Excerpt from The PC Pioneers
On this day in 1950, Steve Wozniak was born.
With an IQ of 200, Wozniak was inspired and well-versed in electronics at an early age by his father, an engineer.
At school he routinely won science competitions, one of these for a device he built to show the atomic structure of all ninety-two atoms in the periodic table. He later explained that he had thoroughly learned all the features of a diode to make the circuitry work.
For another competition he produced a tic-tac-toe, or noughts and crosses, device completely designed around the capability of logic circuits. Earlier we saw that Bill Gates wrote a tic-tac-toe software program in 1968 at the age of thirteen. Wozniak built his hardware device when he was a year or so younger.
In the eighth grade, aged 13-14 years, he developed a rudimentary computer that he called an Adder/Subtractor. It was a complex device consisting of a hundred transistors, two hundred diodes, and two hundred resistors with relays and switches. It used switches to enter two binary numbers before selecting add or subtract, following which a series of lights presented the solution.
At high school Wozniak, a shy guy, often used his technical skills and practical jokes to compensate for his lack of social skills.
He focused mainly on hardware, though his first foray into software proved to be very educational. He was getting a day-per-week work experience at Sylvania, the consumer electronics company, where he learned to program.
He consumed a FORTRAN manual and as his very first task set himself the tough old chestnut of the Knight’s Tour challenge. The task is to move a knight chess piece with its strange moving routine, two forward and one to the side, to take just sixty-four moves to visit all sixty-four squares of a chessboard. With some assistance, Wozniak set out to keypunch his program to work out a solution.
His approach used a process of elimination to establish the correct start point. He loaded the software but nothing appeared to happen. However the Sylvania team studied the problem and suggested that his program may have put the computer into a loop, an infinity loop; coincidentally (?) the name of the street in Cupertino where Apple has its headquarters today.
On further investigation Wozniak calculated that the program as he had written it would take longer to run than the universe had existed to date!
At college Wozniak again ran into trouble when his programs were shown to have used so much time-share that he had consumed five times the level of the computer science department’s annual budget.
He was on much safer ground when he came across a DEC PDP-8 manual which he read thoroughly and then challenged himself to redesign the computer using what was by then his broad understanding of electronic circuitry.
He acquired other minicomputer manuals and on paper and in his mind worked on improved designs to use fewer chips. He could not afford actually to pursue any of these notions but he remained confident that his designs would work and represent an improvement on the originals.
He took a sabbatical year from college working as a programmer at Tenet, an operation developing a minicomputer system. While there one of the Tenet team acquired some chips for him.
Across 1970-71 Steve regularly got together with his friend Bill Fernandez. Drinking Cragmont cream sodas, they stayed up late to build a computer using cast-off components gleaned from nearby semiconductor companies. They worked in the garage of Fernandez’s father, the then mayor of Sunnyvale.
This device had no screen and no keyboard. Programs were entered by punched card and results had to be read from a series of lights.
This had most of the features of the Altair and other early kit systems yet was built without a microprocessor. Sobering that it would take five years for the MPU-based kits to arrive and yet they would offer no more than the Cream Soda computer.
A local reporter whom Wozniak’s mother arranged to review it stepped on a lead at the end of the interview. The device shorted – and was no more.
But Wozniak’s work with Fernandez did connect him with Steve Jobs. On meeting they experienced one of those moments when two minds collide. They discovered they were both working on projects, they were both pranksters and they shared many of the same aspirations for computing.
The Cream Soda computer was the first ‘knockings’ of what would later help to define the Apple I.
By then Steve Jobs was involved and this time it was his father’s garage that they used.
Fernandez became the first employee at Apple, though for his work pass he was designated as #4.