.

Woz became less enthusiastic about his work for Apple. He got married and returned to the university under the name "Rocky Clark" to get his degrees in 1982 in computer science as well as in electrical engineering. In 1983 he decided to return to mainstream Apple development. However, he wanted to be no more than just an engineer and a motivational factor for the Apple workforce. Here he demonstrated a typical characteristic of a creative mind: craving for creative opportunities away from the spotlight (cf. William James Sidis). Woz stunned the world by leaving Apple for good in 1985, nine years after setting up the company. Jobs was also forced to leave Apple as a result of a power struggle. Wozniak and Jobs are proud to have originated an anti-corporate ethic among big players of computer market. Jobs focused on not always practical innovation with his NeXT vision, while Woz went on to fulfill his other passions: teaching to fifth grade and charitable activities in the field of education. Today, Steve Wozniak's passion is to help young talent catch on the train of opportunity. He provides kids with computers, Internet accounts, and lessons in programming. In September 2000, Steve Wozniak was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame alongside Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Alva Edison, Enrico Fermi, Guglielmo Marconi, Louis Pasteur, Nikola Tesla and others.

Wozniak's creativity

Wozniak said: "Apple is not the company I had hoped it would be. I always thought that a major player in the personal computer business, with its label on the products, would be composed of top engineers and multiple labs full of scientists developing new devices out of physics and chemistry."

Geniuses dislike corporate structures because these tend to mold creativity to commercial purposes. Creative minds tend to be in minority. At the same time they are convinced that their visions are the only valid. This inevitably leads to tension and disruptions at work. Some corporations create independent R&D departments and lavish their most precious brains with generous research funds.