Steve Jobs: The Beginning, 1955-1985

The high school loner who figured out what the world wanted from technology

The video is close to 35 years old and the picture isn’t great, but it’s obvious Steve Jobs is nervous. He won’t sit still. As the makeup and sound guys in the television studio do the final preparations before the cameras go on, there’s the long-haired nerd—he must be 23, 24—swiveling around in his chair, wearing a jacket and tie and a pair of square wire-frame glasses. He hasn’t done much media, that’s clear to the talent handlers, who try to get him to relax a little with small talk. Jobs isn’t paying attention.

“God! Look at that!” he says, squinting at a monitor and running his hand through his hair, which looks washed for a change. “Look, I’m on television!”

“You’re on TV in New York, too,” says one of the handlers. This studio is probably in San Francisco, though the particulars are lost to history.

“No, no.” Jobs leans forward, and watches another studio person brush his sleeve. “Am I really? Are you serious? God! I was just in New York last week!” More swivels and small talk. Jobs looks up at the lights, hand-combs his hair again, and tells the people fussing around him that he’s ready to throw up. “I’m not joking,” he says. Sip of water. A producer announces he’s ready to roll. Jobs swivels. Forced smile. Hand through hair. “God!”

Knowing what Steve Jobs would become, it’s endearing to watch him babble with stage fright. He had already started a tiny company that is drawing crowds of hobbyists at computer fairs, but he’s decades away from the showman whose product unveilings will become cultural milestones. The music business now comes in two eras: pre-iPod and post-iPod [footnote 1]. Same with mobile and the iPhone, and if history holds, the iPad will mark an epochal split in personal computing. Jobs would claim that he never invented those things; he discovered them. They were always there, someone just needed to “connect the dots,” to put the parts together into a whole no one else seemed to see.

The video fuzzes out and cuts before the interview with the anchor in New York. Jobs probably did fine. Even then, he seemed able to convince anyone of anything. If charm didn’t work, he’d threaten, weep, whatever worked. The engineers and local high school kids he’d talked into working for him could attest to that. The force of will, the uncompromising aesthetic, the mean streak—he already had a reputation in Silicon Valley. But other people had those traits. Connecting the dots into a persona that can create a $350 billion empire out of technological desires the world never knew it had—that required something exceptional.

Jobs was born Feb. 24, 1955, in San Francisco to a pair of unwed graduate students, Joanne Carole Schieble and a Syrian immigrant named Abdulfattah Jandali. They put him up for adoption when he was an infant, and he was taken in by Clara and Paul Jobs, who raised their son in a ranch house on Crist Drive in Los Altos, about three miles from where Apple eventually would put its headquarters.

Young Steve wasn’t easy. He stuck a bobby pin into a wall outlet and had to be taken to a hospital after tasting ant poison. When he was old enough to go to school, his teachers—the ones who bored him, anyway—found him obnoxious and disruptive, when he wasn’t inattentive. In the classroom, he’d set off little bombs and let loose snakes. “I was pretty bored in school,” he told Playboy in 1985, “and I turned into a little terror.”

His classmates mostly thought he was “really strange,” as Mark Wozniak, the younger brother of his future partner Steve Wozniak, once put it. Jobs himself would later tell an interviewer, “I wasn’t a jock. I was a loner for the most part.” One foggy day, a gym teacher had the class do laps on a track. When Jobs reached the far end, obscured from the teacher’s view by the fog, he sat down and watched his classmates puff by. He rejoined the pack the next lap. “He had figured out how he could get away with half the work and still get credit for the whole thing,” a classmate, Bruce Courture, told Jeffrey S. Young in the 1988 Jobs biography The Journey Is the Reward.

