Woz on the magic of electronics and computers

At Maker Faire, the legendary Apple co-founder encourages kids to be excited about math, electronics and computing. Photos: Tech makes magic at Maker Faire
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
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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