'King of the Nerds' Goes Dancing

But it is what Woz did with that challenge that has permanently locked him into the Hall of the Fame of the electronics revolution: He took what was essentially a business of klugey, improvised, one-off designs and turned it into an elegant, simple and powerful architecture that could be sold by the millions to everyday consumers. This was a vision not unlike Henry Ford's.

But Woz didn't stop there; because to accomplish this elegant act of simplification, he had to go deeper into the world of computers than anyone had ever gone before. Sure, there were thousands of mainframe and minicomputers experts out there in the mid-'70s. But, when necessary, they could apply brute-force solutions to their designs. Woz didn't have that luxury; rather, he had to rethink the very nature of computer components, how they worked together and how they could assume tasks for which they had not been designed . . . all while keeping an eye on size, heat dissipation, energy consumption and the availability of standard parts.

This wasn't an army of product developers at a Fortune 500 corporation doing this, but one kid in his early 20s in his tiny apartment.

But that's just the beginning, because the only way Woz could hope to accomplish this was not from the outside looking in, but to actually inhabit the world of computing itself. For a brief period in his late teens and early 20s, Steve Wozniak seemed to intuitively understand computing as if it was musical notes or color and form. I once described him as the Mozart of computing, and I wasn't exaggerating.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed the myth myself. But, as it happened, one day I was at Apple and passed by Woz's incredibly messy office. I heard him talking to no one in particular, so I stopped to listen … and realized that he was talking to his computer. It turned out that the machine he was working on had no compiler, so he had to enter the programming each time he turned it on. That's what he was doing as I watched, talking as he typed. But to this observer, watching code pop up on the computer screen in response to Woz's words, it was exactly as if man and machine were having a conversation. It made the hair stand up on my neck; as it did years later when Woz told me that during that era he used to dream in assembly code.

The World's Unlikeliest Junior High Teacher

Woz's Apple I, and even more the landmark Apple II, still stand among the greatest virtuoso performances in the history of technology. But in creating them, Woz also planted the seeds of his own obsolescence. The Apple II set off the personal computing revolution, but never again would there be a place for one solitary genius to design an entire machine. Henceforth, it would be a world of giant companies and big, well-funded design teams . . . a world for which Steve Wozniak was almost perfectly ill-suited.

Everything up to this point had made Woz a legend; what has come after has made him extraordinary, and brave.

Think about it: What would you do if, at age 27, you had already changed the world, left your mark in the history books, and were coming down from a kind of fevered state of genius that had consumed your late adolescence but was now gone and was unlikely to ever return?

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