When my daughter, who now is 23, was in middle school, it was time for the annual science fair. We were old hands by this time at science fairs having been through it a couple of times with her older brother. We had all the science project suggestion books (this was pre-Internet, if such a time really existed) and started leafing through them, disappointed that we had in two years already exhausted the best ideas as the dog-eared pages attested to.
We wanted to do something beyond prototypical erupting volcanoes and how well do plants grow kind of project. Something that was a bit out of the box, and my daughter wanted something that wasn’t the typical “girl” project. We hit upon the idea of learning, really learning, how a computer works.
In the basement was an original Mac Plus we hadn’t used for some time. Our daughter had a fascination for this little beige box and what made it tick. So off we went to the library to find everything we could on Mac computers. Since we didn’t want this project to be one of those “Daddy did it for me” projects, we made out daughter, all of 11 years old and with a pixie hair cut, get a book from the library, find the right Apple manuals and figure out what all those mysterious black rectangles did on that single big, green mother board we would find.
Then with a little homework on “Daddy’s” part, we figured out how to wire up LED’s to a battery box and a switch. Together we drew the circuit diagrams we needed and shopped for the parts at the local Radio Shack. Now came the hardest and the most fun part of the project. My daughter and I bravely pried the case of that old Mac apart-being carful not to touch the power supply. We managed to pry up the motherboard with the help of a couple screwdrivers.
We then began to drill holes near the important parts we had identified from our many diagrams we found in the library books. I did the first hole and my daughter, holding the drill awkwardly with both hands, did the rest as I pushed the motherboard against the tip of the drill, figuring better my fingers at risk than hers. Together we soldered in the colored LED’s next. I held the wires and solder together as she did the rest. I had her twist the wires together after she watched me do it and in no time we had all the leads running to this little wooden box that we had commandeered as a control panel.
It was only then, after we were proudly surveying our work, nursing a couple of minor burns, that my daughter noticed some weird scratches in the back of the case.
We investigated and figured out that when you held it just right you could tell those weird scratches were actually signatures, signatures of the whole Apple team that had been responsible for making the early Macs. We later found out that when the first Mac was done, they had a big party and Steve Jobs made everyone sign a piece of paper. It was that paper he took and without telling anyone, made a plate which would inscribe all their names on every Mac off the assembly line.
I remember my son walking up to us just after we had noticed the signatures and in his best know it all 12-year-old voice said, “Yeah it’s cool, even Steve Jobs signed it though he didn’t actually make it.”. A family discussion ensued about what it really meant to make something and how, in the end, it was so right for Steve Jobs to sign this thing. He had unveiled so many mind blowing, technical breakthroughs and he was the man who was really behind the Mac. Only now do I realize how that “Man behind the Mac” had taught us something else again…not just how computers operate but how it was recording history and what pride and team work were all about.