They call him the Wonderful Wizard of Woz. He was the execution to Steve Jobs’ vision; the man who realised the very first Apple personal computer, and who set the technological foundations that allowed the company to become one of the most definitive of its day.
But despite his ability to conjure such mechanical marvels, Steve Wozniak has remained focused on one thing: the humanity in technology. He has persevered to innovate and education based on the importance of tailoring tech to the human experience, not the other way around, to the point where he gave up a life of power and money to continue living the life he wanted to leave.
Perhaps, that has been his most important impact in a world where success has become synonymous with greed.
Steve Wozniak was born on August 11, 1950, in San Jose, California. His father, Jacob, was an engineer for Lockheed Martin who helped enable his love for electronics at a very young age. It wasn’t long before he was building ham radios, calculators, and a range of other devices.
For all his intelligence, traditional schooling did no good for Wozniak. By no means an exemplary student, he attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, but was promptly expelled when he hacked the school server and sent prank messages to all its users (though they would present him with an honorary degree 20 years later).
He eventually returned home, enrolling at De Anza College before transferring to the University of California, Berkley, in 1971. It was here that he met Steve Jobs. “A friend said, ‘you should meet Steve Jobs, because he likes electronics and he also plays pranks.'” The two shared a common passion for computer technology, and what they thought the industry’s future would look like.
In 1973, Jobs was working for Atari, and asked Wozniak to work with him on designing a circuit board for a new arcade cabinet. For each chip that could be eliminated from the default specifications, the company would pay the designer $100. Wozniak agreed to split the fee evenly, and got to work.
Incredibly, he managed to remove 50 chips on a prototype that was incredibly advanced for its time. Due to this – and the fact that it did not have the scoring or coin registering mechanisms attached at the time – the board was considered unusable. Jobs received the full $5000 bonus regardless…but gave Wozniak only $350.
Two years later, Wozniak tested a new prototype for the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobby group for computing enthusiasts. The hardware blew them away.
The following year, the pair joined up to form Apple Computing. Establishing themselves in Jobs’ garage, it wasn’t long before Wozniak decided that since he could not afford a computer, he would build his own.
Singlehandedly, Wozniak designed the hardware, the circuitry, and the entire operating system. The result was the Apple I, and it was far superior to anything else on the market. Still, he was hesitant about what was to come. Jobs wanted to sell the circuit board fully assembled at a time when personal computers came as kits, a move Wozniak was unsure of until Jobs said “even if we fail, at least we can tell our grandkids that we tried”.
They sold off $1300 of personal possessions to develop the parts for the boards, which sold for $666.66 (Wozniak was unaware of the cultural relevance of the number, choosing the price “because I like repeating digits”.) The first 50 were sold to Paul Terell, whose store Byte Shop would become the first ever to sell Apple products.
The computer lacked a case, power supply, keyboard, and display, but it nevertheless proved a success.
Shortly after, Wozniak turned to a new design: the Apple II. Once again, he proved that it wasn’t just his ability that was important to the evolution of the personal computer, but his innovative mind. The Apple II was the first PC to display colour graphics on an NTSC system all thanks to a $1 chip. PAL soon followed, quite by accident: “I was sure that by the laws of math and physics and how PAL was defined, colour would not work, especially the advanced 6-colour mode. The even lines would be cancelled out by the odd lines and all you’d see was green and purple mixed. But for some reason, it worked without my understanding why. To this day I do not know why it worked since my own analysis was that it would not work,” he told Forbes in 2012.
Introduced in 1977 as Apple’s first consumer device, the Apple II was one of the first majorly successful PC devices ever made, despite the over $5000 USD (when adjusted for inflation) price tag.
By 1980, yearly sales of the Apple II reached $118 million, after an average annual growth rate of 533%.
The following year, Wozniak was involved in a plane crash from which it took two years to recover. At this time, he left Apple, and went on to sponsor the US Festival in 1982 and 1983, to celebrate evolving technology across the world. He would return to Apple as an engineer, but soon felt like the company was “the bane of his existence”, stopping him from who he wanted to be.
He quit for good in 1985. Wozniak would receive an annual stipend from Apple, but sold most of his stock, and turned his attention to gadgetry. “I never sought wealth or power, and in fact evaded it,” he stated on his Reddit AMA.
His venture, CL 9, created the first universal remote control in 1987, before he founded Wheels of Zeus (WOZ) in 2001 to further wireless GPS technology. It ran until 2006, when he founded Acquicor Technology to acquire and develop emerging technology companies.
Wozniak has also proved himself a keen educator, referencing the importance of teachers in a child’s development. Throughout the years, he has taught students and teachers alike computer studies in public schools. No media are allowed to attend his classes.
Over the last five years, Wozniak has become more prominent on the speaker scene, leading events throughout the world.
He’s a philanthropist – having helped launch the Electronic Frontier Foundation through private funding – has over a dozen honorary degrees, and is a fanatic Tetris player. In fact, in the 1990s, he submitted so many high scores to Nintendo Power magazine that he had to resort to using the pseudonym ‘Evets Kainzow’ (his name backwards) for them to be printed.
In an age where computing technology is central to life, Steve Wozniak’s influence is undeniable. His story reminds us that a fulfilling life is not just about money, or being the best, but in making the kind of difference that we as individuals want to make. It reminds us, in a world of machines, just what it means to be human.