Apple's 40-year legacy began with this 'Eureka' moment

A 1975 meeting in a Silicon Valley garage inspired the young, shy Steve Wozniak to build the Apple I -- and an icon.

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6 min read

A lot's happened in 40 years.

Back in 1976, co-founder Steve Wozniak built Apple's first-ever computer, the Apple I, after showing it off to a ragtag group of geeky misfits. Fast forward to 2016: Apple sold its billionth iPhone. That's an enormous achievement for a company that's become both status symbol and everyday icon.

In the four decades since the Apple I, co-founder Steve Job has passed away, Wozniak has moved on to other pursuits, and Apple bumps along with the ups and downs of the consumer tech space it helped to so solidly forge.

And to think, all that grew from the seed of this first "Eureka" moment.

Enlarge Image

The black-and-white photo from 1976 shows Steve Jobs (right) with co-founder Steve Wozniak. In the foreground Steve Jobs gives a talk in January 2010.

James Martin/CNET

This story that follows originally posted September 8, 2015.

You may know Steve Wozniak as the nerdy sidekick behind Apple's late co-founder and charismatic leader, Steve Jobs. But without "Woz," there would be no Apple.

And without the Homebrew Computer Club of Silicon Valley, introverted Woz may never have been motivated to show off, or even build, the very first Apple computer, the Apple I. Attending that first Homebrew meeting was, Wozniak remembers, "a 'Eureka' moment for me". It was a moment that would help change the technology landscape forever.

The Homebrew club was a casual gathering of hobbyists, like Wozniak, who were interested in building their own computers. Its enthusiastic members traded the hardware, software and the ideas necessary to help kickstart today's billion-dollar PC industry and put a computer in virtually every home.

In 1975, when Homebrew formed, computers of the era filled half a room and you had to be part of a university, military or think tank to use one for a few hours at a time.

Having a computer for your own, anytime-use, was a radical thought and technological challenge. Like now, a personal computer then meant extraordinary freedom: of information, of higher mathematical power (the "computing" part), of exchanging ideas.

Computers then weren't just nerdy; they were also a political emblem that, for some, echoed the protests of 1960s and 70s social liberation movements. A year before Homebrew formed, a book called "Computer Lib" envisioned personal computers as emblems of social freedom, proclaiming "Computer power to the people!"

Woz's interest may or may not have been more technical, but he was well aware that the idea of a personal computer could change the world.

"I intended to blow [Homebrew members] away with how so few and affordable chips could make a computer," Woz said in an email to CNET. "I figured that all these people who spoke about changing society [through communication and education] would build their own for $300."

Here, Wozniak geeks out about his first machines, what made him join the club, and why he'll never forget his first Homebrew meeting.

Question: You attended the Homebrew Computer Club's very first meeting on March 5, 1975. What drew you to the club?

Frankly, it was a stroke of luck for me. I didn't know what the club was really about. I was not aware of the Altair 8800 at all [the first personal computer, which sold to hobbyists in a kit]. I was not into the general microprocessors that made such machines possible. I had played with early microprocessor data sheets (4004 from Intel), and it was too limited to lead to a useful computer, but I had not kept up with microprocessors after that. My friend Allen Baum knew that I had built a home terminal with a keyboard and using my own TV to dial up and access the ARPAnet when there were only about six universities on it.

Allen called and told me about a club that was into video terminals and the like. I figured that I'd take mine and be some sort of star there. I was also not aware that there had been another TV Terminal project in this hobby community, by Don Lancaster, and featured in Popular Electronics. But my design was very good.

At the club the talk was about the Altair 8800, using the 8800 microprocessor. I felt shy and out of place, not knowing that this was the driving sentiment of these hobbyists. Nonetheless, it was a meeting that grabbed my attention for life. It was a Eureka moment for me.

Since early college I had wanted my own computer, but it had to include a programming language, which meant at least 4K of memory and human input and output to type in programs, even if on punched cards. I had built a processor five years before this, of my own design, with switches to enter zeros and ones individually. This was what the Altair was.

My machine had 256 bytes of solid state RAM (chips). It was the heart of a computer but not a really useful or usable one. The Altair was this stage of processor, basically right off the Intel data sheet. That's why it had static RAM, which was prohibitively costly for 4K bytes. But it was expandable in normal computer fashion. You could add a card of chips that would talk to a teletype, which cost as much as a car or two, for input and output. Basically, I'd been past this stage since high school. But these club attendees had tremendous interest in this 'starting' point machine.

PC greats come out for Homebrew Computer Club reunion (pictures)

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At the club meeting, a data sheet for the 8008 processor was passed out. I took this data sheet home and was shocked to find that the microprocessor had gotten to the point of being a complete processor of the type I'd designed over and over in high school. That night the full image of the Apple I popped in my head, and I knew that I'd have my own useful computer, [for] basically no money. I'd just add a microprocessor to my terminal, which had the human input and output.

I'll never forget that first night.

The Apple I was your baby, your pet project. What did it mean to you to have built this computer in a time when micro-computers were strictly a hobbyist activity?

I'd been at the 'build-it-yourself' processor stage of the hobbyists for a long time. But I worked at HP [Hewlett-Packard] on calculators. Our calculators had a custom processor. When you turned the calculator on it began running a program that looked at what keys you pressed. That led me to the idea that my computer would start up running a small program that let you type data in, saving the entire front panel of switches and lights, which my Cream Soda computer (five years prior) had sported. This was the "voila" step. I wanted a computer as normal and human to use as a typewriter or calculator.

Once I had my design built and working, I brought it to the club. I was shy, but communicated with my technical projects, just like many "makers" do. I intended to blow them away with how so few and affordable chips could make a computer that could run a programming language without a lot of other expense or surplus connections.

I even passed out my design, hardware and software, for free without any copyright or company intent. I figured that all these people who spoke about changing society (communication, education, importance of geeks) would build their own for $300 cost. Few took me up on that, maybe only one.

The formula for the personal computer was out to anyone looking over my shoulder. Others would have hit on it eventually, but I was first in this sense of an affordable useful computer that worked for normal people. Every computer before this one had a front panel with switches and lights. Every computer after this one had a keyboard and video display.

Steve Jobs was in another state and wasn't even aware of this computer until he came into town and I took him to the club to see what it was all about.

What do you think the Homebrew Computer Club's legacy is today -- that is, what should the current generation know about the club?

The Homebrew Computer Club represents that well-intentioned hobbyists and makers can truly change the world of technology. None of us had resources, like money. We were people who knew about computers and wanted our own, but we had no money saved.

Our ideas meant a lot to us, but not to profit-driven companies. Today the Homebrew Computer Club is an inspiration to a lot of young people that their projects can kick off great markets when established businesses disdain them as hobbyists and tinkerers.

Connie Guglielmo contributed to this story.

Read more about the Homebrew Computer Club -- including Microsoft founder Bill Gates' run-in with software pirates -- in the Fall Issue of CNET Magazine.