Woz gave us the great honor of sitting down with him this past week while he was in-between speaking engagements to talk about his life and exactly what made him the perfect person to be our very first GOTM. We talked about his childhood, his pranks, His near death experience, and even a little about Tetris. In fact, the only thing we didn’t ask him about was Apple.
Join us now for Part one of our two part interview with YBMW’s Geek of The Month: Steven Wozniak.
YBMW: Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. One of the main features we have on Youbentmywookie.com is our Geek of The Week feature and once a month we name a Geek of The Month. It’s an award we don’t give out lightly and we are extremely proud to name you our very first Geek of The Month.
Woz: Yikes. I think there was a time in my life when I deserved it more, but I know, like, some geeks that are continuing geeks that are younger than me, you know, and they’re actually out there programming and talking programmer talk and, you know…
YBMW: Geeks aren’t just programmers. It is a state of mind, and you are an icon.
Woz: Yeah, that’s one type of geek. There’s another type of geek, you know, which a lot of normal people call themselves and they just love technology and gadgets and how they work and every button push, and I’m more in that category these days.
YBMW: That’s actually exactly what the first question was, what does geek mean to you?
Woz: Well, two terms, I’ll tell ya. The real geeks… like, I have this one friend and, I mean, he can talk geek and a little normal too, he’s the most geeky person I know and he tried out for Beauty and the Geek, and he got beat out. He said there were guys even geekier than him, which I couldn’t imagine. (laughs) You have to know the guy.
I don’t think I was ever that far out as the real heavy duty geeks, you know, that just wanna talk tech. They don’t want to communicate with normal people.
I was just more quiet, and I could communicate in programmer talk and hardware designer talk very easily and understand those terms. If I met somebody who understood those things we could have a conversation that no outsider would understand.
So that’s a heavy duty geek. But, I think most of the geeks nowadays are, since technology has really exploded in our time, the geek that I’m referring to, that likes to push buttons and have gadgets, you know, when they grew up, maybe they got a Hi-Fi and plugged this into that and got a turntable and got a little better needle for the turntable, you know, and maybe a guy has a guitar and buys a bunch of these little distortion effect devices and hooks them up and plays, you know. People love to plug wires in and that’s their open system, you know… they don’t have to get right into the real insides, the actual chips and the bus.
YBMW: Ya, some people will find something they love and get everything about it. They’ll turn their houses into little museums.
Woz: Mmm hmm. Yeah, and I’ve run into them and I’ve thought, oh, geez. And yet in the early days of Apple and the Apple 2 I would just buy every single piece of hardware and software that came out. You could actually afford to in those days, up to a point. For quite a few years you could and just keep them. I would run each piece of software and learn how to use it, every single one of them, and I had huge shelves full but nowadays it is an impossible task. There’s just too much for any direction you wanna go, and just the shareware and freeware is enough to keep you satisfied, busy and happy for a lifetime.
YBMW: When you were a kid growing up in the Silicon Valley before computers, before HAM radio, what kind of stuff did you play with? What were your toys of choice?
Woz: Well, it wasn’t before HAM radio…
YBMW: Sorry, I mean before you got into HAM radio, at least.
And I have no idea to what extent we were doing bad electrical things but for some reason it always worked. And we would just try to gather a little bit of information from Christmas gifts you get about electronics, we didn’t have classes or books. We’d get a little bit of information and then we’d try to apply it on our own, and that’s the step you have to take if you’re gonna someday make your own things. Also, when we made things like these little toys or the house to house intercoms, boy… you would take every little detail, you would draw a perfect picture with perfect straight lines, and if there was a wiggle in the line or the pen dribbled a bit you’d throw it away and start over and you had to draw everything so perfectly in colors and the most perfect labeling letters.
I mean, it was just something, cause when you’re proud of your own stuff, it’s like it was more than just a dumb job to do. More than just building something, it was important to us, it was almost who we were, and the funny thing is none of the other kids in school knew we did it, really.
They maybe had a little bit of an inkling, had heard something, especially when I got a HAM radio license, but they had no idea what it really involved. They had no idea what our little group of kids on our block would do with electronics and wires and all that. We were just sort of outside the mainstream.
YBMW: How big an influence in your interest in technology as a child was having a father working over at Lockheed?
Woz: My dad would never push us to his way of thinking or his way of doing things or what we should be or do in life, but when I had questions, you know, I discovered a manual on my own that described some logic circuits and I said, well, how would you make a logic, an AND gate? Oh, and that’s when he’d pull out, you know… in prior years he’d explained to me how electrons go around protons and duh-ta-da and flow through wires and what resistance was. Well now he would take the chance to explain how a transistor amplifies by a couple of formulas, like the beta of a transistor is a multiplication number of the, number of electrons flowing. And by turning this on, that on, he would show me a little circuit. Whoa, so that is a gate that if you have two high voltages in, you get a high voltage out. Good, and then I started so now I knew the circuits for gates and I started playing around just trying to redraw gates different ways. I loved the Boolean equation, I’d love Boolean algebra, where you could change OR gates into AND gates with the use of inverters. And it just became, I don’t know, a neat thing in my head. Never thought I’d ever do it in life.
