Steve Wozniak on his early- to mid-'70s work

Over in another thread I mentioned that SmartyKit was having a “webinar” about their product. I stayed up far too late last night/this morning (it occurred at 03:00-04:00 Tokyo time) to watch it, but it turned out to be well worthwhile because Steve Wozniak (!) showed up and spent more than twenty minutes talking about the Apple 1 and other things from the early- to mid-70s.

(I have no idea why, and it’s probably a bit silly, but it felt to me pretty amazing to have him talking there “live,” as opposed to listening to a recording, even though I’m sure he had no idea I was there. It felt almost like meeting him; this was probably as close as I’ll ever get to that.)

Here are my notes on what Woz said.

  • About five years before the Apple 1 he’d built what he calls the “Cream Soda Computer,” which used a standard blinkenlights-and-switches front panel as the user interface. I’m not clear on what the CPU was; it sounds as if may have been a custom CPU from 7400-series parts.
  • He trained to repair TVs in high school, which gave him some understanding of NTSC video that he would put to good use later.
  • Before the Apple 1 he’d built a TV terminal (like Don Lancaster’s TV Typewriter, but he was unaware of that at the time) that he used to connect to an ARPANET node. The keyboard and TV output design was reused for the Apple 1. [I’ve heard elsewhere that part of what he did for the video was taken from yet another design, and that even to this day he doesn’t totally, intuitively understand some of that circuitry, such as the carriage-return system. –cjs]
  • He’d felt for some time before the Apple 1 that what was really wanted for a personal/hobbyist computer was a better interface than blinkenlights-and-switches and a high level language in which to program. But the hardware needed to do this was quite expensive.
  • The appearance of the 6502, at $25, was the key element in fixing this expense problem, and as soon as he saw it he started designing and building the Apple 1 and Woz (Integer) BASIC.
  • BASIC “in the air” at the time he started the Apple 1: Gates and Allen had released their Altair version, David Ahl’s 101 BASIC Computer Games was popular, and HP (where he worked at the time) used BASIC in their minicomputers. That’s why he chose to learn and implement it. He didn’t know anything about BASIC at that point, much less whether or not it was a good language.
  • He didn’t realize when he started in that there was so much incompatibility between dialects of BASIC. He assumed that if he modeled his BASIC on HP BASIC, he’d be able to type in games from the Ahl book (which used Digital’s dialect of BASIC) and they would more or less work. This turned out to be incorrect.
  • Much of what he did in the Apple 1 would have been done better except for time and cost constraints. For example, it supported upper-case only because he could get cheap keyboards without lower case. [And, presumably, a cheap character generator chip. –cjs] This is why the Apple II was so much more capable: he had more resources to implement ideas he already had.
  • His work to design the Apple 1 and II was driven by the desire for recognition as having done some great engineering work, not any commerical concerns or desire to start a company. Steve Jobs going and making an empire out of this was just a chance side effect, as it were. And so the aim of the Apples 1 and II were actually fully realized this year, when the IEEE made him a Fellow.

Excellent! There’s a photo of the cream soda computer, and some quoted words from Woz, here.

Caption: “In 1971, Wozniak and a close friend, William Fernandez, built a small 8-bit computer made out of logic ICs. Fernandez (above left) holds the computer in his hand.”
From: Stan Augartner’s rather good illustrated history “Bit by bit

There’s at least one version of 101 BASIC Computer Games online. Time to type in some Basic!


The movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley” replaced Bill with Steve Jobs in the scene about this computer.

Oh, that doesn’t seem good. There’s a whole piece on Bill Fernandez here:

Daniel Kottke, one of Apple’s first dozen employees, said, “[In 1976] the Apple II did not even work. Woz’s prototype worked. But when they laid it out as a circuit board, it did not work reliably… It was unacceptable. And Woz did not have the skills to fix that… But, it was even worse than that. They did not even have a schematic.”

Newly funded by investors, Apple had just hired Rod Holt as the company’s first engineering chief, and this was one of the big problems that Holt walked into when he took the job. At the time Woz’s Apple II prototype was a bunch of wires and chips in a cardboard shoebox. The tiny Apple team had to take this amazing concept machine and turn it into a product that could be manufactured and sold in stores.

So Holt handed the first task to Apple technician Bill Fernandez.

When it came to computers and electronics, few people knew the workings of Wozniak’s mind better than Fernandez. The two had grown up as neighbors and had known each other since the fourth grade. In high school, Fernandez told Wozniak that there was a kid he needed to meet because he was into electronics and practical jokes just like Woz. It was a kid named Steve Jobs. Later, Wozniak acquired a bunch of different electronics parts and took them to Fernandez’s garage, where the pair worked on assembling the stuff into their own working computer that was years ahead of its time. Then, before Apple got started, Woz helped Fernandez get a technician job at Hewlett-Packard, where Wozniak was an entry-level engineer. So the two had a lot of history together.

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That’s my clue. :wink:

A decade (or so) ago I had the pleasure to do an interview with Fernandez for an Italian magazine. I later republished it online on my website Stories of Apple.