Bob Bishop

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.

Source: Juiced.GS Magazine at https://juiced.gs

Interview date: April 22, 2009

Interview audio:

Interviewer: Mike Maginnis

Bob Bishop, along with Steve Wozniak, co-founded Apple Computer, Inc.'s R&D lab.  Mr. Bishop wrote the first video games for the nascent Apple II computer, and went on to develop groundbreaking graphics routines that were utilized in such diverse places as CBS Television's popular Tic Tac Dough game show.  He recently took time to talk with Juiced.GS writer Mike Maginnis about those heady days and to fill us in on what he's been up to lately.

Mike Maginnis: How were you first introduced to Apple and their computers?

Bob Bishop: I saw an ad in a magazine back around 1975 for the Apple-1 computer. They only made about a hundred of them or so, and I got interested in it, so I went up to Palo Alto and I knocked on Steve Jobs' door. He wasn't home at the time, but his mother and stepfather were there and they expected him back any minute, so they had me come in and sit down. About five minutes later, Steve came walking up and we got introduced, he took me out to the garage in the back and showed me the Apple-1. He had some trouble getting it to work—he had a keyboard and a monitor and he would type some stuff in but he couldn't quite remember how he was supposed to do stuff because Woz hadn't quite showed him everything. But I saw enough to be interested because I saw a lot of potential, so I ended up buying one—not from him, but from another computer store that was being started in Southern California. That's where I was living at the time, and one of my friends was starting up a new computer store with a couple of his associates. So I became their first customer and bought an Apple-1 from them.

Maginnis: What was it like to meet Steve Jobs way back then?

Bishop: He was about twenty years old. He was wearing sandals, had a scruffy little beard—I can't remember exactly, it was a long time ago.

Maginnis: What drew you to the Apple as opposed to the other hobbyist computers available back then, like the Altair and the IMSAI?

Bishop: Well, the other machines had a minor flaw: you had to put them together. You had to have a soldering iron and all kinds of stuff. Not that I was adverse to that, because I used to do soldering and stuff when I was at the University of Wisconsin. I worked in the physics department as an undergraduate, and I built amplifiers and things, but I just didn't feel like going through all that trouble to make a computer. I wanted one that was already put together, and the Apple-1 was the first one that came close. You wouldn't call it put together by today's standards, though; it was really just what you would call a motherboard today. You still had to get a power supply, case, keyboard, monitor, and all the other stuff, but it was still more put together than the Altairs and the IMSAIs of those days.

Maginnis: Do you still have your Apple-1?

Bishop: No, I traded it back to Apple to get my Apple II. When the Apple II came out, the Apple-1 was only $666, and the Apple II was around $1300. Back in those days, I couldn't afford that, so I went up to Apple and I met with Mike Marrkula and Steve Wozniak—this is when they were still in a two-office building. They weren't even in their main facility yet. I went up there and I explained my problem to them. Steve and Mike went off into the back room and they came out a few minutes later and said "Tell you what, we'll make you a deal. You give us back the Apple-1 and a certain amount of money, and we'll give you a brand new Apple II." That was a great deal because, heck, the Apple-1 was obsolete and the Apple II had all these neat capabilities. So of course I went for that. And it's a good thing I did, because if I hadn't, I probably wouldn't have gotten an Apple II at all, and I'd still be working out in the work-a-day world.

Maginnis: According to your Web site, you created the first four graphics games for the Apple II in about six months. That's a pretty amazing feat, especially considering how new the machines were at the time. Surely there weren't a whole lot of resources or documentation available. What kind of challenges did that present for you?

Bishop: Those were the fun days. I wish that could be the way it is today. I wish they made the iPhone with the same philosophy with which they made the Apple II. The Apple II was a completely self-contained computer: it had everything built in. You didn't have to go out and buy a software development kit and another computer to program it, like you do with the iPhone. Everything you needed was in the Apple II, so it was a fun thing to play around with. Plus it had a very limited amount of memory and limited capabilities; it wasn't too hard to experiment and find out how to make it do things. That's what I did. I got Apple II serial number 13, so I didn't have too many predecessors competing with me. One of the things I started playing with was hi-res graphics. There was absolutely zero documentation about hi-res graphics, so I played with it and found out what pixels turned on when I stored what hexadecimal numbers at what locations, and I was able to put together a map of the graphics screen, which was kind of bizarre. It wasn't linear; it was really screwed up, but I somehow figured it all out and I started working on a game. By the time the sun came up the next day, I'd made the very first game, which I called Rocket Pilot.

Maginnis: Did you have any previous programming experience?

Bishop: I'd been programming for quite a few years, but only on big mainframe computers, using high-level languages like FORTRAN. When the Apple II came out, I had to do everything in assembly language. I'd done some assembly language programming also on PDP-8 and PDP-11 computers, but the assembly language on the Apple II was a completely different animal, so I had to start over.

