Another prank involved a pocket device Wozniak built that could emit TV signals. He would take it to a room
where a group of people were watching TV, such as in a dorm, and secretly press the button so that the screen
would get fuzzy with static. When someone got up and whacked the set, Wozniak would let go of the button and
the picture would clear up. Once he had the unsuspecting viewers hopping up and down at his will, he would make
things harder. He would keep the picture fuzzy until someone touched the antenna. Eventually he would make people
think they had to hold the antenna while standing on one foot or touching the top of the set. Years later, at a keynote
presentation where he was having his own trouble getting a video to work, Jobs broke from his script and recounted
the fun they had with the device. “Woz would have it in his pocket and we’d go into a dorm . . .
where a bunch of folks would be, like, watching Star Trek, and he’d screw up the TV,
and someone would go up to fix it, and just as they had the foot off the ground he would turn it back on,
and as they put their foot back on the ground he’d screw it up again.” Contorting himself into a pretzel onstage, Jobs
concluded to great laughter, “And within five minutes he would have someone like this.”
The Blue Box
The ultimate combination of pranks and electronics—and the escapade that helped to create Apple—was
launched one Sunday afternoon when Wozniak read an article in Esquire that his mother had left for him
on the kitchen table. It was September 1971, and he was about to drive off the next day to Berkeley,
his third college. The story, Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” described how hackers and
phone phreakers had found ways to make long-distance calls for free by replicating the tones that routed
signals on the AT&T network. “Halfway through the article, I had to call my best friend, Steve Jobs, and
read parts of this long article to him,” Wozniak recalled. He knew
that Jobs, then beginning
his senior year, was
one of the few people who
would share his excitement.
No one had ever created a digital version of a Blue Box, but
Woz was made for the challenge. Using diodes and transistors
from Radio Shack, and with the help of a music student in his
dorm who had perfect pitch, he got it built before Thanksgiving.
“I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of,” he said. “I still think it was incredible.”
One night Wozniak drove down from Berkeley to Jobs’s house
to try it. They attempted to call Wozniak’s uncle in Los Angeles,
but they got a wrong number. It didn’t matter; their device had
worked. “Hi! We’re calling you for free! We’re calling you for free!”
Wozniak shouted. The person on the other end was confused and annoyed. Jobs chimed in,
“We’re calling from California! From California! With a Blue Box.” This probably
baffled the man even more, since he was also in California.
At first the Blue Box was used for fun and pranks. The most daring of these was
when they called the Vatican and Wozniak pretended to be Henry Kissinger
wanting to speak to the pope. “Ve are at de summit meeting in Moscow,
and ve need to talk to de pope,” Woz intoned. He was told that it was 5:30 a.m. and
the pope was sleeping. When he called back, he got a bishop who was supposed
to serve as the translator. But they never actually got the pope on the line.
“They realized that Woz wasn’t Henry Kissinger,” Jobs recalled. “We were at a public phone booth.”
It was then that they reached an important milestone, one that would
establish a pattern in their partnerships: Jobs came up with the idea that
the Blue Box could be more than merely a hobby; they could build and sell them.
“I got together the rest of the components, like the casing and power supply and
keypads, and figured out how we could price it,” Jobs said, foreshadowing roles he
would play when they founded Apple. The finished product was about the size of two
decks of playing cards.
The parts cost about $40,
and Jobs decided they
should sell it for $150.
A hero of the piece was John Draper, a hacker known as Captain Crunch because he had discovered
that the sound emitted by the toy whistle that came with the breakfast cereal was the same 2600
Hertz tone used by the phone network’s call-routing switches. It could fool the system into allowing
a long-distance call to go through without extra charges. The article revealed that other tones that
served to route calls could be found in an issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, which AT&T
immediately began asking libraries to pull from their shelves.
As soon as Jobs got the call from Wozniak that Sunday afternoon, he knew they would have to get
their hands on the technical journal right away. “Woz picked me up a few minutes later, and we went
to the library at SLAC [the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center] to see if we could find it,” Jobs recounted.
It was Sunday and the library was closed, but they knew how to get in through a door that was rarely locked.
“I remember that we were furiously digging through the stacks, and it was Woz who finally found the journal
with all the frequencies. It was like, holy shit, and we opened it and there it was. We kept saying to ourselves,
‘It’s real. Holy shit, it’s real.’ It was all laid out—the tones, the frequencies.”