It was just like one of the neat little games I had discovered. You might discover a real game that you play on a computer nowadays or a game you played on cards back then, or a board game, and you might say, “Wow, I love this one! I’m just gonna play it play it play it.” So, I dunno, logic and computer designs were sort of my Dungeons & Dragons.
Woz: From 6th grade, yes. From 6th grade on through starting Apple, I was very shy, yes.
YBMW: You’re known for your sense of humor and your sort of mischievous pranking that you’ve been known to do. Is that just something that was always part of you, or do you use that to help yourself come out of your shell?
Woz: Well, my mom said to always to have a sense of humor and somehow, you know, you make one little statement you don’t think is important to your children… It wasn’t made in any important sense, it’s just a dumb statement anyone might make. But for some reason it struck me to my soul that for the rest of my life I had to have a sense of humor, it was important. When I was shy, you know, I couldn’t really… you have energies, let’s say you have energies inside of you that want to socialize, but they can’t come out and talk in communication with normal people, so they come out as pranks, jokes and little things like that, and it sort of of a way of communicating, although I learned very early on, don’t tell people what you do just cause it’s funny.
They’ll tell other people, and by then the principal hears. So if you play a prank on somebody and you’ve never told anyone, sometimes you don’t even get to see them affected by it. But you just have to have an inner sense of, “Oh, it’s kind of funny. Someday I can tell people about it.”
YBMW: You even wrote a joke book early on, right?
Woz: It was a rather poor joke book, This guy who wrote a lot of joke books, Larry Wilde, approached me and he gave me 10% of it and I contributed a few jokes but they weren’t very good. I tried to collect them from all my computer friends and it wasn’t very successful. I didn’t like that book. That book wasn’t as funny as the jokes that my uncle, who’s a Catholic priest, writes. He has good ones, Friar Wozniak’s Jokes. I think he’s got 6 books now.
YBMW: There’s a few pranks that you were famous for. One of them was a little device you came up with to interrupt people when they’re watching sports.
Woz: Yes, the TV Jammer. Not only interrupting sports, matter of fact, the one thing I would not have used it for a second time was the time that I interrupted a sports event. People turned a little bit more maniacal and into animals and it scared me. You shouldn’t push people that far. I did it on the Kentucky Derby in college and I would never do that again. That was scary, but I had a lot of fun getting people to hold an antenna up in the air and stand on a chair just so the TV would work. It was very quiet and silent, you know, I wasn’t gonna tell other people and have everyone find out who was doing it. Nobody knew that a person was doing it, they just thought the TV was failing. I did learn that people will be very cruel to an inanimate object like a television, or a computer… they’ll do things to it that they would never do to a human.
YBMW: It’s the old caveman repair trick: beat it until it starts working again.
Woz: Yes. Well, unfortunately, we all know that’s very true.
Woz: Yeah. Well, first of all, it was an accidental discovery that it might work and I didn’t believe it. I swore the article was fiction and Steve Jobs and I went and researched it and found out, holy moley, it looks like this is real. It took me a while to build a digital one that actually worked. I tried it one day with an analog one and it wasn’t too successful, and finally built the digital one, And then Steve Jobs is the one who said sell it. So we would sell them to people in the dorms. We’d actually go door to door in the dorms and sell these things.
We’d always do a demonstration for people, and I’d always insist they tape record it, and one of the demos I did late late one night was call the Pope. It was 5:30 Italy time and I had to call back an hour later at 6:30. It was tape recorded, but I always made the other people keep the tape recording and they almost always bought a Blue Box the next day. I’m sure that we sold a Blue Box that time, we never had a demo that we didn’t sell a Blue Box for $150 bucks.
YBMW: Were there any pranks you ever regretted, other than the Kentucky Derby?
Woz: Um, I’m sure, because sometimes, just come out and, oh, it’s really duddy. It’s like if you’re a comedian and you make jokes all the time, you’re gonna have a lot of duds in there. Ones you’re kinda almost embarrassed by and this and that, no matter how good your sense of humor, only a few were gems. I only want my pranks to be gems, but I can’t think of any that I ever, you know, made a mental note that I regretted. Probably they were just dumb and didn’t really work and had a stupid effect that I wouldn’t tell people to repeat. Maybe I had some duds, but I just don’t recall what the duds were.
I put a lot of time and effort these days. I still do the pranks, but I’ll put a lot of money, time, patience, planning, working maybe with a very good friend. I don’t wanna do just a normal prank that’s anybody could do. Eh, those are fun, but they just aren’t the big ones. I’ll write a book on it… someday. On all the ones I’ve done.
YBMW: I heard somewhere that you had actually had the most dialed phone number in America.
