Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters

Steve Wozniak - known to all as ‘Woz’ - is famous for being the inventor of some of the earliest and most influential home computers in history. He co-founded the Apple Computer Company with Steve Jobs in 1976, and the combination of Woz’s technical genius and the marketing skills of Jobs blossomed into what is now the most valuable tech company on Earth, Apple Inc. What is less well known is his lifelong focus on education and the efforts he’s made to help children overcome many challenges, including the ones he faced as a child.

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters

Switches and shyness

Woz was born in 1950 in San Jose, California. His father Jerry was an engineer who exposed the young Woz at a very early age to the world of electronics. In his autobiography, iWoz, Woz talks of how his father was “just an extremely good teacher and communicator” and Woz learned from him very quickly. Things were not always smooth, though: Woz writes of how, aged seven, his father took him along to a client demonstration of a drilling machine and gave him the responsibility of flicking the switch to begin the demo. 

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters

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Steve Wozniak - known to all as ‘Woz’ - is famous for being the inventor of some of the earliest and most influential home computers in history. He co-founded the Apple Computer Company with Steve Jobs in 1976, and the combination of Woz’s technical genius and the marketing skills of Jobs blossomed into what is now the most valuable tech company on Earth, Apple Inc. What is less well known is his lifelong focus on education and the efforts he’s made to help children overcome many challenges, including the ones he faced as a child.

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters

Switches and shyness

Woz was born in 1950 in San Jose, California. His father Jerry was an engineer who exposed the young Woz at a very early age to the world of electronics. In his autobiography, iWoz, Woz talks of how his father was “just an extremely good teacher and communicator” and Woz learned from him very quickly. Things were not always smooth, though: Woz writes of how, aged seven, his father took him along to a client demonstration of a drilling machine and gave him the responsibility of flicking the switch to begin the demo. 

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“I remember worrying about how I would know when the right time was and thinking: Now? Now? When should I do this? Now?... Then suddenly it felt like the right time. So I went ahead and threw the switch. 

I heard a lot of laughter, and I didn’t know why. Suddenly I realized I had thrown the switch too early… I see this might be the beginning of my shyness, you know, getting butterflies in your stomach because you’re afraid of failure when you have to talk or something.”

The True Superhero of pranks

Woz’s shyness affected him deeply at school. While he was academically gifted, “my natural shyness just made me bottom out in sixth grade. I really stopped enjoying school so much… I think of the years after that, seventh and eighth grades especially, as terrible years.” He learned to counteract his shyness in an unusual way, devising elaborate technological pranks which he would carry out on his classmates and teachers. 

These would often get him into serious trouble. In 12th grade he built a battery-powered metronome, removed the labels from the batteries, and replaced them with a label saying “contact explosive”. He then placed this in a classmate’s locker with a switch rigged to accelerate the ticking when the locker was opened. The school had been the recipient of bomb threats in the preceding weeks, so when the locker was opened the principal bravely took it upon to himself to clutch the device to his chest and run out on to the school’s football field. When the culprit was apprehended, and the principal told him of his selfless action, Woz couldn’t help laughing. He ended up spending a night in the local juvenile hall as punishment and claims he spent his time there teaching the other inmates how to electrify their cell doors. While this is probably a joke, it wouldn’t be the last time Woz’s love of pranks led to serious trouble.

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters
Jobs (left) and Woz at work in the 1970s

By the time Woz got to the University of Colorado to study computing he was far in advance of his tutors. Although he didn’t have the money to purchase components, he spent his time designing increasingly more efficient computers on paper. Meanwhile, he tried to look interested in class while devising new pranks, one of which would end with him being forced to leave college. He devised a program that would cause the campus printers to print reams of extremely long numbers. He then filled his dorm with enormous stacks of these printouts, several feet high. Unfortunately, the only direct victim of this prank was Woz himself; the college charged him not just for the printouts but also the computer lab usage, an amount equivalent to $50,000 in today’s money. Woz was unable to pay and returned home to California, but this setback had an unexpected upside as it led to a fateful encounter with a young Steve Jobs. 

Homebrewed apples

The two Steves bonded over a love of both computers and pranks, and soon became firm friends. Jobs worked for groundbreaking arcade game manufacturer Atari and brought his friend Woz on board to develop a new variant of the smash hit game Pong. The game Woz designed, Breakout, went on to become an enormous global hit and spawned countless imitators of its own, but it also led to friction between the pair many years later when Woz discovered that Jobs had pocketed the bonuses Atari paid for Woz’s design. 

This regrettable incident defined the pair’s approach to business, with the confident and persuasive Jobs handling the financial side while the talented but painfully shy Woz designed the products. By now, Wozniak was finally in a position to build the computer designs he had been drawing on paper since childhood. In 1975 the two Steves started attending the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobby group of young nerds that spawned countless successful companies, but none as successful as the one formed by Wozniak and Jobs. 

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters
This original Apple I was recently sold at auction for $400,000

Woz demonstrated his first commercial computer design, the Apple I, at the Homebrew Computer Club in 1976. It was the first computer to have both a keyboard input and the facility to display images on a television screen, and it revolutionized people’s understanding of the potential uses of the technology, both in the home and in schools. Only a couple of hundred Apple Is were ever made, and while Jobs worked to sell the product to manufacturers, Wozniak gave the machines away to fellow enthusiasts, including one to the only female member of the Homebrew Computer Club, Liza Loop. Loop was a math teacher and one of the first people to use a computer in a classroom, which deeply impressed Woz. 

Taking stock and giving it back

The Apple I impressed a lot of people, and Jobs was able to secure substantial funding for Woz’s next design, the Apple II. They launched it in 1977 and it would go on to sell 4.8m units, making it the most successful computer of the era by far. Apple floated on the stock market in 1980 and the pair became enormously wealthy, but as Woz would later write: “I didn't start Apple so that I would get more money than I would ever need to live on. That made me really remember my desire to be a teacher, and for the rest of my life I was always paying a lot of attention to children wherever I went.”

Woz gave a lot of his stock away, much of it to early employees of Apple and people who had helped him over the years. As he would later write: “These employees weren’t just around, they offered the inspiration that really allowed me to do the great stuff. I thought of them as part of the family… I gave each of them stock worth about a million dollars. “ 

Steve Wozniak: True Superhero of Pranksters
Woz teaching a class in his garage

He also gave to the community he grew up in, setting up several educational institutions in the Silicon Valley area. One of the earliest was the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, located on Woz Way, and soon after he founded The Tech Museum of Innovation, but since stepping away from full-time work at Apple in 1985, Woz’s main interest has been in teaching children directly. He has worked as an unpaid teacher of computing at schools near his Los Gatos home since 1990, and has even provided computing classes for students in his garage. These days, Silicon Valley is filled with people who learned computing directly at the home of the man who invented home computers.

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