Like most schools in Silicon Valley, Homestead High School – alma mater to Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak -- offered students a plethora of elective classes to round out their mandatory curriculum. While autoshop and woodwork were both popular choices, one elective in particular sparked the creative interest in Cupertino’s kids, and that was John McCollum’s electronics class.
A retired navy pilot, McCollum was a serious, white shirt, white tie kind of teacher, with a passion for nurturing young talent.
“He didn’t go by the rules most people go by as teachers” said Steve Wozniak. Bill Fernandez, Wozniak’s younger neighbor and introductory link to Steve Jobs described McCollum as a “very straightforward” teacher who “insisted on a reasonable amount of discipline in the class.”
Writing his own course material, McCollum used a highly practical approach to electronics, expecting every child to use a slide ruler and be adept at scientific notation. He also ensured that oscilloscopes and other equipment peppered every workbench in the room, most of which originated from McCollum’s scavenger hunts across the valley.
“He had a great lab. The high school was very well equipped. Metal shop, wood shop, auto shop and a little TV studio,” Fernandez recalled, noting that McCollum kept his electronics Alladin’s cave locked from prying eyes and grabbing hands.
"I don’t know that I ever got to go in there but I knew he had a place where he kept all the parts that we used. Then there was an area in the corner of the room where there were large bins that were for surplus electronics. It was open season on that. We grabbed things and tore parts off to use them in our projects,” he said.
“I learned such valuable things in his class. The learning got through to me so well. It all made sense. Everything we learned about in that electronics class, we built,” said Wozniak, proudly, adding that it had been McCollum who first encouraged his love of practical jokes.
“We built things that you could really show off. We learned [things] that gave me a lot of insight into pranks I could play on people who didn’t know electronics,” he said.
Such pranks included building devices like a police siren, using circuitry, a battery and mini speaker or TV jammers, which were Fernandez’s specialty.
“I was really good at making them small and compact. A little cube shaped circuit that would plug on top of a single battery, with a little antenna. It could be used to jam out TV signals. When we were making TV jammers, I made the best one,” he said.
Indeed, so good was Fernandez’s jammer that when he left for Colorado state university, Wozniak took one with him, which he used to mercilessly terrorize fellow dorm members, making them contort into all kinds of shapes in front of the jammed TV before releasing the signal, fooling them into thinking their body position had cleared the picture.
“John McCollum loved jokes and he loved whenever students played jokes,” said Wozniak.
McCollum’s love of childish pranks, however, did not extend into a love of youth culture music, with another student from the early 1970’s noting the teacher’s visceral hatred for the synthesized sounds of musicians like Jimi Hendrix.
“We learned about distortion and how horrible the rock musicians music was with all the distortion. I remember that being discussed in class,” said Don Nelson, a 1972/3 alumni of McCollum’s course.
“He was very focused on the technology, I don’t recall him being an entertainer. Some teachers would be more like entertainers, keep the kids laughing and tell all kinds of stories. He was all business,” said Nelson, describing McCollum as “a very conservative, older guy.”
Indeed, McCollum was a divisive figure, respected and revered by students, but disliked by many of his professional colleagues who found him somewhat overbearing.
“McCollum was such a talker that most of us would walk out of prep period meetings with the principal if he was in attendance,” recalled Larry Vosovic, a former English teacher at the school, noting that McCollum “would digress and dominate the discussion.”
McCollum’s single-mindedness, however, seemed to spring from the attitude that electronics was a way of life. So much so, in fact, that as a teacher he would go to great lengths to secure internships in local companies for his students.
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Steve Jobs (far right) in John McCollun's pioneering electronics class.
“He would make connections with engineers and get permission for a student to go down to a company and actually do some work there and meet the engineers and see how it’s done,” said Wozniak, who himself had benefited from such an internship.
“I actually got to go down and program a computer,” he recalled excitedly, noting that in those days “computers were well ahead of rocket science.” The experience had a marked effect on Wozniak, who said “it’s really great when a teacher can find you extra education outside of school. Normally no teacher ever does that.”