The World According to Woz
Start up. Drop out. Have fun. Pass it on.
By Gary Wolf
Two decades ago, Stephen Gary Wozniak owned the first dial-a-joke
service in the San Francisco Bay area. This was before Wozniak - known
among the cognoscenti as Woz - almost woke up the Pope by calling the
Vatican on his famed illegal "blue box," before he invented the Apple
II and helped launch the personal computer industry, and before he
gave up his brilliant engineering career and became a public school
In 1973, Woz was working for Hewlett-Packard. His dial-a-joke service
got more than 2,000 calls a day. He rented answering equipment from
the phone company and often used a telephone lineman's handset to take
calls live from his tiny kitchen in Cupertino or while lying on the
mattress in his bedroom. Extremely shy, Woz didn't have much of a
chance to talk to women, but he met his first wife, Alice Robertson,
when she called dial-a-joke. Robertson heard a man say, "I bet I can
hang up faster than you" - and then he did. Naturally, she called
back. A more elegant object-poem on the nature of modern romance is
hard to imagine.
There is a recursive logic to the hang-up trick that would be at home
in a story by Lewis Carroll. Woz has been systematically experimenting
with pranks since he was a child. At Homestead High School in Silicon
Valley he printed official-looking cards with false classroom changes
on them, allowing him to easily disrupt an entire morning of
classes. He built a fake bomb, complete with ominous ticking noises,
that caused the evacuation of the school and prompted the guidance
counselor to recommend psychiatric treatment.
A long time ago, Woz had a number that matched the Pan Am reservation
number. People in Silicon Valley's 408 area code who failed to dial
800 would get him instead - one of those minor miracles arranged by
Charles Dickens, or by God. You think you've got Pan Am - but instead
you've got Woz, who explored many variants of the special, rare case
of the prank phone call initiated by the recipient. In one prank,
which has the cruel simplicity of a Zen koan, he would quickly tell
the caller that as the millionth passenger on Pan Am, they had won a
lifetime of free travel. In the middle of collecting the caller's
personal information, he would hang up, leaving them to confusedly
call back and attempt to get confirmation of their fabulous and
The proof that people are not completely slaves to our machines is
that when the system fails, its failures are not necessarily random.
The phone system, with its complexity, vulnerability, and illusion of
privacy, is the natural home of the technological trickster. In
Shakespeare, the prankster's domain is an enchanted forest.Today, it
is the mysterious convolutions of the communications network.
Among his other activities, Woz collects phone numbers, and his
longtime goal has been to acquire a number with seven matching
digits. But for most of Woz's life there were no Silicon Valley
exchanges with three matching digits, so Woz had to be satisfied with
numbers like 221-1111.
Then, one day, while eavesdropping on cell phone calls, Woz begin
hearing a new exchange: 888. And then, after more months of scheming
and waiting, he had it: 888-8888. This was his new cell-phone number,
and his greatest philonumerical triumph.
The number proved unusable. It received more than a hundred wrong
numbers a day. Given that the number is virtually impossible to
misdial, this traffic was baffling. More strange still, there was
never anybody talking on the other end of the line. Just silence. Or,
not silence really, but dead air, sometimes with the sound of a
television in the background, or somebody talking softly in English or
Spanish, or bizarre gurgling noises. Woz listened intently.
Then, one day, with the phone pressed to his ear, Woz heard a woman
say, at a distance, "Hey, what are you doing with that?" The receiver
was snatched up and slammed down.
Suddenly, it all made sense: the hundreds of calls, the dead air, the
gurgling sounds. Babies. They were picking up the receiver and
pressing a button at the bottom of the handset. Again and again. It
made a noise: "Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep."
The children of America were making their first prank call. And the
person who answered the phone was Woz.