Wozniak went to Sunnyvale Electronics before it closed that evening and bought the parts to make
an analog tone generator. Jobs had built a frequency counter when he was part of the HP Explorers
Club, and they used it to calibrate the desired tones. With a dial, they could replicate and tape-record
the sounds specified in the article. By midnight they were ready to test it. Unfortunately the oscillators
they used were not quite stable enough to replicate the right chirps to fool the phone company.
“We could see the instability using Steve’s frequency counter,” recalled Wozniak, “and we just
couldn’t make it work. I had to leave for Berkeley
the next morning, so we
decided I would work
on building a digital
version once I got there.”
In February 1974, after eighteen months of hanging around Reed,
Jobs decided to move back to his parents’ home in Los Altos and look
for a job. It was not a difficult search. At peak times during the 1970s,
the classified section of the San Jose Mercury carried up to sixty pages
of technology help-wanted ads. One of those caught Jobs’s eye.
“Have fun, make money,” it said. That day Jobs walked into the lobby
of the video game manufacturer Atari and told the personnel director,
who was startled by his unkempt hair and attire, that he
wouldn’t leave until they gave him a job.
Atari’s founder was a burly entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell,
who was a charismatic visionary with a nice touch of showmanship
in him—in other words, another role model waiting to be emulated.
After he became famous, he liked driving around in a Rolls, smoking dope,
and holding staff meetings in a hot tub. As Friedland had done and as Jobs
would learn to do, he was able to turn charm into a cunning force, to cajole
and intimidate and distort reality with the power of his personality.
His chief engineer was Al Alcorn, beefy and jovial and a bit more grounded,
the house grown-up trying to implement the vision and curb the enthusiasms
of Bushnell. Their big hit thus far was a video game called Pong, in which two
players tried to volley a blip on a screen with two movable lines that acted as
paddles. (If you’re under thirty, ask your parents.)
When Jobs arrived in the Atari lobby wearing sandals and demanding a job,
Alcorn was the one who was summoned. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie
kid in the lobby.
He says he’s not going to leave until
we hire him. Should we call
the cops or let him in?’
I said bring him on in!”
Following the lead of other phone phreaks such as Captain Crunch,
they gave themselves handles. Wozniak became “Berkeley Blue,”
Jobs was “Oaf Tobark.” They took the device to college dorms and
gave demonstrations by attaching it to a phone and speaker. While the
potential customers watched, they would call the Ritz in London or a dial-a-joke service in Australia.
“We made a hundred or so Blue Boxes and sold almost all of them,” Jobs recalled.
The fun and profits came to an end at a Sunnyvale pizza parlor. Jobs and Wozniak
were about to drive to Berkeley with a Blue Box they had just finished making. Jobs
needed money and was eager to sell, so he pitched the device to some guys at the next table.
They were interested, so Jobs went to a phone booth and demonstrated it with a call to Chicago.
The prospects said they had to go to their car for money. “So we walk over to the car, Woz and me,
and I’ve got the Blue Box in my hand, and the guy gets in, reaches under the seat, and he pulls out a gun,”
Jobs recounted. He had never been that close to a gun, and he was terrified. “So he’s pointing the gun right at
my stomach, and he says, ‘Hand it over, brother.’ My mind raced. There was the car door here, and I thought
maybe I could slam it on his legs and we could run, but there was this high probability that he would shoot me.
So I slowly handed it to him, very carefully.” It was a weird sort of robbery. The guy who took the Blue
Box actually gave Jobs a phone number and said he would try to pay for it if it worked. When Jobs later called
the number, the guy said he couldn’t figure out how to use it. So Jobs, in his felicitous way, convinced the guy
to meet him and Wozniak at a public place. But they ended up deciding not to have another encounter with
the gunman, even on the off chance they could get their $150.
The partnership paved the way for what would be a bigger adventure together. “If it hadn’t been for the
Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple,” Jobs later reflected. “I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and
I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and
partnership that would soon be born. Wozniak would be the gentle wizard coming up with a neat invention
that he would have been happy just to give away, and Jobs would figure out how to
make it user-friendly,
put it together
in a package, market it,
and make a few bucks.
Jobs thus became one of the first fifty employees at Atari,
working as a technician for $5 an hour. “In retrospect,
it was weird to hire a dropout from Reed,” Alcorn recalled.
