The ‘Woz’ wows UB: Steve Wozniak speaks at UB Distinguished Speaker Series
Apple co-founder talks computers, people, pranks and creative freedom
Steve Wozniak said performing on Dancing with the Stars was more challenging than building the Apple II computer.
The Apple co-founder said it took him about two weeks from thinking of the concepts to actually building one of the first personal computers that would revolutionize technology. The celebrity dancing competition show forced him to train and sweat six hours a day, seven days a week while learning something new.
“When you work so hard at something you’re not able to do, it’s not your area of discipline and you achieve something, it brings you so much joy that you overcame something,” Wozniak said. “I was so happy to be a geek and be on a show like that.”
Wozniak’s fast-talking, joke-cracking discussion at Alumni Arena Wednesday night covered everything from having the creativity to branch out and learn new ideas, the future of artificial intelligence, the formation of Apple Computer to pranks and fake names. Wozniak’s talk was the final of the Distinguished Speaker Series for the academic year.
Wozniak, despite his success and creating the Apple I and Apple II computers, presented himself as an ‘everyman’ on stage Wednesday. He spoke of pulling pranks with TV jammers and once referred to himself as a nerd eating TV dinners and watching Star Trek. He said he mostly uses Facebook to look up funny videos. When a student asked about global technology growth trends, he openly admitted he knew little about the subject and instead took a question he was more comfortable with: How do parents inspire their children to be the next Steve Wozniak?
Wozniak grew up in San Jose, California in an age he describes as a simpler time and one he wants to get back to – where one person could work one job and take care of an entire family. He always wanted to build things that would make life easier and “let us sit back and relax and go to movies.”
His father, who was an engineer, once said to him that maybe someday “we’ll have enough stuff that we’ll only have to work four days a week.” Although Wozniak admits “we obviously didn’t get there,” he has certainly done enough innovation to make lives easier.
When Wozniak worked for the information technology company Hewlett-Packer (HP) in the 1970s, he had no time for a girlfriend or wife so he’d come home and design what he calls “fun things.” He said his friend, deceased Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, would come into town once in a while and find ways to turn his projects into money.
Wozniak said that by the time he and Jobs officially created Apple in 1976, they weren’t forming the company – they had already been doing it for five years. He said they were just naming it by that point.
He said the story of Apple forming in the garage is a myth built by their public relations firm to create the idea of one of the most successful companies in the world starting with two kids working out of a garage.
“Nothing ever happened in a garage. There was no thinking out a computer, there was no designing the computer, there was no building the first prototype, there was no manufacturing, it’s just that we hung out in the garage,” Wozniak said. “And then once [we would drive] down and pick up computers being built somewhere else, drive them to the garage, make sure the computer works then we would drive them to the store and get paid.”
But their success story is still unique. Wozniak pointed out that he and Jobs were in their young 20s, with no business experience, money, saving accounts or rich relatives.
Wozniak didn’t want to run the business or deal with politics after the company’s breakthrough, though. He left the company in 1987 and became a teacher full-time up to seven days a week for eight years for students as young as the fifth grade.
He’s always been interested in the development of the child’s mind – he likens it to that of a computer.
“I never sought success in terms of money, wealth and power,” Wozniak said. “But I remained the person I liked.”
Wozniak’s a self-admitted geek. As tough as it is to imagine while he quickly spoke to thousands in Alumni Arena, Wozniak used to be so shy he couldn’t come out and talk to “normal” people, just his “little geek friends.”
“So I couldn’t go to parties, or get into sex and drugs or any of that stuff they were doing,” Wozniak said of his peers. “They would think I was a weird person. Why couldn’t I talk? But my social energies came out as pranks.”
He said he never does a prank halfway.
He used a jammer to turn off televisions and would secretly turn the TV back on every time one his frustrated college friends would hit the set. He did it so much one person was always designated to sit right next to the TV to hit it.
When he went back to the University of California Berkley to finish up his degree after his success at Apple, he used the name “Rocky Raccoon Clark,” which is the name on his degree, he said.
He once built a metronome and put it his friend’s locker, causing the principal to hear it, open the locker, pull the ticking device to his chest and run out to the middle of the football field to dismantle it.
“I could hardly hold my laughter because I had a switch that when you opened the locker, the ticking sped up,” Wozniak said.
As for how parents can inspire their children to be the next Steve Wozniak, Wozniak said it’s about not stifling creativity and giving children the option to do what they want to do.
“Everyone is born creative, we just shouldn’t stifle the creativity,” he said. “They say, ‘How do you bring it out?’ It’s there, just don’t stifle it and force everyone to be uncreative and just like everyone else.”
He said his father, Jacob Wozniak, told him, “Here’s how some people think, here’s the way other people think and there’s some variation in the middle.”
“He would never tell us one way was right and one way was wrong. He would let us decide for ourselves,” Wozniak said.
When Wozniak was on Dancing with the Stars in 2009, he figured he would be voted off the show right away, so he should buy gifts for all the cast early on. He made gifts for all the cast with joke books, $2 bills, business cards and computerized letters about what a great time had and how to contact him.
“And then I thought, like education when I was giving computers to schools, it you have a lot of money, it’s easy to give money away but not to give yourself,” Wozniak said. “That’s why I started teaching. If you really have it in your heart, it’s got to be more than words.”
He decided to just write handwritten letters to all 26 members of the celebrity and professional dance crew.
Despite how much his life has focused on computers, Wozniak’s discussion Wednesday centered lot more with people. For him, his pursuits were more about making people's lives easier with the machines rather than the creating the machines themselves.
Tom Dinki is the senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org