Woz: Well, I’m guessing but I’m probably right, for a single line number. That means a number that comes to one line, not a number that comes to a company that has a million extensions. Obviously that number would get dialed more times than mine. But, you have to have a number that comes to one phone, gets answered, hung up on pretty quickly, and then another call comes in, gets hung up on pretty quickly, so I made my jokes very short, I spoke very quickly, and I kept them down to where I could get 2,000 calls a day typically, It’s hard to imagine a scenario of a different phone getting more calls because, you know, you call a movie recording and it lasts a lot longer, so you can’t get as many calls in during the day.
YBMW: Is it true that the joke line was how you met your first wife?
Woz: Yes, oddly enough, it was also a way out of my shyness. I would talk with a very different voice… I was a different person, and we didn’t have Caller ID or anything in those days.
I would come home from work and take some of the calls live and it was like I was in the early AOL chat rooms. All of the sudden, first time in your life, you’re anonymous! You could start telling people you have all these different powers, and the 9 year old girls will say they’re 18 and all that stuff, so I could play around and talk to people.
I kept a list, I would say, “What school do you go to?” and “Can you tell me something unusual or interesting there about somebody?” and I would make notes so if they ever called from Oak Grove High School, I could look it up and say, “Oh, does Mr. Wilson still wear the red pants?” and they’d say, “Yeah, yeah!” and everybody thought I knew all the schools.
One time I got a call and I was talk chatting to a couple of girls and I said, “I can hang up faster than you” and I did. I guess she called back eventually and there was this other girl I was really talking to but then Alice, who became my wife, was gonna go with me up to drive and pick her up at University of San Francisco, and bring her home the other girl, I forget her name. But, Alice went with me and then we went to Alice’s house afterwards, I met her mom and dog and it was great.
YBMW: You Also suffered a pretty bad plane crash. What happened?
Woz: Yes, February 7, 1971. Taking off, I didn’t quite make it and I don’t know why, crashed. 4 of us were shook up… we weren’t killed. I was probably hit the hardest but I’m thankful for the fact that it knocked all my memories out for the next 5 weeks. So I never had a plane crash in my head.
You know, I know I had a plane crash, but it’s not like you feel it. It’s not like you have the emotions associated with it, so when I got in a plane again, just getting in a plane and flying again, it wasn’t like overcoming any anxieties.
YBMW: How did that change your life?
Woz: I’m not sure. I think my memory’s been a little slower since. I may have gone a little more right brain than left brain around that at some point in time, but I can’t verify these things. It’s when I came out of amnesia after 5 weeks I realized I haven’t been at work for 5 weeks. I didn’t even realize time was passing with the sort of memory thing I had going on. So I called up Steve Jobs and said, well, I’m gonna go back to school and get my degree. You know, it just occurred to me it was 10 years since I’d been in college and I had one year to go, and if I didn’t do it now, it was gonna wind up being too late. So it was actually very, very lucky.
YBMW: Who is Rocky Clark?
Woz: I had a dog who was a Siberian Husky and they have mask patterns over their eyes, like a raccoon, so I had named him Rocky Raccoon for a joke. So when I went back to Berkeley, they took me into a room and said, okay, make up a fake name, cause I didn’t want to do it under my real name. I picked Rocky Raccoon, and last name Clark, my wife’s last name because I didn’t want to get identified, and pretty much I pulled that off. Teachers only saw Rocky Clark so they didn’t think it might be a little joke, but they’d just call me Rocky.
YBMW: You didn’t just go back to school, eventually you went from being a student to the teacher.
Woz: Yes, there was a point in time after I did a lot of philanthropy with expensive museum projects in San Jose, starting the first big money into the tech of Silicon Valley, the tech of San Jose, The Children’s Discovery Museum, the ballet and some other things, I started giving computers to schools. That was a popular thing to do, help schools set up their labs. Then I sort of thought that if you have a lot of money, the money you don’t miss, it’s nothing. You really wanna give up your time. Time is always precious so, I should try to teach. I started with just 6 kids that I sort of randomly invited from knowing other parents, and started teaching 6 and then by that summer I was teaching 22, and from then on every kid in the 5th grade. I had wanted to be a teacher my whole life. All I was doing was teaching how to use the computer to help you with your other school work, your regular school work. How to make your presentations look better. We did some things where we got off into making music videos that had nothing to do with school, but they were easy to understand. Digital photography, take photographs and put them into a report you’re writing about a trip. So it was just whatever the subject is in school, you know, to teach them how to use the computer to make it more presentable for the teacher. Cause that will increase their teacher’s opinion of them, and that will cycle back positively, and the teacher praises them and they think, “Oh, I’m good at something! I’m gonna keep doing that quality of work.”
Tomorrow we’ll post part two of our interview with Steve Wozniak. You’ll read about the greatest rock and roll festival that ever happened, Segways, Steve’s stint on Reality TV, and a whole lot more. Continue and read part II, here.