Unbelievably, Steve Wozniak wrote BASIC for the Apple computer in 1s and 0s

by Sam Lightstone

in Careers, Programming

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Sam Lightstone

Sam Lightstone

Distinguished Engineer at IBM
BIO: Sam Lightstone is Distinguished Engineer for relational Cloud Data repositories as well as co-founder of IBM's technology incubation initiative.He is author or several books, papers, and patents on computer science, careers, and data engineering.
Sam Lightstone

Programming is tricky stuff. Programming in Java, C, and other languages requires real skill and diligence. Programming in machine language requires an even more intimate connection between machine and programmer. But programming in 1’s and 0’s? Here’s what Steve Wozniak told me – in his own words (the full interview is published in “Making it Big in Software” ) :

“If you wanted to write a computer program like the programs of the Apple II, you would write your program with another computer that would compile the code and turn it into 1s and 0s that my microprocessor could understand. Well, I couldn’t afford this little program called a compiler. You could rent terminals and time-shared computer systems, and pay a certain amount of money per month, and you could actually write your programs. But since I couldn’t afford that, either, I wrote my programs on one side of a piece of paper by hand. Then I wrote the 1s and 0s that they would translate into on the other side, figuring it out from little cards I had about how the microprocessors work. No other project that large has probably ever been done that way. I still have the whole handwritten manual. But that made me very intimate with the code. Every little line mattered a lot, and it was a representation of myself, too. It had to be so perfect that nobody else could have thought of a better way. If I ever thought of any little section of code that had a slightly better way, I would change it and go that way. The lack of money actually helped lead to that because the lack of money forced me to be very intimate with the code I was writing. Then I would have to type the 1s and 0s into my computer. For BASIC, it took me 40 minutes. I’d turn on the power, type it in for 40 minutes, test that there weren’t any errors, and then go on debugging the next section. So it was like, no tools, no money—I did it all myself without tools, and that led to a very noticeable type of skill excellence.”

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