John McCollum: HS teacher taught electronics with love
12/17/2012 10:00 AM EST
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.