Maginnis: What kind of learning curve were you looking at? Was the Apple II something you just picked up easily, or did it take you a while?

Bishop: Originally, I programmed everything in machine language, which basically meant putting binary numbers into the computer. But since the computer had only 16K of memory, it didn't take a whole lot to fill up the memory in a hurry, especially if you're doing graphics, because the graphics screens used up about half the memory right there. The room that was left over for software was kind of minimal anyway, so you had to use it efficiently. You couldn't use a high-level language and really get anything done, because it would have used up too much of the resources. So most of the original stuff I did, I did in assembly language, which is one step above machine code.

Maginnis: So you skipped BASIC all together.

Bishop: Well, there was a BASIC that was available—there was Integer BASIC. The Apple-1 didn't really have any BASIC except the BASIC that you could buy as an option, because the original Apple-1 only had 4K of memory, and to run BASIC, you had to buy an additional 4K, for a total of 8K. That was barely enough to run Integer BASIC, which was the only BASIC available at that time. When the Apple II came out, they had Integer BASIC already in ROM and as the Apple II Plus came out, they had Applesoft BASIC, which supported graphics. But by then I'd already

devised all my own graphics routines.

Maginnis: It sounds like you really enjoyed pushing the envelope as much as you could.

Bishop: That was the whole fun! If there's no challenge, then why bother? Trying to find something that can't be done and doing it gives me more of a thrill than doing something that anybody can do.

Maginnis: You designed APPLE-TALKER and APPLE-LISTENER specifically to bring human speech generation and recognition capabilities to the Apple II. What was your motivation for doing so, and what obstacles did you encounter?

Bishop: Well, that opens up another whole topic: the cassette ports. The cassette ports were originally designed to store programs, so you could save and load programs that you or somebody else wrote. The only way you could load software into the computer was through a cassette tape. That was the original philosophy behind the cassette ports, but I experi-mented with them and found that they could do other things. They worked by detecting zero crossings of a sound wave. If you took a tape recorder, and you put in anything—not just a program, but music—you could play the music into the cassette port, and if you sampled the cassette port and toggled the built-in speaker in phase with what was being seen on the cassette port, you could actually hear the music coming through the speaker. And that, of course, worked for human speech as well. But instead of just merely reproducing it through the speaker, since it's a computer, you could store that information in memory and play it back later. So that was the birth of APPLE-TALKER. You could record your voice into the computer then play it back later through the built-in speaker.

Maginnis: Tic-Tac-Dough was a famous game show in the 1980s that used nine Apple II computers during production. What was your involvement with that?

Bishop: CBS Television contacted me because they needed someone who knew how to write computer programs for the Apple II. They had bought nine Apple II computers that were supposed to run the monitors for this new Tic-Tac-Dough game, and they had a master (non-Apple) computer that was going to send com-munication signals to each of the Apples to tell them what to display on the screens. They needed to put up a giant 'X', a giant 'O', a dragon, the names of the categories, whatever it is they wanted—somebody had to do that. And so they elected me! It was a fun little thing. I'd never done anything in television before, so it was my first chance to actually go behind the scenes and see what goes on in a TV station.

Maginnis: How long did you work on that show?

Bishop: It was kind of a one-shot deal that lasted a few months. There wasn't that much to do—it was just a matter of programming the computer to do what they wanted. But it was fun because, as you know, when you first write a program, it never quite works right the first time, and even when you think you've got it debugged, it doesn't quite work. I remember we were doing the prototype and the emcee, Wink Martindale, would say, "Now, we'll look at the categories," and nothing would happen. Who's to blame? Everybody's pointing the finger at somebody else. Usually, it turned out it wasn't my fault, though!

Maginnis: That's a relief! Another celebrity you got to meet was Steve Wozniak. How did that happen?

Bishop: I met Jobs long before I met Woz. I think I met Woz the first time when I went up to Apple to trade my Apple-1 in to get the Apple II. I may have met him before that, but I can't remember right now.

Maginnis: And how did Woz happen to invite you to join Apple’s R&D group?

Bishop: I'd been doing lots of stuff on the Apple, and of course I guess Apple knew about the stuff I was doing. In fact, I later found out from Jef Raskin, who was working at Apple at the time, that every time I'd send a new cassette tape up to Apple with one of my games, everybody would close down the entire engineering department and sit and play my game all afternoon! So, they knew about me but they never bothered contacting me. One day, I went up to the West Coast Computer Faire, up in San Francisco—I was living in the Los Angeles area at the time—and while I was there, Atari contacted me. They wanted me to come for an interview. I said okay, and I went up to talk with them. They showed me around the labs and everything. In fact, while I was walking through the lab, I noticed a cartridge sitting on one of the lab benches. It was labeled "APPLE-TALKER"! Anyway, they eventually made me a job offer, but I didn't want to leave NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where I was working and was happy, so I turned Atari down. About a week or two later, they came back and offered me more money. I thought, they must really want me badly, so I gave my

notice to JPL and accepted the Atari offer.

