Kevin Cody

Apple’s Steve Wozniak: Tinker, teacher, thinker, reacher

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Steve Wozniak

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak shares his ideas about the future of computers with Distinguished Speakers Series subscribers. Photo by Deidre Davidson (

In 1976, Steve Wozniak told his Hewlett Packard boss that he had been coming in early to work on a design for a new home-computer. He was convinced the new computer would change the world. He wanted Hewlett Packard to build it.

Steve Jobs, Wozniak’s young partner in several other, more modest computer products, including an illegal “blue box” for making free long distance calls, wanted him to quit Hewlett Packard.

“Steve wasn’t an engineer,” Wozniak said of the more famous of the two Apple co-founders. “But he found ways to turn things I designed into money.”

Wozniak had dropped out of Berkeley to join Hewlett Packard and was reluctant to leave, he told Distinguished Speaker Series subscribers during a talk two Sundays ago at the Redondo Performing Arts Center.

“I just wanted to be known as a great engineer, and to spend the rest of my life working at Hewlett Packard. I didn’t want to start my own company. I was afraid of running things. I didn’t want enemies. I loved the designing side,” he said.

Wozniak recalled how elated he had been when Hewlett Packard hired him to work on their revolutionary hand calculators. Wozniak had won a science fair contest in the eighth grade with a calculator he designed.

“The HP calculator was the iPhone of its day. It had taken over the world of engineering and science. Within five years there would be no more slide rules,” Wozniak said.

Wozniak also had ethical concerns about taking the computer away from Hewlett Packard.

“I couldn’t do it behind Hewlett Packard’s back,” he said. His father, he noted, himself a distinguished Lockheed engineer, never pushed his children to become engineers. But he did impress upon them the importance of honesty.

“He taught us that truth is the apex of all that is good. That’s why I grew up middle of the road, because engineers use their brains to decide where things fall,” he said.

Shortly after telling his boss about his new computer, he said, “I ran into my lab manager in the elevator. He told me he hadn’t been able to sleep since I told him my idea. But he had to turn it down.”

Only after Hewlett Packard turned down his proposal four more times did he agree to join Jobs in forming a new company. And only on the condition, suggested to him by a friend, that he would remain an engineer and not have to hire and fire people.

Wozniak told of his experience with Hewlett Packard to illustrate how environment can nurture, or quash innovation.

“Hewlett Packard probably would have built a boring machine to use in the lab instead of a machine for home,” he said.

“Our nature is to explore. A baby turns its head toward noise. When it gets older, it wants to open drawers. Schools have too many students to let them open just any drawer. They drive out curiosity because they can’t afford a teacher for every student.

“How are you measured in school? By grades, by giving the same answers as everyone else, not your answer,” he said. “Schools don’t teach innovation, which is what lead to Apple.”

Wozniak attributed at least part of his success to his early shyness.

“I was reading Tom Swift when all the other kids were reading Hardy Boys. I was used to being shunned, so I was used to thinking differently. In the third grade, I answered the multiplication flash cards faster than anyone else in the class. The teacher had never seen a boy beat the girls.”

“When I was eight, I learned about ham radio operators. I read books on Morse code and got my operator’s license. But I was so shy, I never talked about it in school.”

Wozniak said he and Jobs, who was several years behind him at Homestead High School in Cupertino, hit it off when they were introduced because both liked pranks. At Berkeley, Wozniak made a pocket-size device that could make the dorm televisions go on the fritz. When a student got up to fix the TV, Wozniak would turn the device off and when they sat back down, he’d make the television go on the fritz again.

One of his and Jobs’s earliest ventures was the world’s first dial a joke telephone service.

“I just love jokes,” he said. During a recent address to engineering graduates at the University of Colorado, he said, he got in trouble for asking, “What do you call four Mexicans in quicksand? Quatro cinco.”

Wozniak’s boisterous, wide ranging talk left no traces of the once shy geek. He traced his transformation from a person too shy to speak in public to someone who recently appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” to having to explain the Apple 1 to fellow geeks.

“Steve didn’t understand our computer well enough to explain it, so I had to go up and down the state talking about it at computer clubs,” he said.

Now, he said, he travels the world, giving 70 talks a year, making it difficult for him to work on his new computer idea.

Advancements in computers, Wozniak said, can be measured by their ease of use and their becoming more like friends.

“The computer can hear me, talk to me, watch me. It knows where I am and where I’m going.

“But I’m convinced that for it to become my best friend, it will need a sense of smell,” he said. It wasn’t clear whether he was joking.

“Will we achieve artificial intelligence, like a human’s? I said no for the longest time. But something got me thinking. Twenty years ago I was at Disneyland with my kids when I hand wrote ‘Dentist 2 p.m.’ on my Apple Newton. I clicked ‘assistant’ and my Newton put it on my calendar.

“I suddenly realized, I had written a note and the machine understood me. That’s what I want a computer to do, so I don’t need to use my brain.”

“A year before Apple bought Siri,” he continued, “I was going around the world saying, ‘This is the future.’ I didn’t need to follow a procedure to use it. It used my voice.”

To illustrate the distinction, he told of wondering if Lake Tahoe was the largest lake in California.

“I asked Siri, “What is the largest lake in California. It answered with a list of the five largest lakes. Tahoe was third. Siri did the math. I don’t want a search engine that gives me articles to read. I want answers.”

Wozniak said he envisions the day when students have personal computers as their personal teachers.

Had he not become an engineer, Wozniak said, he would have become a teacher.

“One day I asked my dad, Who makes more, teachers or engineers? He told me engineers. I thought, ‘Darn,’ because I wanted to be a teacher.”

Following Apple’s success, he volunteered for eight years as a fifth grade teacher in a public school near his Los Gatos home.

“I donated money for a museum in San Jose,” he said. “But donating money isn’t as satisfying as actually doing something for people.”

“I did some one-on-one teaching, and some classes with 6, 20 and 30 students. Large classes are hard to deal with, but I never failed teaching one-on-one.”

To date, he said, “I haven’t seen computers help education. Computers need to better understanding human speech, so they’re like talking to a friend. When computers can look at a student’s face and tell jokes, then we’ll have computers that can teach kids. Children like computers that sound like humans.

“We’ll get there, but it may be 40 years before a computer acts like a real person.

“The key,” he said, “is replacing the hard disks, which take so long to retrieve data. They take 1/1,000 of a second now.

“My new company Fusion IO is working on a chip that will be able to retrieve data in 1/1,000,000 of a second.”

Wozniak acknowledged that he doesn’t know if the chip he envisions will work, or if it does, if it will be affordable. Rather than electrons, his new computer chip’s computations would utilize photons, which have less mass, require less power and produce less heat than electrons.

“I’ve been thinking about this for 35 years, but only recently have quantum physics researchers discovered techniques that may make these chips possible.

“Voice requires a lot of computing power.

“Will the new computers argue with you? Yes, they will,” he said.

Former Mexico president Vicente Fox will speak to Distinguished Speaker Series subscribers on Monday Nov. 12; followed by author Sir Ken Robinson on Monday, January 15;author Caroline Kennedy on Monday, February 11, Dr. Louise Leakey on Tuesday, March 5; Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Monday, April 15; and a speaker to be announced on Tuesday, May 21.

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