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Steve Jobs, Atari Employee Number 40

Steve Jobs was a brilliant thinker, an inspiration, and a leader, but back in 1974 he was an 18-year-old dropout soldering resistors onto Atari's arcade games to save up for a spiritual journey to India.

Frank Cifaldi

October 7, 2011

8 Min Read

Steve Jobs was called many things during his tragically short life -- innovator, entrepreneur, leader, father -- but back when he showed up at the Los Gatos doorstep of arcade game leader Atari in May of 1974, he was an unwashed, bearded college dropout more interested in scoring some acid than changing the world. As Atari alumni and Pong engineer Al Alcorn tells it, it was a pretty typical day at the company's then-modest warehouse digs -- walls lined with Pong and Pong-like cabinets, barefoot technicians reeking of pot after some early afternoon hot boxing -- when personnel handler Penny Chapler came into his office. "We've got this kid in the lobby," Alcorn recalls her saying. "He's either got something or is a crackpot." By this time Alcorn was used to unkempt guys wandering into the office looking to make some bread. In the greater Los Gatos area, engineers saw Atari as the cool place to work: there was no dress code, your bosses didn't care what you did in your offtime, and working on games was way better than the televisions and industrial equipment you might touch your soldering iron to at other companies. "He was this real scuzzy kid," Alcorn once told video game historian Steven Kent. "I think I said, 'We should either call the cops or we should talk to him.' So I talked to him." Jobs had no real engineering experience to bring to the table. He had a small amount of education from Reed College, but it was in a completely unrelated major, and he had dropped out early. But he had a way with words, seemed to have a passion for technology, and probably lied about having worked at Hewlett-Packard. "I figured, this guy's gotta be cheap, man. He really doesn't have much skills at all," Alcorn remembers. "So I figured I'd hire him." A Diet Of Air And Water Jobs was hired as Atari employee #40, as a technician fixing up and tweaking circuit board designs. One of his first roles was finishing the technical design of Touch Me, a simple arcade memory game similar to Ralph Baer's later Simon toy. He more than likely helped out on other games that year, such as racer Gran Trak 20 and the odd experiment Puppy Pong. But the young, abrasive Jobs didn't fit in. As the various stories go, complaints ranged from poor hygiene to an abrasive attitude to strange dietary habits. "He says if I pass out, just push me onto the workbench. Don't call 911 or anything. I'm on this new diet of just air and water," Alcorn recently recalled (though the story sometimes involves a jar of cranberry juice). Though he didn't have much personal interaction with him at the time, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell remembers the young Jobs as a "brilliant, curious and aggressive" young man, though very abrasive as well. Though Jobs would come to be praised as a brash, firm leader, at 18 this quality manifested itself in a negative way, making several enemies at the company by openly mocking them and treating them like they were idiots. Despite this, he was a promising employee, so Atari found a way to keep him on board. "I always felt to run a good company you had to have room for everybody -- you could always figure out a way to make room for smart people," Bushnell recently recalled. "So, we decided to have a night shift in engineering -- he was the only one in it." Spiritual Research After about five or six months of saving money and working the night shift (often inviting friend, collaborator and eventual Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak into the office to help him with engineering challenges), Jobs approached Alcorn to let him know he was quitting the company to go to India, meet his guru, and conduct what he referred to as "spiritual research." Alcorn turned his trip into an opportunity for the company: Atari's German distributors were having trouble assembling the games due to a problem with the country's incompatible power supplies. It was a relatively simple fix, but Alcorn's attempts to troubleshoot long-distance were proving fruitless. He needed someone out there to show them how to fix the problem. "I said Steve I'll cut you a deal. I'll give you a one-way ticket to Germany -- it's gotta be cheaper to get to India from Germany than it is from here -- if you'll do a day or two of work over in Germany for me," Alcorn recently recalled. As it turned out it would have been cheaper to fly out of California, but they didn't know that at the time, so Jobs accepted. He flew out and though he was able to fix the problem, it wasn't a joyous business trip for either party involved: vegetarian Jobs struggled to eat in the "meat and potatoes" country, and Atari's German distributors didn't know what to make of the odd foreigner. "He wasn't dressed appropriately, he didn't behave appropriately," Alcorn remembers. "The Germans were horrified at this." From there, Jobs went on to India as planned (there do not appear to be any historical accounts of what exactly he did during his trip, though "backpacking" and "acid" are common words used by those who have recounted it). He returned to Atari several months later with a shaved head, saffron robes, and a copy of Be Here Now for Alcorn, asking for his old job back. "Apparently, he had hepatitis or something and had to get out of India before he died," Alcorn told historian Steven Kent. "I put him to work again. That's when the famous story about Breakout took place." Jobs and Woz Break Out As the story goes, Atari suddenly found itself facing competition in the arcade video game industry it created, most of it from former Atari engineers who struck out on their own, stolen parts and plans in tow. No longer able to survive on various iterations of Pong, the company designed a single-player game called Breakout, which saw players bouncing a ball vertically to destroy a series of bricks at the top of the screen. The game was prototyped, though the number of TTL chips used would have made manufacturing expensive. The company offered a bounty to whoever was up to the task of reducing its chip count: the exact numbers seem to have become muddled throughout history, but the general consensus among those who are there said that the company offered $100 for each chip successfully removed from the design, with a bonus if the total chip count went below a certain number. The young Jobs, who in retrospect comes across as an excellent liar, somehow won the bid for the project. "Jobs never did a lick of engineering in his life. He had me snowed," Alcorn later recalled. "It took years before I figured out that he was getting Woz to 'come in the back door' and do all the work while he got the credit." Jobs convinced Wozniak to work on the game during his day job at Hewlett-Packard, when he was meant to be designing calculators. At night the two would collaborate on building it at Atari: Wozniak as engineer, Jobs as breadboarder and tester. Allegedly, Jobs told Wozniak that he could have half of a $700 bounty if they were able to get the chip count under 50 (typical games of the day tended to require around 100 chips). After four sleepless days that gave both of them a case of mono (an artificial time limit, it turns out: Jobs had a plane to catch, Atari wasn't in that much of a rush), the brilliantly gifted Wozniak delivered a working board with just 46 chips. Jobs made good on his promise and gave Wozniak his promised $350. What he didn't tell him -- and what Wozniak didn't find out until several years later -- was that Jobs also pocketed a bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. Though it's often reported that this caused a rift in their friendship, Wozniak seems to have no hard feelings. "The money's irrelevant -- and it was then. I would have done it for free," he said in a recent interview. "I was happy to be able to design a video game that people would actually play. I think Steve needed money and just didn't tell me the truth. If he'd told me the truth, he'd have gotten it." The Forbidden Fruit As this was going on, Jobs and Wozniak were designing a personal home computer during their offtime, which would eventually become the Apple I. Even Alcorn himself got involved, unofficially. "I helped them with parts, I helped them design it. It was a cool engineering project, but it seemed [like it would] make no money," he recalled. "He offered the Apple II to Atari ... we said no. No thank you. But I liked him. He was a nice guy. So I introduced him to venture capitalists." Jobs and Atari soon parted ways, and Apple Computer was formed on April 1, 1976. The rest, as they say, is history.

About the Author(s)

Frank Cifaldi


Frank Cifaldi is a freelance writer and contributing news editor at Gamasutra. His past credentials include being senior editor at 1UP.com, editorial director and community manager for Turner Broadcasting's GameTap games-on-demand service, and a contributing author to publications that include Edge, Wired, Nintendo Official Magazine UK and GamesIndustry.biz, among others. He can be reached at [email protected].

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