“It’s an ostentatious statement to say you invented the PC,” admits Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, but, he concedes, it might just be true.
“The statement is something I would never make in my life really, but a lot of other people have gone back and analysed it, and they say I did,” he told Macworld.
To evaluate whether he should indeed be credited with this revolution-initiating invention, Wozniak evaluated the factors that lead him to design the Apple II – the first computer he built that fulfilled the criteria he felt a computer should.
Prior to building the Apple II Wozniak had built the Apple I. He didn’t consider that the Apple I was a proper computer, but it did form the prototype for what the Apple II became. The Apple I had its own influences. One of the most significant of these was the government ARPANET – the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which was the world's first operational packet switching network, and the ancestor of the internet.
“Probably I wasn’t supposed to be on it, but I encountered a friend who was on it, and he said he’d dialled this phone number and it put him on the ARPANET. Every computer on the ARPANET was set up to handle guests. It seemed totally legitimate. To me the ARPANET was extremely instrumental in developing personal computers because it gave me the motivation to build my own terminal,” Wozniak confessed.
“I came up with a way to build a terminal that could type to another computer and display the information from another computer for virtually no money,” he explained. “That led right into the Apple I computer. With the Apple I I just made the far-away computer a local computer with a microprocessor and RAM. I already had the terminal - a TV set - and a keyboard to type to it, so that really was the instigation for moving from front panels to the keyboards, a computer that looked like a typewriter.”
Apple II – moving forward
The next step was building the Apple II. “When I built the Apple II all the other small start-up companies were building computers like the ones I had built five years before when I was at school,” Wozniak claimed.
The other major difference between the computer Wozniak built and the computers that the other companies were designing was that humans could interface with the Apple II computer in a way that they hadn’t been able to previously. Normal people could key in instructions via the keyboard and see them on a monitor. Prior to this revelation, a computer had “a big ugly front panel with switches that so it can toggle 1s and 0s in the memory,” explained Wozniak.
Wozniak’s conception of being able to interface with the computer in this way may have been influenced by his job at Hewlett Packard working on their scientific calculators. “Calculators were a small sort of computer,” he explained. “The interface on a calculator is just a normal keyboard that anyone can understand, we all know what 5 means and what plus means, and what enter means – well we had to teach them enter”.
However, even Wozniak was unsure how much his job at HP influenced him in the design of the Apple II.
The calculator also suggested to Wozniak that he could write a programme in read only memory (ROM) that would start up as soon as he switched the computer on. Prior to that it was a difficult and time-consuming job getting a computer to run because each time he had to start from scratch. “Would I have thought to write a little program in a ROM?” asked Wozniak. “It’s difficult to say, maybe yes, maybe no,” he conceded.
Wozniak conceded that he would have sought out a way of reaching his goal, even without these influences around him. He explained: “I had already built my terminal with a keyboard and a television set and I had to attach the microprocessor to it, so would I have gone with a big, ugly front panel? No, I’d done that 5 years before, I would have skipped that - you always have to improve. I think it would have happened even without the HP calculator, but it made it so obvious to me.”
“I think I would have still done it that way even without HP showing me a logical way to do it,” he added.
There was one final part of the puzzle Wozniak believed was required in a computer. “In my head a computer had to run a programming language. So the next thing was I had to learn how to write a programming language. Because without that I didn’t have what I would call a complete computer. I had to write my own Basic.”
“Once I had the Basic, I had the computer I needed for the rest of my life, because for ever I could calculate my engineering problems, play games and write programs, I could write programs for anything.”
So, did Wozniak agree that he should be credited with inventing the personal computer? While he didn’t want to commit to a straight forward “yes” he certainly seemed to have convinced himself that was the case.