May 20, 2007 10:30 AM PDT

Woz on the magic of electronics and computers

SAN MATEO, Calif.--If there's one person who perfectly personifies Maker Faire, it could well be Steve Wozniak.

That's why a standing-room-only crowd had gathered to see him speak at the event Saturday afternoon, and so when he still hadn't shown up five minutes after he was scheduled to appear on the main stage here, there was some concern.

Not to worry. There was a sudden ripple of excitement as the Apple co-founder and all-around computing hero pulled up to the right side of the stage on his Segway.

Wozniak--better known as Woz--is in fact a veteran of Maker Faire, the bacchanalia of do-it-yourself technology, hacking, fire arts, robots, mad scientists and mad crafters that is taking place all weekend in this small town south of San Francisco.

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But while Woz last year spent most of the event riding around and playing Segway Polo, he had come this time to fire up those in the audience with romantic and impassioned stories of the power and excitement of mathematics and engineering.

That concept might draw a groan at a lot of gatherings, but at Maker Faire, it was just the right message for a crowd thick with accomplished engineers and hackers, as well as countless would-be Wozes.

"This whole fair represents something that was so prominent when I was young," Wozniak began. "Sit down and make something fun."

As if trying to make up the minutes lost to his late arrival, Woz charged into his speech. He was fired up about the energy that can come--energy that he clearly still gets--from understanding how to manipulate machines.

"Those inspirations, when you get a goal," he said, "it's going to carry with you for the rest of your life."

For him, Woz said, the epiphany of electronics and computers came in fifth grade when he discovered a magazine that spelled out a binary world vision in which everything is made out of ones and zeroes.

"In fifth grade, there was this specialness (that came from science). I just loved learning how to add zeros and ones," Wozniak said. "As a fifth grader, you didn't need higher levels of mathematics."

Wozniak has always been known as a bit of a prankster. And he related what might have been his first inspiration for mild mischief.

He said that when he was a kid, he once visited his engineer father's company and found himself charged with flipping a switch that would turn on a bunch of things and start some sort of exciting chain reaction. But he said he grew impatient with waiting for the signal to go, and so he decided to act on his own.

"I went over and flipped the switch," Wozniak recalled. "It was a little early. I guess that was my first prank."

"For me, if I could design things and show them to people, I had something I could talk about."
--Steve Wozniak,
Apple co-founder

Befitting what seemed like the off-the-cuff nature of his talk, Wozniak changed gears rapidly.

He next remembered how, as a school kid, he had not been part of the in-crowd.

"(My friends and I) decided early on that we knew electronics. We were a group," he said. "Of course, that set us apart from the other people at school. You know, they were the 'normal' people."

But Wozniak said that he drew power from his knowledge of computers, electronics and engineering--power that, to some degreee, helped him overcome his shyness.

"For me, if I could design things and show them to people, I had something I could talk about," he said. "You always feel good about the things you're good at."

And in the end, he said, it all boiled down to math.

"To this day, when I do magic tricks," he explained as an example, "I like to tell people that I'm not a magician, I'm a mathematician."

That means, he said, that while magicians never reveal how they do their tricks, he enjoys explaining how they work.

He also noted that even though computers are now ubiquitous, that wasn't always the case. His passion for computing in the 1960s and 1970s made him sure he needed to have his own computer.

"I told my dad that sometime I would own my own computer," Wozniak said. "He said they cost as much as a house. So I said, 'Well, then I'll live in an apartment.'"

The point, which he expanded on over the laughter of the crowd, was that he was committed to achieving his goal of having such a machine at a time when almost no one could afford to have one.

And that, in turn, led him in the direction that would eventually make him rich: as the engineering mind behind the founding Apple team.

He recalled that in the early days of the fabled Homebrew Computer Club, there were rumors going around that people were going to soon be able to program their own computers, something unheard of at the time. And he recalled a notion that was just starting to make the rounds, one that continues to fuel the minds of the thousands of people who make Maker Faire a success.

"They said that the guy who knew how to write computer programs was going to be more important in their company than the CEO," he said.

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Wozniak the original Hacker
He searched catalogs to find electronic parts to use to make an under $1000 microcomputer. When he first built the Apple 1 computer, it cost $666.66 retail in kit form. Later the Apple // series proved to be more popular and more expandable. Woz worked with Steve Jobs to grow Apple from a garage to a corporate headquarters.
When I talk about Hacker, I mean the type of person that gets the most out of a computer, not the type of person that writes viruses and breaks into computers. The original Hackers built computers and designed software and operating systems and did great things for humanity. There are still original Hackers who write code for Linux or other F/OSS software.
Posted by Orion Blastar (590 comments )
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I fully agree
I onces seen a presentation where he talked about how Apple started, and his college years and I see the the passion, the money don't much seems all that important to him as it did to Steve Jobs.

He did made good money, he provided plenty for his family, he still has plenty of money left and he hasn't lost his humanity.

Kids who spend too much time in front of a computer and don't really understand electronics, or programming, the script kiddies, are a bunch of loosers! and they are wasting their time in front of a computer. Go learn something well, not just be familiar with it and then claim that you have a skill :- ) is what I say.
Posted by RompStar_420 (772 comments )
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Him and pranks...
He's also the guy who discovered that a certain frequency over the phone in the analog days was all it took to get full access to the system and make a toll free call to anywhere to the world. I recall seeing an interview of him where he told a story about calling the Vatican and almost got to talk to pope until the Russian he was impersonating was contacted. It was rather amusing... it was some history channel thing about the phone system.
Posted by limefan913 (129 comments )
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Re: Him and pranks
Actually, it was John Draper (aka Cap'n Crunch) who taught Woz how to use the blue box Woz had just built from information in an Esquire article. Cap'n Crunch got his information about the tones from a kid named Dennie and some of Dennie's friends, and was able to build a blue box.
Posted by jfucci (1 comment )
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The Russian
The "Russian" he was imitating, was Henry Kissinger, the US
Secretary of State.

- iWoz, the book
Posted by Gromit801 (393 comments )
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Woz... Ahh the good ole days.
He hooked up his printer one month last year and I printed to it to thank him for being such an awsome inventor. I guess I was not the only one and he ran out of ink on the first day and he told everyone to stop printing to his internet printer. I thought for a such a hi tech kinda guy he would put that thing behind a firewall.
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
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