Meet Bill Atkinson from our 5-part series on Silicon Valley Pioneers. Atkinson was part of the team that created the original Macintosh at Apple computers. Atkinson’s contributions include Hypercard, dropdown menu, Macintosh paint and other innovative features for Apple’s User Interface. Atkinson is an entrepreneur, author and a nature photographer.
In Part-1 of our conversation Atkinson shares what he was studying before he joined Apple Computers in 1978 and why he chose to drop out of his PhD program.
Atkinson grew up in Los Gatos in Silicon Valley when it was known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” “I did not grow up in Silicon Valley, I grew up in Santa Clara Valley,” he says. “I was not a computer science major at school,” he adds. “I always viewed computers as a tool.”
Atkinson studied chemistry for his undergraduate and went on to do his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Washington, Seattle. One day he got a call from his former university teacher Jeff Raskin to come and visit Apple Computers. Atkinson had neither heard of Steve Jobs nor did he know anything about Apple Computers when he got that call from Raskin. He declined Raskin’s invitation to visit Apple. Finishing his PhD was his priority. Raskin did not take no for an answer and instead sent Atkinson a roundtrip ticket with a note: “Just visit for a weekend. No strings attached.” Atkinson decided to visit Apple and shares: “Steve Jobs spent the entire day recruiting me. He took me around and I met all 30 (people at Apple).” And Jobs told him: “Come to Apple, where we’re inventing the future and you can help to invent it.”
Atkinson went home in turmoil after his visit to Apple and how Jobs said he can help invent the future. He had spent years studying to be a neuroscientist and was not sure if he wanted to quit his study. He dropped out of his PhD program, joined Apple in 1978 and helped invent the future in personal computing technology. Atkinson’s father was not very happy with his decision since he had “co-funded 10 years” of his study.
Tune back in for Part-2 of our conversation with Atkinson.
This is part-1 of our 5-part series with Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, who worked at Apple in the 1970s and went on to co-found General Magic along with Marc Porat. General Magic was a spin-off from Apple, whose goal was to create a personal communicator device for the post-computer world. This was the most famous startup that you have never heard of is how the startup is described by some observers.
This conversation is part of Season 4 of our Silicon Valley Pioneers series that spotlights the role of “hidden figures” in Silicon Valley. This 5-part series is sponsored by Zoho.
This interview aired and continues to air on PBS, Public Media and cable stations in the US.
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