Woz: Apple Computer almost never happened

It will go down as one of the biggest days in Silicon Valley geekdom: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and some of the company’s earliest engineers in a room with five prehistoric Apple-1 computers — at least three of which actually worked.

And it was a great day not just because of the rare artifacts, but because Woz was holding court. There was a time when Wozniak, who designed the Apple-1, was almost too timid to talk to strangers about his brilliant ideas.

He’s over that. And that’s the good news.

Everybody knows the story of the Apple-1: assembled in Steve Jobs’ parents’ garage; the rush order from the Byte Shop, which first sold them; the $666 price tag; how they’ve become insanely valuable on the auction circuit.

But at the Apple-1-fest this week at History San Jose, a museum with a stunning collection of vintage electronics, Woz added to the legend. He allowed as to how what has grown into one of the world’s most valuable companies almost went into the parts business instead.

For those who prefer text, here’s what Woz said:

“You know we didn’t start Apple to be a computer company,” he said. “Here is something that’s rarely said: Steve Jobs said let’s start a company to sell these green boards with no parts in them, PC boards. We should sell them to people at the Home Brew Computer Club for $40. It would cost us $20 to make. If we each put in a few hundred bucks and we sold 50 of them, then we’d break even.

“But the idea was not to be a computer company, to just be a parts company, selling the board.

“The store had a different idea. It wanted a completely built board with all the parts in it to really sell them as a computer and that changed us. That changed everything. Then we were computers.”

At the informal history museum gathering — which included Allen Baum, Woz’s high school buddy and contributor to the Apple II; Daniel Kottke, who trekked  through India with Jobs and later became his housemate; and Wendell Sander, the father of the Apple III — Woz was the quipster-in-chief.

He led off with the revelation that he knew where the very first Apple-1 was. He donated it way back to Liza Loop, who ran a non-profit that was bringing computers into schools. Jobs wouldn’t give it to him to give away, he said.

“Yeah, I had to buy it for 300 bucks.”

At least he got a discount.

Later, taking a look at the spaghetti of wires connecting boards to monitors and keyboards, Woz said: “All these wires, it’s kind of what my apartment looked like in those days.”

When someone mentioned that an Apple-1 had recently sold at auction for $671,400, Woz joked about his own fondness for repeating numbers ($666, remember?)

“It should be $666,666.”

(Photo and Tout Video by Mercury News Photographer Dai Sugano.)

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.