Jobs wasn’t lazy. He wanted to absorb as much of the world as possible. But he was choosy, and one thing he chose was electronics. Silicon Valley was buzzing with promise in the 1960s. Lockheed was doing moon-shot work, Hewlett-Packard was already a geek paradise. Engineers were all over the place. Workshops sprouted in garages up and down Crist Drive, and the garage of Paul Jobs, a machinist, was no exception. He kept a spotless workbench and cleared a space for Steve to tinker. “It was really the most wonderful place in the world to grow up,” Jobs told a Smithsonian Institution historian in 1995. For a smart kid in the Valley, electronics, especially computer electronics, was more than a career choice. In those days, he said, “The best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. … They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents.”

When Jobs was around 12, a neighbor showed him some electronics tricks, such as a microphone that worked without an amplifier. The guy was a ham radio operator as well as an employee of Hewlett-Packard [footnote 2], and Jobs idolized that company and its founders. One day he called William Hewlett himself, about some parts for a frequency counter he was trying to build. Hewlett must have been impressed or at least amused, because he stayed on the phone for 20 minutes. Jobs got the parts he needed—and, a few years later, a summer gig at HP.

Jobs didn’t love just electronics. He read a lot of Shakespeare, listened to a lot of Dylan. This was California in the 1970s, with all the explorations of self implied by that decade and place. By high school he was experimenting on himself. Curious about the mind-expanding possibilities of sleep deprivation, he’d stay up a couple of nights in a row. He smoked pot and hash, and, as he would repeatedly remind employees and reporters over the years, dropped LSD.

When he graduated from Homestead High School in 1972, he declared that he would attend Reed College in Oregon. Reed was known for its mixture of academic rigor and tolerance of counterculture, but it was expensive. His parents were aghast. “We tried to talk him out of it,” Paul Jobs later told Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist who wrote The Little Kingdom, an early book about Apple. Steve wouldn’t budge, and his parents gave in. Jobs dropped out of Reed after six months. He didn’t leave right away, though: He stuck around for a year and a half, sleeping on friends’ floors and living off the money he raised by collecting bottles for the deposits. He wandered around campus barefoot, stopping in libraries to read about Zen Buddhism and doing some more bodily experimentation. The teachings of Arnold Ehret fascinated him. Ehret, a 19th century physician from Prussia, believed that good health was a matter of eliminating mucus from the body. The Ehret diet was heavy on figs, nuts, grated horseradish, and honey. That sounded about right to Jobs.

The fruitarian, shoeless Buddhist and mendicant ex-student listened in on classes, too, and was transfixed by one in particular: a course on calligraphy. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” Jobs told Stanford University’s graduating class in 2005. He said he eventually combined those calligraphy sessions with computers—beauty with technology, a big connect-the-dots moment.

If he’d had any money while in Oregon, Jobs would probably have headed to Asia to immerse himself in Buddhism. But he didn’t, so he drifted back to the Bay Area and talked his way into a job at Atari [footnote 3], the video game maker. He had no formal technical training, but he clearly knew enough about electronics that Al Alcorn, then Atari’s chief engineer, detected something in the long-haired kid and hired him as a game designer. It was that or call the police, because Jobs wouldn’t leave the lobby until he got work. “He looked pretty grubby,” Alcorn later told Moritz. “He was talking a mile a minute and claimed to be working on the HP35 calculator. He said he could turn the HP45 into a stopwatch. He implied he was working for HP. I was impressed, said, ‘hey, fine,’ and didn’t bother to check.”

Jobs’s fellow employees couldn’t stand him; he was an arrogant weirdo who smelled funny. The fruitarian diet, Jobs was convinced, purged his body of impurities and thus eliminated the need to bathe. Rather than fire him, Alcorn had Jobs come in after hours so the other employees didn’t have to deal with him.

The night shift had its advantages. Jobs remained in touch with a guy who’d graduated from Homestead High a few years before him, a hardcore nerd named Steve Wozniak. Woz had a job at HP and serious engineering talent. He also was addicted to video games, and Jobs let him into the Atari offices to play late into the night. In return, Woz helped Jobs with projects. One was an assignment that came from Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell (who later founded the Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant chain). Bushnell asked Jobs to figure out a design for the game Break-Out, where players would use a Pong-like paddle to smash a wall of bricks. Unbeknownst to Bushnell or Alcorn, Jobs turned around and made a deal with Woz: Do the coding, and Jobs would split the $600 completion fee with him. Woz did the work, and Jobs got his money and gave Woz $300—his “half.” Problem was, Jobs got $1,000 as his fee. Woz didn’t find out about Jobs’s lie until a year later, according to iCon, the 2005 book by Young and William L. Simon. When he did find out, he was so hurt he cried.

