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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 11:18 AM

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Apple co-founder speaks to UW students

Seattle Times technology reporter

When Steve Wozniak visits university campuses, it's usually to speak to computer-science students. So Thursday at the University of Washington, he wasn't sure what to make of the yawning group that shuffled in for a 9:30 a.m. class on creativity and communication.

These weren't hardware and software types, as evidenced by the two women in the back who spent nearly all of class talking to each other about chemical peels and the like.

"I consider this a hostile environment, because normally I get to talk to computer people," he joked with the class.

It wasn't actually hostile, but some of the students didn't know that the man telling his life story at the front of the room was a computing legend. This man co-founded Apple Computer. He has a street named after him. An autographed note of his was selling on eBay for $899.

This was the Woz.

He hasn't been to Seattle in years, and came for a brief visit at the request of his goddaughter, Julie Roebuck, a student in that class. He spoke nonstop for 45 minutes, regaling the class with anecdotes about pranks he pulled, life lessons he's learned and how he came to meet Apple's other founder, Steve Jobs.

He talked about a fascination with electronics that dated back to sixth grade, when he sent away for a ham-radio kit and soldered the pieces together. By eighth grade he was learning to test voltages, and in high school he would go once a week to the offices of Sylvania, an electronics company, to program on an early computer.

Wozniak was also candid about his personality, saying he had an independent streak that began when he read Thoreau's "Walden" in eighth grade. He described himself as a nerd in high school, a shy person who turned to innocent pranks as a way of venting energy.

Once he built an electronic metronome and hid it in a friend's locker and the device's ticking sent school officials into a panic.

In college, he built a gizmo that could jam a color-television signal, and for weeks exasperated students would fiddle with a dormitory TV while he secretly disrupted the broadcast.

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But even as he played practical jokes, he was getting more serious about computers. He would break into his college's computer room late at night and stay there until 3 a.m. working on programs.

"That's what you do when computers are such a passion that drives you," he said. "You just want to do it." He eventually took a job at Hewlett-Packard but later left the company to start Apple Computer.

A mutual love of pranks is what drew Wozniak and Jobs together. Wozniak described the early days of their relationship, when he would come up with product ideas and Jobs would figure out how to sell them.

The two built a personal computer, he said, and one of their first customers was a local computer store that ordered 100 units. They would buy parts and promise to pay for them within 30 days, build a working computer, sell the computers to the store and use the money to pay for the parts.

"It was a risk," he said. "Would it work? It did."

Wozniak left Apple in the early 1980s and went on to become a philanthropist and dabble in new startups. He has written an autobiography, which is expected to come out this fall.

G. Graham Allan, the professor teaching the class at which Wozniak spoke, said he hoped the talk would encourage students to think independently and generate their own ideas.

"I want every student in the class to say, 'I can do what Steve Wozniak did,' " he said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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