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Encounter with the Woz

When I went to see Steve Wozniak, a.k.a. “Woz”, at a book signing of his autobiography at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan on November 29, 2006, I came prepared. Having learned of Woz's sense of humor from reading stories on his website, I brought along a few things for the encounter…

In one of his stories, Woz described a “major prank” in which he “created a phony ad for a product called the Zaltair.” The fictional Zaltair computer was allegedly the successor of the MITS Altair. But it was built around the Zilog Z80 instead of the Intel 8080, hence the Z in its name and the extensive use of that letter in the fake brochure. In addition to hyperbolic language, ridiculous analogies and “superlative descriptions of a computer that solved every problem in the world”, the ad contained an offer in which you could ship back your old Altair for a discount on the new machine.

After having “made sure in advance that MITS would not be at the show”, he secretly printed up 8000 copies and began distribution. However, after a stack of them vanished from a handouts table, he discovered that a MITS rep who did not appreciate the joke was in attendance after all. To compensate, he snuck the brochure onto every table in the show.

Woz also mentioned that he “had learned from many pranks before that it was better to make it look as though someone else did it.” To that end, he put a fake quote from MITS president Ed Roberts at the top where the “first letter of each word spelled out Processor Technology, another top hobby computer company.”

After reading that story, I wanted to see the phony Zaltair brochure to fully appreciate the humor. I found a link that showed the front and back, but it was too fuzzy to read.

Eventually, I found a readable image of the front of the brochure by searching for “Zaltiar” on Amazon's site. It will direct you to the book, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. And if you click on the “Look inside” link and search again for “Zaltair”, page 469 contains the image. The scanned page is definitely readable.

I decided I wanted to get Woz to sign a copy of the brochure even if I only had the front. But if you print that image, although readable, it still looks fuzzy. However, with the aid of some Adobe tools, I created a replica.

I printed out a few copies and I put them into a folder. Then, I decided to go one step further…

As detailed in another post, Woz purchases uncut sheets of four $2 bill from the US Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Then, as a gag, he has a printer “gum them into pads” and “perforate them between the bills, so that [he] can tear a bill or two away.” He conspicuously tipped from such a pad while on a trip to Las Vegas, which eventually drew the attention of a casino security manager. For maximum comedic effect, Woz evasively responded to his line of questions as if it were completely normal to separate bills through tearing just prior to use, even hinting that they were counterfeit. This behavior eventually lead to a private interrogation by a Security Service agent in which he presented a fake ID with the title “Laser Safety Officer” featuring him wearing an eyepatch. Ultimately, he revealed all to get out of there.

I navigated over to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing website and I purchased a sheet of four $2 bills. Could I get Woz to sign the brochure and the sheet of bills?…

I got to the book signing early expecting a crowd. But people really didn't start showing up until about 30 minutes before the event. Woz delivered an engaging speech that summarized the discussions in his book. The audience was really moved and became annoyed when a Barnes & Noble staff member interrupted Woz 30 minutes into his speech to tell him he had to start taking questions. But the staff member was booed away, enabling Woz to continue talking for another 15 minutes. 15 minutes of questions followed and then it was time to line up for signing.

The line moved quickly, which made me nervous. From what I could see, Woz was only signing books. In fact, that same Barnes & Noble staff member announced that since the speech and question sessions lasted twice as long as they should have, that no one should request to be photographed with Woz, which would slow things down even more. Before I knew it, I was next. A knot formed in my stomach. The Barnes & Noble staff member was standing right next to Woz to increase his signing efficiency. He was taking books from people online, cracking them open to the title page and presenting them to Woz for signing. I picked up 2 copies of iWoz; I hoped that 2 would give me enough time to make the requests.

Woz signing away

I handed the books to the Barnes & Noble guy and then I immediately whipped out the Zaltair brochure. I saw Woz's eyes jump right to brochure and a smile form on his face. He started laughing and asked where I got it. He said a picture of it can't be found in his book. I told him it was difficult to track down and I could only find the front. He picked it up and glanced at the blank back and said that the back is the funniest part where he had a table comparing Zaltair to Apple and other computers. I told him I knew and I asked if he would sign it anyway. And he said he would be happy to do so. As he did, I said I have to show you something in the book. I flipped to page 204 where at the very top it has the fake Ed Roberts quote from the Zaltair brochure with the hidden message. I showed him in book, the word “Hobbyist” is spelled correctly, but on the brochure, it's misspelled as “Hobbiest”. He laughed that off.

As he started signing my copies of iWoz, I pulled out a thick, black Sharpie and I yanked the cap off. I asked him if he could do one more favor. I said, “Could you sign your name really big on this?—” I pulled out the sheet of $2 bills. Once again he started laughing and asked where I got it. I found that question strange. He omitted the $2 bill story from his book. Was it an exaggeration or completely made up? In fact, he wrote on his webpage, “I have tons of $2 bill stories that will make a whole chapter in my book someday”, but it never made it into iWoz. I actually considered saying, “I bought them from a guy that hawked basketball tickets,” since that's what he wrote on his site. But I just said, “The same place that you get them.” as I showed him the folder from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing I used to transport the bills. Then he said, “Ah! It's not a real one.”, referring to the fact that mine were not perforated. I told him that I didn't go that far. Then I showed him how I wanted it signed, across the back of all 4 bills. His signature would cover the engravings depicting the presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress. He signed it slowly and messy. It was obvious he rarely if ever signed his name that large.

