Innovation

Apple and Atari engineers recall their childhood holiday tech gifts

Steve Wozniak, Atari's Al Alcorn, Gartner Chief Research Officer Peter Sondergaard, and this story's writer recall life-changing technology presents they received for the holidays.

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The author with an Atari VCS in 1979

Image: Evan Koblentz

If a technology-themed holiday gift ever changed your life, then you're in good company.

Apple founder Steve Wozniak, Atari Pong/2600 console designer Al Alcorn, and Gartner Chief Research Officer Peter Sondergaard shared memories of the best holiday gifts they ever received.

Apple's Steve Wozniak

Woz designed the legendary Apple 1 after hours from his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard where he worked in the calculator division. "When I was about 8 years old I got a six-transistor radio that was probably the gadget of my life. I slept with it, listening to music and far-away stations, for years," he said. "When I was about 10 years old I got a ham radio transmitter kit and a receiver kit. These were big projects to build and I had to learn a lot."

Such gifts set Wozniak on the path to writing software, making his own blue boxes, and ultimately conjuring early Apple computers first sold in 1976. Recent sales of remaining Apple 1 computers approached $1 million as exclusive collectibles. But in 1976-1977 the company only sold about 175 units total. This was noteworthy in the nascent personal computer business, yet statistically insignificant compared to hot tech gifts such as home Pong consoles.

(There remain two bits of Apple 1 folklore that need correcting in the public consciousness. First is the idea that Wozniak hand-built all 200 Apple 1 computers. He and Steve Jobs outsourced board assembly to multiple manufacturing companies. Activity at the Jobs household was limited to final assembly, sales, and testing before delivering the finished products. Wozniak stopped by when there were problems, but he devoted spare time to developing the Apple II in his HP cubicle, not hanging around the garage. Second is the notion that Wozniak was a socially clueless engineer who needed Jobs to show him the future impact and opportunity of personal microcomputing. Woz already knew this, as did many other engineers in the mid-1970s. Jobs' role was not to make Wozniak understand, but to make him care enough to leave his solid job at HP and start their own company.)

SEE: Apple's first employee: The remarkable odyssey of Bill Fernandez (TechRepublic)

There were several other computers that a tech hobbyist could purchase in 1976. Some were in the Apple 1 price range, but most of these defaulted to hexadecimal keypads for input and primitive LED displays for output. There were also some that offered standard keyboards and video displays, but these cost many thousands of dollars instead of a few hundred. What made the Apple 1 unique was its hobbyist-centric price and business-class packaging.

Woz still loves gadgets; he said his recent technology gifts include include smartwatches, iPhone accessories, and electric cars.

A seismic change happened in 1977: Wozniak's own Apple II, the Commodore PET 2001, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 all made the Apple 1 and its immediate peers fairly obsolete. Ordinary consumers could buy a fully preassembled computer, take it home, plug it in, and it just worked. (Neither the Apple 1 nor its 1977 cousins were the "first" computers, but their importance today is unquestioned.)

Yet none of these computers came close to being the hottest tech gifts of December 1977. Video game consoles were far more accessible to most people. The Coleco Telstar, Fairchild Model F, Magnavox Odyssey, and RCA Studio II all debuted in 1976. Atari's Video Computer System (later called the Atari 2600) in 1977 was the eventual smash hit.

Atari's Al Alcorn

"My favorite gift was a full size Gilbert chemistry set when I was about seven years old," Alcorn told us. "You could have a lot of fun with it, and you could hurt yourself if you weren't careful. It led to an interest in science."

Gartner's Peter Sondergaard

Such products led myriad children of the 1970s and 1980s into their own technology careers. Gartner's Sondergaard is one example and shared his story: "This is a tale of Christmas past and present. In 1982 I got a Commodore 64, which narrowly beat the [Applied Technologies] Microbee that I received a couple of months earlier. The Commodore started a 34-year love affair with technology and what it makes possible. That has resulted in this year's pre-holiday gift, the HTC Vive virtual reality system. It was a birthday gift to my youngest son. But clearly with an ulterior motive — I get to use it."

SEE: Cracking open the Commodore 64 (TechRepublic)

Evan Koblentz

This article's author is himself a product of the video-computer generation, having received an Atari VCS for Chanukah in 1979 and an Apple //e as a 1980s bar mitzvah present.

The moral, perhaps, is to think twice before chastising your children for spending their free time listening to music or doing homemade science experiments. They just may grow up to change the world for a future generation, or at least to write about it.

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About

Evan Koblentz began covering enterprise IT news during the dot-com boom times of the late 1990s. He recently published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers". He is director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 50...

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