“But I saw something in him. He was very intelligent, enthusiastic,
excited about tech.” Alcorn assigned him to work with a straitlaced
engineer named Don Lang. The next day Lang complained,
“This guy’s a goddamn hippie with b.o. Why did you do this to me?
And he’s impossible to deal with.” Jobs clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy
vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor,
even if he didn’t use deodorant or shower regularly. It was a flawed theory.
Lang and others wanted to let Jobs go, but Bushnell worked out a solution.
“The smell and behavior wasn’t an issue with me,” he said. “Steve was prickly,
but I kind of liked him. So I asked him to go on the night shift. It was a way
to save him.” Jobs would come in after Lang and others had left and work through most
of the night. Even thus isolated, he became known for his brashness.
On those occasions when he happened to interact with others, he was prone
to informing them that they were “dumb shits.” In retrospect, he stands
by that judgment. “The only reason I shone was that everyone else was so bad,” Jobs recalled.
Despite his arrogance (or perhaps because of it) he was able to charm Atari’s boss.
“He was more philosophical than the other people I worked with,” Bushnell recalled.
“We used to discuss free will versus determinism. I tended to believe that things
were much more determined, that we were programmed. If we had perfect information,
we could predict people’s actions. Steve felt the opposite.” That outlook accorded
with his faith in the power of the will to bend reality.
Jobs helped improve some of the games by pushing the chips to produce fun designs,
and Bushnell’s inspiring willingness to play by his own rules rubbed off on him.
In addition, he intuitively appreciated the simplicity of Atari’s games. They came
with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could
figure them out. The only
instructions for Atari’s Star
Trek game were “1. Insert
quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.”
When he got off the plane in New Delhi, he felt waves
of heat rising from the tarmac, even though it was only
April. He had been given the name of a hotel, but it was full,
so he went to one his taxi driver insisted was good. “I’m sure he
was getting some baksheesh, because he took me to this complete dive.”
Jobs asked the owner whether the water was filtered and foolishly
believed the answer. “I got dysentery pretty fast. I was sick, really
sick, a really high fever. I dropped from 160 pounds to 120 in about a week.”
Once he got healthy enough to move, he decided that he needed to get out
of Delhi. So he headed to the town of Haridwar, in western India near the
source of the Ganges, which was having a festival known as the Kumbh Mela.
More than ten million people poured into a town that usually contained fewer
than 100,000 residents. “There were holy men all around. Tents with this teacher
and that teacher. There were people riding elephants, you name it. I was there
for a few days, but I decided that I needed to get out of there too.”
He went by train and bus to a village near Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas.
That was where Neem Karoli Baba lived, or had lived. By the time Jobs got there,
he was no longer alive, at least in the same incarnation. Jobs rented a room with a
mattress on the floor from a family who helped him recuperate by feeding him
vegetarian meals. “There was a copy there of Autobiography of a Yogi in English that
a previous traveler had left, and I read it several times because there was not a lot to do,
and I walked around from village to village and recovered from my dysentery.”
Among those who were part of the community there was Larry Brilliant, an
epidemiologist who was working to eradicate smallpox and who
later ran Google’s
philanthropic arm and the Skoll
Foundation. He became
Jobs’s lifelong friend.
When Jobs told the folks at Atari that he was quitting
to go search for a guru in India, the jovial Alcorn was amused.
“He comes in and stares at me and declares, ‘I’m going to find my guru,’
and I say, ‘No shit, that’s super. Write me!’ And he says he wants me to
help pay, and I tell him, ‘Bullshit!’” Then Alcorn had an idea. Atari was
making kits and shipping them to Munich, where they were built into
finished machines and distributed by a wholesaler in Turin. But there was
a problem: Because the games were designed for the American rate of sixty
frames per second, there were frustrating interference problems in Europe,
where the rate was fifty frames per second. Alcorn sketched out a fix with Jobs
and then offered to pay for him to go to Europe to implement it. “It’s got to be
cheaper to get to India from there,” he said. Jobs agreed. So Alcorn sent him on his
way with the exhortation, “Say hi to your guru for me.”
Jobs spent a few days in Munich, where he solved the interference problem,
but in the process he flummoxed the dark-suited German managers. They
complained to Alcorn that he dressed and smelled like a bum and behaved rudely.
“I said, ‘Did he solve the problem?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘If you got any more
problems, you just call me, I got more guys just like him!’ They said,
‘No, no we’ll take care of it next time.’” For his part, Jobs was upset that the
Germans kept trying to feed him meat and potatoes. “They don’t even have a word for
vegetarian,” he complained (incorrectly) in a phone call to Alcorn.
