Burrell Smith: Macintosh hardware wizard

Few in the public may be familiar with Smith's work, but colleagues say this brilliant engineer's importance to the Mac is akin to what Woz meant to the first Apple computers.

Dan Farber
5 min read
This article is part of a CNET special report on the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh, looking at the beginnings of Apple's landmark machine and its impact over the last three decades.

It could be said that without Burrell Smith, the Macintosh might never have made it to the Flint Center stage on January 24, 1984. He was to the Macintosh what Steve Wozniak was to the first Apple computers, a hardware wizard who came up with ingenious ways to coax more performance out of a computer with fewer chips.

Smith joined Apple in February 1979, starting out in the service department repairing Apple II machines. It was the equivalent of the mail room in a non-tech company. He was 24 years old, the same age as Steve Jobs and many others at Apple who grew up obsessed with electronics and passionate about the potential of personal computers. Bill Atkinson, the software wizard behind much of the core system code for the Lisa and Macintosh and who wrote MacPaint, thought the cherubic-looking hardware hacker could help with a new project led by Apple employee No. 31, Jef Raskin.

 Macintosh's 30th anniversary

More from Macintosh's 30th anniversary:

Smith joined Raskin's project, which was funded to create a new Apple computer that would be radically cheaper and easier to use than current models. It was a backwater operation with a handful of people, and was on the chopping block more than once. Raskin dubbed his new computer Macintosh, naming it after his favorite apple, changing the spelling to avoid any conflict with the audio equipment firm McIntosh. As described by Raskin in the fall of 1979, the Macintosh would cost $500, but by 1980, the price point escalated to $1,000.

Smith took on responsibility for designing the logic board for Raskin's dream machine, which would use Motorola 6809 chip and have 64K of RAM. Bud Tribble, the first software engineer on the Macintosh team, thought that the machine would perform far better and take advantage of pre-existing code if it used Motorola 68000 chip, the same processor used for the Lisa. At the end of 1980, he asked Smith to see if he could make it work with just 64K of memory.

By that time Steve Jobs was involved in the Macintosh project. He had been pushed out of managing the Lisa, and was now applying his full attention on the Raskin's fledgling project.

"Burrell did non-stop wire wrapping and I wrote programs on the Apple II to emulate the timing that Burrell was programming into the programmable-array logic chips," said Tribble, in a interview with Byte magazine prior to the Macintosh introduction. "And at the end of four days, we had a board with the 68000, 64K bytes of memory, and a bit-mapped screen and keyboard up and running the QuickDraw software [the graphics routines Bill Atkinson wrote for the Lisa]. At that point we went to Steve [Jobs] with the working model, and he said, 'Okay. Let's do it this way.'"

The choice of the 68000 would put the Macintosh on a new course, moving away from Raskin's vision of a $1,000 personal computer. By February 1982, a marginalized Raskin resigned from Apple. Between 1981 and mid-1983, Smith designed at least five different logic boards as the concept of the Macintosh evolved, and earned high praise from his peers.

"I would say that Burrell Smith's logic board was the seed crystal of brilliance that drew everyone else to the project," said Andy Hertzfeld, who Jobs conscripted from the Apple II group to join the Macintosh team in February 1981. He would go on to write important parts of the Macintosh system software. "It wasn't the gravitational center -- that would have to be the user interface software. My nomination for the gravitational center is Bill Atkinson's QuickDraw graphics library."

"I grew up with Woz, and saw him at work. Burrell was very similar, very dedicated and intensely focused and always working on stuff," said Bill Fernandez, Apple employee #4 and a member of the original Macintosh team. "New requirements would come up and he would just dive in and work on it. He did brilliant work. He and software folks, especially Andy Hertzfeld, worked closely to better to figure out what would happen in hardware and software. Together they could produce very efficiently and economically the functionality that we needed."

"Burrell was a brilliant engineer and just all around brilliant," said Daniel Kottke, who built and tested the Macintosh logic boards designed by Smith. "He was temperamental, funny and playful, and he didn't have much patience for the detailed stuff."

Brian Howard, Apple employee #32 and the first member of Raskin's Macintosh project team, worked closely with Smith to help translate his unorthodox ideas into a language the rest of the company could understand, as well as to fine-tune board layouts and timing signals. "Brian's even-tempered, sweet nature, along with his superb intellect and technical and writing skills made him the perfect foil for Burrell," Hertzfeld wrote on his Folkllore.org site, which chronicles Apple history.

Hertzfeld also describes Smith's playfulness and eccentricities on his Folklore.org site.

"...he would sometimes try to order mixed sodas as if they were cocktails, in ever varying proportions, like three quarters Coke, and one quarter Sprite. Often, the waitress would balk but Burrell was sometimes charming enough to eventually convince her to comply. He would also obsess on certain foods, becoming fixated on Bulgarian Beef sandwiches from Vivi's for a while, and then a Pineapple Pizza phase, evolving to his most enduring favorite, sushi, which provided a new range of interesting choices and combinations."

Smith came up with his own vocabulary that reflected his technical background. He referred to an attractive woman as a "good prototype," and he was adept at doing impressions of his colleagues.

Following the introduction of the Macintosh, Smith developed the logic boards for the Apple's Postscript printer, the LaserWriter, and was working on Turbo Macintosh, a graphics board that interfaced with an internal hard drive. But he became frustrated as the Turbo Macintosh project wasn't getting the support he wanted and left the company in February 1985. The next year he co-founded a Macintosh hardware company, Radius, with Hertzfeld and other original Macintosh team members.

In 1988, Smith left Radius and hasn't been part of the computer industry since that time. He has suffered from schizophrenia, and doesn't talk to the press. In 1993, Jobs had to file a restraining order against Smith because he threw rocks and a firecracker through the windows of this Palo Alto home. "Burrell was so funny and naive, and then one April day he suddenly snapped," Jobs recalled in his biography by Walter Isaacson. "It was the weirdest, saddest thing."

In a brief promotional video (above), Smith talked about what the Macintosh meant to him in his unique way: "I really think of it as kind of a way to liberate electrons....32 million times a second we are letting a lot of electrons free to do what they want for people. I think that's really neat," he said.