They were an unusual pair who shared a love of electronics. Woz was the tech genius and Jobs the brash idea man. They’d first bonded at the Homebrew Computer Club, a local group of engineers and hobbyists who would gather to swap parts and ideas. An early Woz-Jobs production was a “blue box”—a hacker’s term for a device that taps into the phone system to make free long-distance calls. It worked. They prank-called the Vatican and realized they could make money selling blue boxes handmade by Woz. It was amazing: Build a little machine and fake out the phone company and its billions of dollars of equipment. “That was an incredible lesson,” Jobs said in the 1996 PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds. “I don’t think there would ever have been an Apple computer had there not been blue boxes.”

Wozniak began putting together a contraption that he and Jobs could show off to their Homebrew buddies. The Apple I [footnote 4] was little more than a motherboard. Whoever bought one—Woz and Jobs sold 50 to a local hobby store—had to supply a case to hold the circuitry, not to mention a keyboard and monitor. It may have been primitive, but it was the proof of concept the two needed. They knew they could build a better computer, and Jobs knew people would buy it.

Jobs discovered that he liked business. But he hated it, too, or at least feared the potential of the Establishment-loving monster he’d become if he loved it too much. He couldn’t quite square his business self with his hippie-fruitarian self. He did make it to India [footnote 5] while still at Atari. With little money and no shoes, he found a baba, shaved his head, and came down with scabies and dysentery. The poverty in India wasn’t the lifestyle choice some hippies were making back home; these people were just plain poor. That experience dispelled any notions that the truth necessarily lay in the mud of the Indian rainy season.

Yet even as Woz struggled to build enough computers to keep up with demand, Jobs yearned to return to Asia and live a monastic life of contemplation. This time, Japan called to him. His friend Dan Kottke sent Jobs a letter making fun of him: “After performing an extensive prana to the lotus feet of suchness, gaze lovingly upon picture with cosmic thoughts of cosmic relevance and profundity until phone rings. Answer phone, haggle furiously, and refuse to sell for less than $2.3 million.” Jobs consulted Kobin Chino, a Japanese Zen master in Berkeley he met after he got back from India. Should Jobs head to Japan or descend into business? Chino, who barely spoke English, observed the dramatic soul-searching and, like Kottke, found it funny. So obvious: Stick with the computers, the Zen master said.

Woz and Jobs officially launched Apple Computer on April Fool’s Day, 1976.

In the late 1970s, computer makers were popping up much the way car companies did in Detroit at the turn of the 20th century. Osborne, Commodore, and RadioShack were all selling what were becoming known as “personal computers.” Like the Apple I, they were made for hobbyists. They were hard to use and didn’t really do much. The Altair, the earliest, pretty much just lit up little lights once you laboriously connected a bunch of switches on the logic board.

Jobs wanted the next computer to be something different—an appliance, something anyone could use. That was the Apple II, which came out a year after the Apple I. He hammered at his message as the company grew: Computers should be tools. Trip Hawkins, one of Apple’s first 50 employees, remembers Jobs obsessing over an article he’d read in a science magazine about the locomotive efficiency of animal species. “The most efficient species was the condor, which could fly for miles on only a few calories,” Hawkins says. “Humans were way down the list. But then if you put a man on a bicycle, he was instantly twice as efficient as the condor.” The computer, Jobs said, was a “bicycle for the mind.”

“That line was so good it became part of his routine,” says Hawkins. “We ended up creating an ad out of it.”

Jobs had another message: These tools had to be beautiful. The Apple II did look great, for then: It had a case and keyboard and fit easily on a desk. Jobs’s aesthetic suffused everything, even the circuit boards. He insisted the circuits be redone to make the lines straighter.