As I was capping the marker, he said that I really should have a “real” one. Then as a joke I said, “Well… wanna trade? I'll trade you for a real one.” He flatly said “No.” I figured as much, but then he added, “But… I'll give you one.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the pad. The pad is real! But it didn't look like I expected. I thought it would resemble a legal pad, having a rigid cardboard back. But, as he described on this website (“I carry large sheets, folded in my pocket”), the sheets are gummed together at one end forming a pad and the bills are separated by perforations. The pad was folded accordion style along the perforations. He separated a sheet from the rest of the pad and presented it to me. Then he asked me if I wanted it signed as well. I said sure and he asked me how I wanted it signed. But then the Barnes & Noble guy interrupted. He said the line is really long and I was holding it up. So, Woz handed me the “real” sheet of bills unsigned. I shook his hand and I told him this is unbelievable.

After packing up my autographed bounty, I sat down in one of the many empty chairs in the front row to watch the advancing procession. A woman came over and asked me how I got Woz to give me all that. I shrugged as if I hadn't planned anything.

A few minutes later, someone at the front of the line presented his business card to Woz. And Woz reciprocated by gifting one of his laser-cut stainless-steel business cards. I stood up to get a better look. Then, to my astonishment, he started handing out business cards to other people on the line.

I needed to get my hands on one, but Woz was on a stage, 3 steps above the rest of the floor. In the excitement, I took a large step and propped myself on stage. Immediately, a horrified staff member called out, “Sir! Get off the stage!!!” A few giggles could be heard from the remaining crowd. I glanced at Woz. He ignored the situation. Embarrassed, I walked away, down the steps leading back to my seat. There I remained.

To the few people who stuck around to the very end, Woz gave out additional business cards. I had a second opportunity to get one. But I stayed in my seat. After acquiring multiple autographs and hopping on stage, I felt that I had done enough.

I paid for the signed books and I exited the store into the night.

Check out the cool stuff I walked away with from my encounter with the Woz. Click on any of the images below to zoom up:

Zaltair brochureBack of signed billsFront of signed bills

Front of perforated billsBack of perforated billsPerforations zoom up

YouTube member achillesap who apparently was there on that day posted Woz's entire speech broken up into 8 parts:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Several years later, I came across David Larsen's Vintage Computer Museum channel on YouTube. One of his videos mentioned acquiring the Zaltair brochure; so, I emailed him to ask if he could possibly post high resolution scans of the front and back. That conversation resulted in this blog post and these images:

Blue Zaltair brochure frontBlue Zaltair brochure back

A few other things were brought up in my conversation with David Larsen. First, since the World Wide Web was years away, brochures, magazine ads, trade shows and word of mouth were the only ways of learning about anything new in the field at the time. Handing out a fake brochure might seem like a strange prank today. But the impact in that era was analogous to hacking and altering a company's website.

Second, in his book, Woz summarized the ridiculous hyperbole in the brochure by saying, “I wrote copy that said, ‘Imagine a race car with five wheels.’ I made up the stupidest things any idiot dork would laugh at, but if they saw it in a nicely done leaflet with good fonts, they would think it's all real and legitimate.” That particular phrase never appears in the brochure. It's another brilliant and hilarious idea from Woz. Increasing the number of tires on a racecar clearly does not make it faster or better. And he went on in his book with, “Imagine something going faster than the speed of light. Imagine a banjo with six string.” Those are also phrases absent from the brochure that he made up later.

Third, the prank was probably very expensive to pull off. Nowadays, anyone can crank out a professionally looking brochure using common desktop software and a printer. But back then, it was a lot more difficult. The effort to make the brochure must have been incredible and it reveals how far Woz was willing to go to pull off a prank.

Forth, it is unknown how many people, if any, actually tried to trade in hardware as a result of the brochure. In his book, he mentioned that at the Homebrew Computer Club, someone called up MITS and discovered that the offer was not real. However, if hundreds of people received the brochure, you'd think statistically, someone would have tried. I guess we'll never know.

Finally, and related to the previous point, Woz pulled off the prank knowing that he would never get to see the outcome. He enjoyed setting the thing in motion even though he knew that the results, if any, would remain unknown. In his book and webpage, he discussed how it is important never to get caught when pulling off a prank, but he never mentioned this idea of doing something for which hilarity might ensue, but he'll never know if it actually did. Later, as his pranks evolved, he seemed to enjoy taking credit for them. His $2 bill pranks are a good example because he was directly involved and upfront in all of them.

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