He had a better time when he took the train to see the distributor in Turin,
where the Italian pastas and his host’s camaraderie were more simpatico. “
I had a wonderful couple of weeks in Turin, which is this charged-up industrial town,”
he recalled. “The distributor took me every night to dinner at this place where there
were only eight tables and no menu. You’d just tell them what you wanted, and they made it.
One of the tables was on reserve for the chairman of Fiat. It was really super.” He next
went to Lugano, Switzerland,
where he stayed with
Friedland’s uncle, and from
there took a flight to India.
Not all of his coworkers shunned Jobs. He became
friends with Ron Wayne, a draftsman at Atari, who
had earlier started a company that built slot machines.
It subsequently failed, but Jobs became fascinated with
the idea that it was possible to start your own company.
“Ron was an amazing guy,” said Jobs. “He started companies.
I had never met anybody like that.” He proposed to Wayne
that they go into business together; Jobs said he could borrow
$50,000, and they could design and market a slot machine.
But Wayne had already been burned in business, so he declined.
“I said that was the quickest way to lose $50,000,” Wayne recalled,
“but I admired the fact that he had a burning drive to start his own business.”
One weekend Jobs was visiting Wayne at his apartment, engaging as they
often did in philosophical discussions, when Wayne said that there was
something he needed to tell him. “Yeah, I think I know what it is,”
Jobs replied. “I think you like men.” Wayne said yes. “It was my
first encounter with someone who I knew was gay,” Jobs recalled.
“He planted the right perspective of it for me.” Jobs grilled him:
“When you see a beautiful woman, what do you feel?” Wayne replied,
“It’s like when you look at a beautiful horse. You can appreciate it, but you
don’t want to sleep with it. You appreciate beauty for what it is.”
Wayne said that it is a testament to Jobs that he felt like revealing this to
him. “Nobody at Atari knew, and I could count on my toes and fingers
the number of people I told in my whole life. But I guess it just felt right to
tell him, that he would understand, and it didn’t have any effect on our relationship.”
One reason Jobs was eager to make some money in early 1974 was that
Robert Friedland, who had gone to India the summer before, was urging
him to take his own spiritual journey there. Friedland had studied in India with
Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), who had been the guru to much of the sixties
hippie movement. Jobs decided he should do the same, and he recruited
Daniel Kottke to go with him. Jobs was not motivated by mere adventure.
“For me it was a serious search,” he said. “I’d been turned on to the idea of
enlightenment and trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into things.”
Kottke adds that Jobs’s quest seemed
driven partly by not
knowing his birth parents.
“There was a hole in him,
and he was trying to fill it.”
At one point Jobs was told of a young Hindu holy man
who was holding a gathering of his followers at the
Himalayan estate of a wealthy businessman. “It was a chance to
meet a spiritual being and hang out with his followers, but it was also
a chance to have a good meal. I could smell the food as we got near,
and I was very hungry.” As Jobs was eating, the holy man—who was
not much older than Jobs—picked him out of the crowd, pointed at him,
and began laughing maniacally. “He came running over and grabbed me
and made a tooting sound and said, ‘You are just like a baby,’” recalled Jobs.
“I was not relishing this attention.” Taking Jobs by the hand, he led him
out of the worshipful crowd and walked him up to a hill, where there was
a well and a small pond. “We sit down and he pulls out this straight razor.
I’m thinking he’s a nutcase and begin to worry. Then he pulls out a bar
of soap—I had long hair at the time—and he lathered up my hair and shaved
my head. He told me that he was saving my health.”
Daniel Kottke arrived in India at the beginning of the summer, and Jobs
went back to New Delhi to meet him. They wandered, mainly by bus, rather
aimlessly. By this point Jobs was no longer trying to find a guru who could impart
wisdom, but instead was seeking enlightenment through ascetic experience,
deprivation, and simplicity. He was not able to achieve inner calm.
Kottke remembers him getting into a furious shouting match with a
Hindu woman in a village marketplace who, Jobs alleged, had been
watering down the milk she was selling them.
Yet Jobs could also be generous. When they got to the town of Manali,
Kottke’s sleeping bag was stolen with his traveler’s checks in it.
“Steve covered my food expenses and bus ticket back to
Delhi,” Kottke recalled.
He also gave Kottke
the rest of his own money,
$100, to tide him over.