The Apple II was a hit that powered the company for the next seven years, through an initial public offering in 1980 and all the way to the release of the Macintosh. Jobs became a star. His hair was still long, but it was styled. He wore suits. He dated celebrities: Joan Baez (who was 14 years his senior, but who once was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend) and Diane Keaton (nine years his senior; no obvious Dylan connection). He talked about his company as an anti-Establishment force, waging a crusade to battle the faceless archenemy, which back then was IBM. “You always need to have bad guys and good guys in America,” says Regis McKenna, the legendary Silicon Valley public-relations man who worked with Apple beginning in the late 1970s. “Apple was thumbing its nose at this big world of monolithic standards. It became a rebel. It became a symbol of fast growth, youth.”

Jobs was always charismatic, but as Apple grew, his stage presence became mesmerizing. “He knew how to modulate his voice,” says Hawkins. “He always knew how to get an audience in the palm of his hand in seconds—to get them into a story that’s emotionally interesting. Then he’d bring his voice down, so people are hanging on every word.”

Jobs’s inexplicable hold on people got a name, the “reality-distortion field.” It was a sardonic term, because once you left the reality-distortion field all jazzed and ready to put in another 20-hour day, you remembered that the guy could be such a jerk. In 1978 his onetime girlfriend Chrisann Brennan gave birth to a daughter, Lisa. Jobs denied paternity. After a DNA test confirmed he was the father, he still said Lisa wasn’t his. Perhaps he convinced himself by entering his own reality-distortion field.

At Apple, Jobs inspired without inspiring much love. “He’d stop by and say, ‘This is a pile of shit’ or ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’” Andy Hertzfeld, who helped develop the Macintosh, told Moritz. “The scary thing was that he’d say it about the same thing.” The people at Apple had a name for that behavior, too: “the shithead-hero roller coaster.” Guy Kawasaki, another early employee who was assigned to recruit outside developers to write software for the new machine, said Jobs once came by his cubicle with an executive Kawasaki didn’t recognize. Jobs asked for Kawasaki’s opinion about some third-party company’s software. Kawasaki replied that he didn’t think it was very good. “And Steve turns to the guy and he says, ‘See, that’s what we think about your product,’” Kawasaki says, laughing. The stranger was the third-party company’s chief executive officer. “I’m sure the CEO did not expect to get ripped like that.”

Everyone at the company knew Jobs was brilliant, but there were too many tirades and humiliations to let him really run the company. Early on, even Jobs knew Apple needed managerial help. By the time the Apple II came out in 1977, Apple already had some adult supervision. Mike Scott, a former National Semiconductor executive, was CEO. Mike Markkula, who had gotten rich at Intel, got the early financing together; he would later serve both as CEO and chairman over the years. Both were among Apple’s first seven employees, and they tried to figure out ways to work with the unpredictable front man. Scott irritated Jobs from the start. They’d argued over who got which employee number and what color the engineers’ workbenches should be. (Jobs won that round—the benches were white.) Apple went public in 1980 [footnote 6]. It had $117 million in revenue and a bureaucratic superstructure like any Fortune 500 company. Woz had mostly checked out by then. The Apple II was his technology, not what came after.

Jobs wanted a computer that was dead simple to use, something where you could just turn it on and the thing worked. He saw the future he was looking for in 1979 on a visit to Silicon Valley’s holy of holies, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. PARC was the copier company’s Bay Area outpost. Researchers had been working on a computer called the Alto, which had a graphical user interface. Jobs saw the prototype and couldn’t believe it. Rather than having to type commands to move a cursor around the screen, you just rolled a little box called a “mouse” and clicked on drop-down menus. He immediately started planning on how he’d replicate the technology. “Ultimately it comes down to taste,” Jobs said in Triumph of the Nerds. “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then trying to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean, Picasso had a saying. He said, ‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal.’” Over the next five years, Jobs frog-marched a rotating cast of Apple designers and engineers to create what would turn into the Macintosh. The machine did blow people’s minds, at least for a while. But there was a problem: Jobs.

