When Tech Gods Were Mortal Men

When Tech Gods Were Mortal Men

Anyone who knows tech knows certain names—Gates, Jobs, Woz, Kamen, Stringer—but before they became legends, they were busy doing, well, some curious stuff. Here’s a glance at their lives circa 1979:

Steve Jobs

Now: Just returning to daily work at Apple after a prolonged health scare, he’s still one of the most powerful—and recognizable—names in the industry.

Then: This was the year Steve started work on the Lisa, but also the year he became kind of a square. This happened in stages: he bought his first house; began his lifelong Mercedes habit; trimmed his hippie mop; bought some suits; and became a father—at least as far as the courts were concerned—to his daughter, Lisa Nicole. Sellout. [Source] [imgclear]

Bill Gates

Now: Having stepped back from a day-to-day role at Microsoft, Bill now dedicates most of his time to his giant philanthropic foundation. For many, he’s still the voice of Microsoft—a perception he seems to appreciate.

Then: Still in his mid 20s, Bill Gates the businessman was busy rebranding his company from Micro-Soft to Microsoft, and moving operations from Albuquerque to the state of Washington, where they would stay from there on out. Bill Gates the nerd, on the other hand, was solving the so-called “Pancake Problem,” publishing a paper on it—his only academic work. Apparently, n being the number of pancakes in a stack, (5n + 5)/3 flips will always be enough to sort them into a desired order. Why? I have no idea, but it’s probably got something to do with me not being a genius billionaire. [Science News] [imgclear]

Steve Wozniak

Now: Sometimes he’s Segging, sometime’s he’s dancing, sometimes he’s even Giz-ing. In any case since distancing himself from Apple, he’s been doing whatever the hell he wants.

Then: He had begun work on the Lisa, which would later be passed to other engineers. But outside of work, he was diversifying his portfolio. Before he was a voluntary spokesperson for Dean Kamen’s Segway, he was a paid spokesperson for Datsun, featuring in a TV commercial for the 1979 280zx in which he drops such memorable elocutions as “I prefer the Z!” and “IT. IS. AWESOME.” It is, Steve. It is.[imgclear]

Steve Ballmer

Now: At Microsoft, he’s the dude. He basically runs the show, filling Billy G’s old shoes, as it were. In any case, he’s at his peak.

Then: Fresh out of college, Steve hadn’t even joined Microsoft yet. It wasn’t until 1980 that he even pitched the company, who later gave him a job, then a few more jobs, then THE job. A distinguished student at Harvard, he had lofty dreams, which led him to LA, where he tried to make it in Hollywood. (Behind the scenes, of course.) His bid for fame, or at least, profit made from others’ fame, didn’t pan out, so he went back to school at Stanford. In an alternate universe, Ari Gold’s character in Entourage is based on Steve. [Seattle Times] [imgclear]

Michael Dell

Now: Michael Dell helms the second largest PC manufacturer in the world, and is currently trying to navigate a difficult economy and a precipitous drop in some of his core businesses.

Then: Baby Dell has was just getting a taste of his two lifelong passions: computing and cash. He got his first machine, an Apple II of all things, in 1979 at the age of 14, and promptly tore it apart. Soon after, he tried his hand at entrepreneurship, hawking newspaper subscriptions to newlyweds, whose information he scrounged from public records. This quickly made him a thousandaire. [Source] [imgclear]

Sir Howard Stringer

Now: Currently serving as the Emperor of all things Sony, Stringer is hoping to overhaul the company’s lumbering, inefficient structure into something a little more streamlined, a little more manageable, and a lot more profitable.

Then: Our Howard, not yet a Sir, was killing network news. In 1979 he was working for CBS, and in 1980 presided over wide staff cuts at the network, mainly in the news department. Apparently, this gutted the network, dragging it down in the ratings races to this day. Not an auspicious start as far as restructurings go, but Sony’s a totally different animal, I guess. Right? [NYT]

Bill Hewlett and David Packard

Now: Passed away, so R.I.P.. But, when they were less dead, they founded what would become the largest PC manufacturer in the world, and drove innovation in personal computing, printing and computer science for years.

Then: As loads of exciting innovations were swirling around them, courtesy of people who were more or less children, Bill and David were in the twilight of their respective careers. David had returned to HP after a stint in Richard Nixon’s defence Department, where he became an expert in weapons procurement. Half-employed by HP and still advising the government from time to time, he could be seen wandering the halls of the company, doing odd jobs and making new employees kind of sad. By this time, Bill Hewlett had stepped down as CEO, though he and David still featured in some seriously rad company literature from time to time. [HP, Ralph Sanders, Image from BusinessWeek] [imgclear]

The Google Guys

Now: Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page run the internet, to put it bluntly. Google’s got the most popular search engine, a wide range of successful web services, and a lion’s share of the online advertising market. They might have even made the OS on your phone.

Then: This is where Silicon Valley exec age disparities start to get funny. In 1979, Eric Schmidt was on his way to becoming a respectable adult, heading into a PhD program at Berkeley. Meanwhile, Sergey was emigrating from the Soviet Union. With his parents, of course, since he was only six. While Schmidt was churning out a dissertation over in Oakland, Sergey and Larry were building block castles at Montessori schools. Tech-savvy PhD candidates take note: Those kids at the Waldorf Academy down the street? They might be your bosses someday. I mean, don’t worry, you’ll be filthy rich. But still. [NNDB, The JC] [imgclear]

Dean Kamen

Now: Though he hasn’t birthed truly high profile invention since the Segway, Kamen is still doing some really cool stuff, be it designing water purification systems, bionic arms for vets, or rock-climbing wheelchairs. Or hanging out on his own private island.

Then: In 1979, Dean was running from the tax man! Sort of. Having failed to graduate from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dean had jumped headfirst into a new project called the “Auto-Syringe,” which would later be known as the first insulin pump. After his project gained traction, he moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire for tax reasons, and promptly got rich. [Wired]

Gizmodo ’79 is a week-long celebration of gadgets and geekdom 30 years ago, as the analogue age gave way to the digital, and most of our favourite toys were just being born.