Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Memories of my working with Steve Jobs

Vignette's of my working with Steve Jobs circa 1980 to 1982

Number Crunching Apple II hardware

I started at Apple as an Apple II peripheral designer.  One of my first projects was to design the Super Serial Card for the Apple IIe, which was on the official Apple price list for around 1 decade, one of the longest Apple products ever in continuous production.  During this time, all of Apple's engineering (for Apple II, III, Lisa, R&D, etc.) fit into one building.  For my R&D portion of the job, I designed and built several prototype Apple I peripherals.  One of the weirdest was a way to connect an Intel 8087 math coprocessor to share memory with an Apple II.

I thought it was great to show off that an Apple II could floating-point number crunch with the performance of a minicomputer.  Steve walked over to my engineering lab bench, asked what I was doing.  I told him.  He then challenged "why would anyone want to need a personal computer to do that fast numerical computation"?  I paused, a bit lost for words.  He gave me one of those looks that I was just wasting Apple's time, and stalked off.  Even if I was designing something destined to be a standard part of the future of personal computing, Steve wanted me to be able to clearly show why.

Joining the Mac Team

Burl Smith was the original Mac Hardware designer; but he first joined the Apple II lab as a hardware technician, with an engineering lab bench very near mine.  During this time, we helped each other out by doing design reviews of each other's hardware schematics.  Probably because I had worked with Burl, I later became the 6th or 7th hardware engineer to join the Mac team.  Burl was the lead digital logic designer, Dan Kottke was wire wrapping prototypes, Ed Riddle had temporarily joined the team to do the keyboard controller, Hap Horn and George Crow were doing analog design.  (And Brian Howard was officially supposed to be doing documentation, but might have actually spent more time helping Dan Kottke with building and testing the prototype Mac hardware.)

I originally was brought onto the Mac team to help Ed Riddle with the keyboard controller, but as soon as I moved over to Texaco Towers (Apple's skunk words location across the road from their main campus), I was assigned to help Wendell Sanders with a possible re-design of Woz's disk controller, later named the "Integrated Woz Machine" or IWM.  The IWM chip, when finished, went into both the Mac and the Apple IIe.

Steve often came by Texaco Towers.  I don't recall him saying too much about the hardware. I do remember his attention to detail regarding the case and keyboard design and the precise sizing of its chamfers.

I also recall him talking about a bet he made with the head of the Lisa project, circa early 1982, with him betting that the Mac would sell something like 10,000 units before the Lisa did.

Buying dinner at FJLs (Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi too) Pizza

One night Steve came by the lab, saw that most people were working late and decided to take us all out for dinner.  We drove over to a favorite late-night pizza restaurant in Mountain View, "Frankie, Johnnie, and Luigi too", better known as just FJLs.  At the end of the meal, Steve threw down his credit card to pay.  The server came back a few minutes later and told Steve his card had expired.  To save Steve the embarrassment, I quickly gave my credit card to the waiter.  So I ended up buying Steve dinner.  Don't remember whether I ever tried to file an expense report for this bill.

Apple "leaked from the top".

The team occasionally had friends and other Apple coworkers visit us over at the Mac skunkworks site.   I had my then girlfriend bring her Apple II into the Mac lab so that I could fix some problem with it.  Soon thereafter, there was a management edict that the project was too secret to allow visitors.  But within days of this edict, we found Steve showing off a Mac prototype to Joan Baez and her son.  Later rumors were that they were dating.  Steve even brought Joan to the office Holiday party later that year (where the San Francisco symphony was our musical entertainment for the night).

Color connecter on an early Mac prototype

After the Mac team had grown too big for the Texaco Towers skunkworks site, it moved back to a building in the main Bandley complex.  On a lab bench there, next to mine, Dan Kottke was busy assembling and testing more Mac prototypes.  On one Mac prototype Dan was adding a video test connector.  Steve walked in one day and asked what Dan was doing.  Dan told Steve that this test connector that could also be used to experiment with possible color video output.  I overhead Steve say something like "Stop doing that.  The Mac will not have a color option."

Atari-Apple-Amiga historical connection

Prior to Apple, Steve had worked at Atari.  Also working at Atari at the same time as Steve was Jay Minor.  According to Jay, Nolan Bushnell, who was strapped for cash flow at the time, had offered Jay 5 cents a chip, instead of a salari, to design the ASIC for what later became the Atari 2600 game console.  Jay didn't think it would sell that well, but joined Atari taking a salari instead.  The 2600 game console ended up selling millions of units.  After the 2600, Jay also designed the chips for the Atari 400 and 800 personal computers.  Jay later left Atari to help form Zymos, a custom semiconductor vendor.  But Jay still wanted to design his own computers.

Early in the Mac project, when Burrell and the team were deciding that the Mac needed more than 64k of RAM, they decided that the Mac would need a CMOS clock chip that would keep time even when the Mac was unplugged.  At that time, none of the existing solutions were suitable.  So Steve introduced me to Jay, saying Jay was someone he knew from his Atari days, and one of the best chip designers around.  He wanted us to explore whether Zymos could do the custom design and manufacturing for a CMOS clock chip, and later the integrated disk controller chip as well.

Jay later managed to talk the investors in Zymos into letting him leave Zymos to start a new computer game company, and Jay talked my into to leaving Apple to be the system architect and co-founder of Amiga game console.  The Amiga product would be a game console and have a color output, therefore being very different from the Mac (with which I was extremely doubtful that any startup could compete).  Later, Jay decided that the game console should really be a personal computer and have an optional monochrome display.

So that's one of the ways in which Atari, Apple and Amiga history is intertwined.

My signatures in the Original Mac 128K case

As part of the original Mac design team, I was at the signing party for signatures that were to become part of the texture moldings inside the back of the prototypes for the Mac case.

But I left Apple slightly over a year before the Mac was officially introduced, so I wasn't sure that my signature would get left in, even if Apple let the signatures actually go into the finished product.  However, I attended the official Mac product announcement at the 1984 Apple shareholder's meeting; and Steve surprisingly came up to me and personally thanked me and told me that my name was inside the Mac.  I think that was the last time I talked with Steve.

1 comment:

  1. Ron,

    Fun stuff to read. I just finished the Walter Isaacson biography. Very interesting guy...

    I found your blog because I recently decided to learn to program by making an iOS app that takes English, blinks it in Morse code, and also interprets blinking Morse. Oops! Looks like you already made it.