For Wozniak, McCollum’s influence made a significant impact on his life.
I look at my engineering career, first at Hewlett Packard and then at
Apple, the stuff I learned in high school didn’t really apply very much,
except for [what] we learned in John’s electronics class. Every single
day I put into practice the things I’d learned in high school
By teaching his students to build things
themselves, using pliers, wires, tubes and solder, McCollum inspired his
students to become first-rate engineers, technicians and designers.
[technical] skills allowed me to think of an idea, build it myself, and
not hand it off to someone else to build,” said Wozniak, noting that
this philosophy had stuck with him.
“At HP, I would solder every wire myself,” he beamed.
it came time to building the first Apple computer, Wozniak recalled his
high school electronics class, specifically remembering McCollum’s
lessons on signals for color television.
“That gave me the idea
of how to make color using a very inexpensive digital chip, instead of
$1,000 worth of normal parts,” he said.
“Really all my knowledge
would go back to that high school electronics course. John McCollum was
a turning point in a lot of people’s lives.”
Fernandez, who went
on to become a User Interface architect and independent consultant,
said his first lesson in UI design had come directly from McCollum after
showing him a homemade variable power supply.
The power supply had a
knob that could be turned to adjust the voltage, but McCollum saw a
flaw in Fernandez’ design; namely that the knob turned the wrong way.
asked him what he meant and he said ‘well, in yours when you turn
counter clockwise the voltage increases, but that’s wrong. It’s supposed
to increase when you turn it clockwise.’”
To illustrate his
point, McCollum told him to look at the volume controls on any stereo,
where clockwise rotation increased the volume.
“I just didn’t
know. I was interested in hooking up a circuit that was functional. That
was my first explicit lesson in UI, that there are established
conventions for making things usable.
Wozniak said McCollum’s
advice to always experiment, use care and test had always served him
well in life, as well as knowing that mathematics is always part of the
answer and that it’s crucial to enjoy what you do.
“You could go in
after class and he would explain things and try to help you understand
them,” said Fernandez, describing him as a “special” and “approachable”
teacher who would give kids as much help as they asked for.
That said, Fernandez acknowledged that McCollum was able to do what he did because of the environment he was in.
were in an area where there was a lot of interest in electronics and a
school that was able to set aside money for an electronics teacher,” he
As an electronics teacher, however, McCollum’s influence cannot be denied.
“He was a good man. And he’s just a tiny footnote in history and he deserves more, concluded Nelson.
It's wonderful to read about this sort of teacher. Everyone should have at least one such, in high school.
I was lucky enough to have had two such, one for general science, and the other for physics. Definitely both were "instrumental" to my education and to help solidify what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up. And I've been using what they taught me to this day.
Counter-intuitively perhaps, the general science teacher, who graduated with architecture degree from undergraduate school, ended up getting a PhD in ... art history! Obsessed with ancient Rome.
My two meanest teachers turned out to be the most influential. I didn't appreciate them all that much at the time, but I do appreciate them a whole lot now. Tough love is something teenagers don't really understand until it's too late I guess
I totally agree. Many if not most people who end up making a career in STEM fields can point to a mentor or teacher who inspired, nurtured and or "tortured" them with technical challenges!
You know, my true passion is really Medieval Military Engineering (which is another reason I find the present horrors in the Middle East heart breaking) so I'm glad your teacher was able to pursue his true passion.
My father and mother highlighted the job prospects of history majors so I did STEM in undergrad and grad school but some day....:)
I had the same experience with a recently retired faculty member who taught a data structure's class in undergrad (final project: write a garbage collector in C).
I hated every moment with him, yet a few years later I realized just how beneficial his instruction was.
Someone said: "if you are really loving what you are doing you either aren't working hard enough or are very very lucky!"
John McCollum went way beyond being a teacher and mentor. One summer he called me at home to spend a few days driving from company to company collecting whatever they were willing to donate, Wiltronics, SOS (Space Ordinance Systems), HP, and the few IC manufacturers in the area (1970).
He was instrumental in me getting my first job (at Intel working on the 4004 with Fedrico Faggin) while finishing my senior year.
It wouldn't be until years later that I'd come realize what a positive influence he had on my life, and The Steves, and so many others.
I'm the guy in the picture (not smiling) between Steve Jobs and Scott Guthrie.
Wow, awesome! So glad you found the article! I really tried to track John McCollum down (or his family) to show them the piece... but alas, after several people searches and lots of calls... I didn't manage. If you happen to know anyone from his family, please do send them the link... this guy was a true engineering hero and was a pleasure to write about!
Hi Sylvie, I attended Mr. McCollum's class in 1977 and 1978. I have a lot of fond memories of him and my time in his class. Back then he was in his 50's, so I think it is unlikely he is still alive at this late point, or at the least he's late into his dotage. The world needs more teachers like him, who went the extra mile to scavenge materials and share his passion for electronics with his students. I wasn't his best student, but I always respected him. We were sometimes able to distract him into telling stories, when he'd open up about his war experiences. One of my favorite quotes: Sub-chasing was endless hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I'm not sure what the terror was about, since he was in a plane dropping sonobuoys on subs, but anyway the quote stuck! Thanks so much for writing about this man and the electronics class that spawned a generation of engineers. He made a difference. -- EC
I'm glad I stumbled across this nice article about Mr. McCollum. BTW-everyone always called him Mac. I was in his class from '74-'76 and he later became good friends with my parents through the ham radio club. That photograph really takes me back, I remember sitting in front of that giant slide rule! Those were special times. Since someone asked, Mac passed away many years ago, it seems like it must be 20 years by now.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.