In April of 1995, Steve Jobs, then head of NeXT Computer, was interviewed as part of the Computerworld Honors Program Oral History project. The wide-ranging interview was conducted by Daniel Morrow, executive director of the awards program.
From his early years – when he says except for a few key adults “I would absolutely have ended up in jail” – to how he felt about Apple in the mid ’90s – “The Macintosh will die in another few years [under John Sculley]” – to his predictions about how the internet would change the world, this is a rare look at Jobs after his first string of innovations but before he returned to Apple.
Steve, I’d like to begin with some biographical information. Tell us about yourself.
Steve Jobs (SJ): I was born in San Francisco, California, USA, planet Earth, February 24, 1955. I can go into a lot of details about my youth, but I don’t know that anybody would really care about that too much.
Well they might in three hundred years because all this print is going to disintegrate. Tell me a little bit about your parents, your family; what are the earliest things you remember? In 1955, Eisenhower was still President.
I don’t remember him but I do remember growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was a very interesting time in the United States. America was sort of at its pinnacle of post World War II prosperity and everything had been fairly straight and narrow from haircuts to culture in every way, and it was just starting to broaden into the 60s where things were going to start expanding out in new directions. Everything was still very successful. Very young. America seemed young and naive in many ways to me, from my memories at that time.
So you would have been about five or six years old when John Kennedy was assassinated?
I remember John Kennedy being assassinated. I remember the exact moment that I heard he had been shot.
Where were you at the time?
I was walking across the grass at my schoolyard going home at about three in the afternoon when somebody yelled that the President had been shot and killed. I must have been about seven or eight years old, I guess, and I knew exactly what it meant. I also remember very much the Cuban Missile Crisis. I probably didn’t sleep for three or four nights because I was afraid that if I went to sleep I wouldn’t wake up. I guess I was seven years old at the time and I understood exactly what was going on. I think everybody did. It was really a terror that I will never forget, and it probably never really left. I think that everyone felt it at that time.
Those of us who were older, such as myself, remember making plans of where we would meet if the country was devastated. It was a strange time. One of the things we’re trying to get a handle on is passion and power. What were the early things you were passionate about, that you were interested in?
I was very lucky. My father, Paul, was a pretty remarkable man. He never graduated from high school. He joined the Coast Guard in World War II and ferried troops around the world for General Patton; and I think he was always getting into trouble and getting busted down to Private.
He was a machinist by trade and worked very hard and was kind of a genius with his hands. He had a workbench out in his garage where, when I was about five or six, he sectioned off a little piece of it and said “Steve, this is your workbench now.” And he gave me some of his smaller tools and showed me how to use a hammer and saw and how to build things. It really was very good for me. He spent a lot of time with me . . . teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together.
One of the things that he touched upon was electronics. He did not have a deep understanding of electronics himself but he’d encountered electronics a lot in automobiles and other things he would fix. He showed me the rudiments of electronics and I got very interested in that. I grew up in Silicon Valley. My parents moved from San Francisco to Mountain View when I was five. My dad got transferred and that was right in the heart of Silicon Valley so there were engineers all around.
Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards – apricot orchards and prune orchards – and it was really paradise. I remember the air being crystal clear, where you could see from one end of the valley to the other.
This was when you were six, seven, eight-years-old at the time.
Right. Exactly. It was really the most wonderful place in the world to grow up. There was a man who moved in down the street, maybe about six or seven houses down the block, who was new in the neighborhood with his wife, and it turned out that he was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard and a ham radio operator and really into electronics. What he did to get to know the kids in the block was rather a strange thing: He put out a carbon microphone and a battery and a speaker on his driveway where you could talk into the microphone and your voice would be amplified by the speaker. Kind of strange thing when you move into a neighborhood but that’s what he did.
This is great.
I of course started messing around with this. I was always taught that you needed an amplifier to amplify the voice in a microphone for it to come out in a speaker. My father taught me that. I proudly went home to my father and announced that he was all wrong and that this man up the block was amplifying voice with just a battery. My father told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and we got into a very large argument. So I dragged him down and showed him this and he himself was a little befuddled.
I got to know this man, whose name was Larry Lang, and he taught me a lot of electronics. He was great. He used to build Heathkits. Heathkits were really great. Heathkits were these products that you would buy in kit form. You actually paid more money for them than if you just went and bought the finished product if it was available. These Heathkits would come with these detailed manuals about how to put this thing together and all the parts would be laid out in a certain way and colour coded. You’d actually build this thing yourself.
I would say that this gave one several things. It gave one an understanding of what was inside a finished product and how it worked because it would include a theory of operation. But maybe even more importantly it gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe. These things were not mysteries anymore. I mean you looked at a television set you would think that “I haven’t built one of those but I could. There’s one of those in the Heathkit catalogue and I’ve built two other Heathkits so I could build that.”
Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation, not these magical things that just appeared in one’s environment, that one had no knowledge of their interiors. It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment. My childhood was very fortunate in that way.