History of Computing — 6

As you can see, I didn’t blog about the last HoC class largely because I had to leave early for Surtaal practice, but it was a wonderful lecture and I encourage all those who are interested to look at the video/slides. Armando Fox is a great speaker — his slides were both amusing and insightful. I missed Steve’s section on Antitrust but I think I’ve heard that material before from him from the earlier two courses.

Anyways, so for today’s class we have none other than [[wp>Steve_wozniak|Steve Wozniak]]. He’s shorter than I thought. He’s not using slides. But he’s speaking enthusiastically and passionately, so its really enjoyable just listening to him.

He’s basically off on a tirade about his life, which is fair I guess since he had a pretty big role in the development of the personal computer as we know it today (and which happens to be the subject of today’s class). His childhood was pretty fascinating apparently. When he was in 5th grade, his dad took him to these technology fairs — so at that early age he already knew about circuits and transistors. By the time he was 12 years old, he was already building simple circuits — for example, he built an electronic tic-tac-toe.

By the time he was in high school, he was so advanced in electronics that his high school teacher arranged for him to take electronic classes at a nearby college. He also started programming in Fortran when he was in high school — probably one of the few kids in the entire world to be programming a computer at that time. One of the first programs he wrote was the [[wp>Knights_tour|Knights Tour]].

He then got his hands on the manual for the PDP-8 and fascinated by it, he started designing his own computers. Of course he could never build and test those designs, but still, think about it — a high school kid, actually //designing// a full-fledged computer!!

He says that by the end of high school, he had designed and re-designed so many computers, and //optimized// so many existing designs that he was convinced that his designs were more compact and efficient than any other designs out there. He knew that he knew more than what could be taught in any electrical engineering course in college.

He was planning to go to tech schools like MIT for college, but he was visiting Colorado and he was so enamored with the snow there that he decided that he would only apply to Colorado. He was crazy about programming. He cost his first year college a lot of money in computer bills. He had to take a year off after his second year (which he did at De Anza, not at Colorado) working for a company to make enough money to finish college and get a car.

Wozniak met Jobs sometime during his college years. He says Jobs was more “liberated” than he was (in context of the Hippie movement prominent in California at the time). He went to Berkeley for his 3rd year college. They made “blue boxes” using which they could basically tap into the telecom system and make phone calls anywhere in the world without having to pay for anything.

(//At this point, the “lecture” really sounds like excerpts from iWoz, not really an academic prose on the advent of the PC from Apple’s vantage point. Probably it’ll better fit into the lecture as things proceed, but right now its simply an interesting story//)

During their Berkeley days, Jobs and Wozniak thought of selling the blue box on campus. So they did some door to door marketing, never got caught and sold a bunch of blue boxes.

Later Woz got his hands on one of the first legendary HP calculators (those which could do non-trivial math — calculus, for example). Woz was later hired by HP as an electronic engineer to work on calculator designs. In order to test his calculator designs, Woz also worked on //simulators// for the calculators. HP had one huge shared computer to run these testing and debugging routines.

He was a //hacker// par-excellent — he built a LOT of stuff on his own: he built a pinball machine, he built his own electronic Pong game (complete with TV display and controls). Out of this Pong machine, he designed a keyboard-video interface that was a cheap and better replacement for the expensive teletype machines. Jobs and Woz would later sell this terminal design to a Mountain View based company.

Later he designed a one player Pong game (better called Bricks) in //4 days// that he and Jobs later marketed. Recall in those days games were not really like any other program — things had to be hard-wired and stuff had to be coded in hardware. Very little software abstraction.

Woz was part of a “Homebrew” computer club where people interested in microprocessors met and talked about things. Jobs came to Woz saying that they should start a company to build self-contained components — a printer circuit board (PCB) which would have the basic functionality like keyboard input/output, video displays etc. Jobs secured a $50,000 order for their first PCB (morphed into Apple I).

Woz designed the Apple II from scratch. It would be the first low cost small computer with high resolution color display. He infact wrote down the entire BASIC interpreter //by hand// because he couldn’t afford a computer to type it out and compile it in. Jobs basically ran the business side of the company, while Woz led the technical side.

The first Apple ][ didn’t have a floppy drive, nor floating point BASIC. So they later worked on a floppy drive controller (in two weeks) but got the floating point BASIC from Microsoft, which Woz says was a big mistake for Apple because it was licensed from M$ for 5 years. Apple also wrote the first “home” oriented application — they wrote a checkbook manager, probably the world’s first consumer finance application as well.


Leave a Reply