Famous Technologists: Steve Wozniak

Steve Wozniak is an American inventor, engineer, programmer and technology entrepreneur who co-founded Apple Computer Inc. He is known as a pioneer in the computer industry for his work on the Apple II computer during the 1970s and early 1980s.

He began programming computers at age 12 on a Commodore VIC-20. He attended University of California at Berkeley where he learned to design circuit boards with only one microchip by hand after they failed to produce an acceptable layout using equipment designed for printed circuit boards with many chips. After gaining employment at video game company Atari in 1974, Wozniak was assigned to design a video game console based on Motorola’s 6800 processor; however, when Atari founder Nolan Bushnell purchased microprocessor manufacturer MOS Technology without consulting his engineers’ recommendations about which chip would be best for their needs (the MOS Technology 6502), Steve Wozniak convinced him that it could support the development of an entire computer system if used properly. I read technology blogs, but I have never come across anything about the history of these famous innovators before. It was really interesting to read all about it.

Wozniak’s first computer design, the single-board “Cream Soda” (1975), used TTL logic to implement a BASIC interpreter that he had written himself; however, it lacked video output and could only be programmed via its hex keyboard using binary code. The Cream Soda project was abandoned because of the six-month time limit set by Wozniak’s employer, and as he considered it too small to be a commercial product.

His second computer design, the “Dot-Matrix Display” (1975–1976), used a slightly faster MOS Technology 6502 processor than the Cream Soda and had a video output. It was capable of creating and displaying colored graphics—something that seemed to be incredibly impressive at that time—and playing tones with an internal speaker. The project was also abandoned due to Wozniak’s belief that the device would only sell for about $25 due to its lack of color graphics output; however, it became his first sale when he sold it for $750 after being told by his friend Steve Jobs he could sell it if he reduced its price from nearly $1,000. This Apple I computer system is on display at Apple Computer headquarters in Cupertino, California.

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Wozniak designed the Apple II computer for fun in his spare time. Jobs’ $1,000 investment allowed Wozniak to build the device in his garage with the help of friend Bill Fernandez. Wozniak completed it on June 29, 1976, by which time he had also received $250 for board design from people who heard about the project via his homemade computer newsletter. Steve Jobs quickly found a way to sell it and recoup their initial investment. The Apple II was introduced at the West Coast Computer Faire on April 16, 1977; 6 weeks later it went on sale at $1,298 (equivalent to approximately $4,300 today). The original kit required hand assembly; typical end-users would never assemble their own machines because they would instead buy pre-assembled computers directly from Apple’s limited number of authorized dealers or local hobbyists who built their own machines. For years after production ceased getting replacement parts was often problematic because only Steve Wozniak knew how everything worked together inside these early Apple computers—an issue that became more evident as repairs became necessary over time and fewer repair shops were familiar with this new type of computer technology (at that time most personal computers used significantly different hardware.

The Apple II’s built-in computer terminalality and expansion slots, along with its color graphics capability and advanced sound features, quickly made it the platform of choice among computer hobbyists. Its open architecture—which exposed the computer’s programming interface to its users—advanced their opportunities to program the device. The Apple II was aimed at non-technical people as well as technical ones. By 1977, Apple Computer became a publicly traded company with an initial public offering of $2 million (equivalent to approximately $8 million today).

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