Birth of the Personal Computer


by Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith

313 pp. W.W. Norton and co. 2010  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it.

      This book (subtitle cited above) provides a candid look into the soul of Steve Wozniak, blessed with great talent but also an obvious case of Asperger's autism. Asperger people have little social sense, tend to be shy in company and develop an intensely self-directed world-view. Lucky ones confront this lack and compensate by seeking success in fields which rely less on socializing and more on inner resources--science, engineering, craftsmanship, music, art etc (I should know). Those less lucky often sink to the bottom of society.

    Wozniak--very much the first type--focused his talent on the design of logic circuits and computers. The subtitle of the book states his claim: "how I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple and had fun doing it." A good case can be made for all three, and through them, Wozniak got rich beyond any money worries. But the sentence also encapsulates Wozniak's autistic outlook: "How I invented" puts the writer's self right at the focus (is the book's title a hint too?). What he craved was not money--he seemed happy enough just making a decent living (Steve Jobs was different)--but the credit. He was the one who invented the personal computer, he was the one who co-founded Apple.

    Was he? Steve Jobs was the other "official" co-founder, and several others helped the launch, Mike Markkula and Allen Baum, for instance. But his mind may well have been the first to grasp the vision of the personal computer--microprocessor CPU on a single main chip, commands from a keyboard, ability to form letters on a video screen, to carry out computations, to read and write data stored on cheap devices, etc., and to do all these at a cost American families could afford. But the system's components had many sources--the mouse came from Douglas Engelbart, icons from Xerox PARC, floppy disks from Alan Shugart, microprocessors from the Motorola folks who (with other participants) implemented Moore's law ("computing power doubles every 18 months"), and so on. Wozniak was a gifted conductor, but his orchestra included many other talented performers, too.

    And then there is "had fun doing it." The stories told here suggest that Wozniak never grew up, that all his life he maintained a childlike enthusiasm for clever novelty. An early prank was a tiny hidden TV-frequency transmitter, able to disrupt a TV monitor watched by students. Sitting among them, Woz fooled that audience by secretly turning the fuzz on and off when someone banged the receiver or touched the antenna, and even managed to shift suspicion onto innocent bystanders. He also dialed long distance phone lines for free with a "blue box" of his design, but his aim was always amusement, not personal gain. He also refused to tell a lie, another Asperger trait.

    In a sort of game with himself, he tried to design circuits with the greatest economy of components, often using much fewer than standard designs. He reserved special scorn for what he considered klutzy designs (especially the Apple III computer) and for managers who ignored technical advice, such as his early find that the Internet Explorer browser sometimes caused Macs to crash.

    Sophomoric? Sure. But Silicon Valley around 1970 drew many personalities like his, and helped form friendships which lasted through computer careers (including that with Steve Jobs, who unlike Woz could envision the corporate future of Apple). Not all of Wozniak's wacky projects succeeded--his two rock concerts, trying to recapture the spirit of Woodstock, lost him 12 M$ each. But his was and remains an interesting life.

    Right when Apple was breaking new ground, advancing from its popular Apple II to the wildly successful Macintosh line, Wozniak stepped back from an active role in the company to the relatively quiet field of designing TV remote controls. He preferred staying active as designer and engineer, rather than taking on any responsibility for management. So while this book goes into some detail concerning the first Apple computers, it only has a sketchy mention of the Macintosh line and its outgrows, the ipod, iphone and ipad.

    That later story belongs more to Steve Jobs, who was eased out of Apple management, developed his own NEXT line, and returned with it to Apple, which he then led out of its doldrums. That would be a separate book (and it exists, by Walter Isaacson). Where Wozniak was the electronic innovator, Jobs was an entrepreneur, the corporate organizer behind Apple's rise. It would be interesting to try decide which of the two Steves had the more rewarding career.




Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 28 January 2014