Jobs had to have a calla lily. It was 11 p.m. in New York City in December 1983, and he absolutely had to have a calla lily in his suite at the Carlyle Hotel. No other flower would do. He also needed a piano. “Not that he played one,” says Andrea Cunningham, who did marketing for Apple. He merely stipulated that his room have one. Cunningham was part of Jobs’s entourage in town for a Fortune magazine photo shoot to promote the Mac, which was going to be introduced just a month later on Jan. 24, 1984. “He was being such a pill,” says Cunningham. “He staunchly refused to do anything the photographer asked.” To lighten the mood, she set up a tape recorder and played music Jobs liked—the Michael Jackson album Thriller. No dice; Jobs refused to pose. Then the song Billie Jean came on. “He snapped to and was a different guy,” she says. “And as soon as the song ended, he reverted back. So I kept rewinding the tape to play over and over so he’d behave.”

It was the usual Steve, micromanaging and playing with people’s heads. Like Cunningham, people developed workarounds. After Mike Scott got fired and Markkula got tired of running the company, Jobs recruited John Sculley from PepsiCo with the now-famous line, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?” For a time, Sculley’s strategy for dealing with Jobs seemed to be, let Steve be Steve. Jobs was the founder; Sculley was the hired help. “At exec staff meetings, all you had to do was watch the body language,” Jay Elliot, then an Apple executive, told iCon authors Young and Simon. “Steve and John would talk to each other, but everyone else who was supposedly reporting to John spent all their time talking to Steve. He was in charge.”

That relationship continued as Jobs introduced the Mac. It was a spectacular performance that began with the Big-Brother-Is-IBM commercial that ran once, during the 1984 Super Bowl. The 60-second spot, directed by Ridley Scott, showed an Orwellian world of grim conformity. A lone woman in a tank top with a Mac logo sprints through the grayness and throws a hammer through a giant screen, shattering Big Brother’s droning visage.

Jobs followed that up two days later at the Apple annual shareholder meeting. He walked onstage, took a Mac out of a bag—and the Mac itself started talking. “Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag…” The show was flawless. Jobs had long since transformed from the fidgeting amateur who was so nervous he wanted to barf. Now he was recognizably Steve Jobs, arbiter of culture and denter of the universe. He was funny, too, which had hardly been a strong point in his presentation skills.

After the post-launch frenzy, Mac sales slowed. Apple’s device was underpowered and didn’t have nearly enough software programs to match Big Blue’s inelegant PC. Apple’s board of directors, especially venture capitalist Arthur Rock, came around to thinking something had to be done about Jobs. “Back then he was uncontrollable,” Rock told Institutional Investor magazine two decades later. “He got ideas in his head, and the hell with what anybody else wanted to do. Being a founder of the company, he went off and did them regardless of whether it ended up being good for the company.”

The board told Sculley he had to act. In April he relieved Jobs of day-to-day duties and made him vice-chairman. Then Jobs lost that title, too. At 30, he lost the thing that most mattered to him. “I didn’t see it then,” he would say in 2005, “but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.”

Starting over, however, turned out to be tougher—much tougher—than Steve Jobs thought.
1. Total revenue from U.S. music sales, 1999: $14.6 billion. Total revenue from U.S. music sales, 2009: $6.3 billion. The iPod was released on Oct. 24, 2001.
2. Hewlett-Packard was founded in 1939 by Stanford classmates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.
3. Al Alcorn, who hired Jobs at Atari, designed Pong, the company’s first big success. Founded in 1972, Atari was sold to Time-Warner for $28 million in 1976.
4. In November 2010, an Apple I sold for $212,267 at a Christie’s auction in London.
5. Seeking enlightenment, Jobs traveled to India in 1974 with his Reed College friend Dan Kottke.
6. Since its IPO in 1980, Apple’s stock price has jumped from $22 to $378.25 a share.

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