The inventor of the first personal computer imagined it primarily as a machine for playing games. This is one of the most striking facts revealed in Steve Wozniak’s autobiography . Wozniak recalls that It was his encounter with the original electronic arcade game, Pong, which inspired him to develop the video display system which formed the basis of the Apple I personal computer:
. . . there it was, Pong.
I was just mesmerized. . . . Back then, bowling alleys had a bunch of pinball machines everywhere, but never, ever, anything electronic. . . . The thing I thought was so incredible wasn’t so much the game concept – I mean it was very much like Ping-Pong or tennis or something like that – as the fact that somebody had come up with the idea that by controlling the white and black dots (pixels) on a TV screen, you could actually build a game. Wow!
The evolution of the first Apple computer began when Wozniak decided to build his own version of the arcade game. This entailed reverse engineering the display mechanism of a television system so that he could directly input his own version of Pong – ‘it spelt out four-letter words every time you missed the ball" – onto a screen. This was long before software games, so Wozniak had to implement every part of the game "in wires and small gates – in hardware". He showed his Pong clone around Hewlett-Packard, where he was working as part of the pocket calculator design team; but it didn’t get any serious interest. His game did attract the attention of Nolan Bushnell at Atari and he was invited to design another Pong-like game for commercial production together with a young friend of his called Steve Jobs. The game was Breakout and it took Wozniak four days and nights of round-the-clock engineering to complete a working prototype of the game. However it was only after he joined a community of like-minded engineers at the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, that he encountered microprocessors and realised that he could build his own computer for a fraction of the $400, which an Altair mini-computer kit would have cost him at the time. His computer, which used less chips than the Altair and which booted up from a ROM chip in a fraction of the time that the Altair took to get started; was also the first computer to allow the user to input data from a keyboard and to see the results on a screen. (Unlike the Altair which used a front panel with lights and switches as the interface.) With the application of Steve Jobs’ business acumen, his invention was marketed as the Apple I; but the money wasn’t what filled Wozniak’s thoughts:
I never truly thought we were going to make money with Apple. That was never in my mind. The only thing on my mind was, Wow, now that I’ve discovered what a microprocessor can do, there are so many places I can take it. . . . The potential with the Apple was blowing my mind. I mean, I’m around video games, and suddenly I realize that my little computer is going to be able to play games.
The point which is repeatedly made by Wozniak is that the personal computer arose out of his fascination with video games and his desire to recreate them outside of the arcade environment. His next improvement was designing a computer which could display colour – the Apple II, which he and Jobs first demonstrated at the PC ’76 show in Atlantic City; but for Wozniak "the biggest, earthshaking moment ever was the day I got Breakout, the Atari game, working on the Apple II." Bill Gates and Microsoft were to successfully shift the focus of the PC from play to office work; but it was worth remembering that this was not how the inventor of the personal computer saw it at all.
Sales poster for the Apple II emphasizing its unique colour display and integrated
keyboard and floppy drives.