Three days later, I got a phone call from Apple. They said they wanted to talk to me. I said, "Well, I've already accepted a job offer from somebody else," and they said, "Yeah, we know all about it, but we want to talk to you anyway." So they flew me up, and that's when I talked with Woz and Mike Markkula, the president of the company, and Tom Whitney, the executive vice president. The four of us sat around all Saturday afternoon. They were answering anything I wanted to know. They held no secrets back; any question I asked, they gave me answers to. They wanted me to come work for them, so they topped Atari's offer. And that's how, after working there for a few years, I was able to retire.

Maginnis: What projects did Apple assign to you?

Bishop: I worked on several projects including the Apple III and demo programs. We had a show in New York where we had exhibits showing what the computer could do. One of the exhibits I worked on was using the Apple computer to generate an oscilloscope-type effect, using a special interface card that could digitize speech through a microphone and display it on the Apple II screen in real time as an oscilloscope display. It won a prize at the show for being one of the best exhibits, and we all got taken out to dinner. That was one of the things I worked on, but for the most part, I was free to work on just about anything I wanted to. In fact, Steve Jobs would occasionally stop me in the hallway and say, "Hi! How are things going, are you happy here?" And I'd say, "Yeah, it's okay." And he'd say, "Good!" and he'd walk on. He didn't care what I did, as long as I didn't go to the competition.

Maginnis: How long were you actually with Apple?

Bishop: I had a three-year stock option. That was the incentive for going there, because I had a sizable percentage of the company. Not real great, but enough to be able to retire on. After two years went by, Apple started getting wise and said, "Hey, wait a minute. When we gave this guy the stock option, Apple was like 19 cents a share. Now it's up in the twenty dollar range. We could save ourselves a lot of money if we get rid of this guy." So they had the infamous "Black Wednesday", when Mike Scott went around and fired forty of us, including the executive vice president Tom Whitney and me. To make it look legitimate, they included secretaries and janitors and everybody, just so it didn't look obvious. But their main motive was to get rid of the stockholders who had too much stock. So I

was there about two years.

Maginnis: That must have been an unpleasant way to leave the company.

Bishop: Yeah, but the very next day, Gene Carter, the vice president of sales, called me and asked if I would come work for his department.  And I said, "Oh good! I get to keep my stock option then!" And he said, "Nope, sorry." So, there was no doubt they got rid of me just to save the stock.  It's not that they wanted to get rid of me, because they immediately wanted me back.

Maginnis: What was it like to watch the evolution of the Apple, all the way back from the Apple-1 through the IIGS, considering how large a part you played in Apple's early years?

Bishop: When the company first started out, it was one building on Bandley in Cupertino, and shortly afterward, they opened up a second building, Bandley 2.  They moved the engineering group to Bandley 2, and Bandley 1 was left to do administrative things and manufacturing and so on.  In fact, when I was there, Steve Wozniak and I were the entire R&D group for the entire company.  They had only about a hundred or so employees, so Steve and I constituted the entire R&D group.  It was amusing—a few years ago, I went back down to Apple, and I saw they have a whole building dedicated to Apple R&D now!  Steve and I have been replaced by a whole building.

Maginnis: It looks like you continued to use the Apple II family all the way through the Apple IIGS.

Bishop: Yeah, I worked on the IIGS. I never got a IIc, but I've done things on the IIc. I stayed with the Apple II and then into the III slightly. In fact, I was there when the Apple III was being designed, which was frustrating because they kept changing the design. I was trying to write software, and they changed the design so my software wouldn't work; I’d redo the software, and they'd change it again. Fortunately, the Apple III never really caught on anyway, so it never went anywhere. It was about that time the Apple Macintosh group was starting to design their new Macintosh computer.

Maginnis: Were you involved with the Macintosh development at all?

Bishop: I refused to get involved. It wasn't my kind of computer. See, the Macintosh computer was like the iPhone of today, except it didn't have any of the whiz-bang features. The original Macintosh was a black and white machine, compared to the Apple II, which had color. The Apple II had six colors, at least. The Macintosh was black and white. The Apple II, you could program; the Macintosh, you couldn't program. It had no built-in programming capabilities. You had to buy all the software from the company. It was totally, totally the antithesis of what I wanted to work on. I don't want to work on a computer if I can't program it—and the Macintosh was not user-programmable. So I never got involved in the Macintosh and I never have since.

Maginnis: What are you doing these days?

Bishop: Well, I've done a lot of Internet games. You may have heard of Internet riddles, online riddles. I did the very first one of those. I created a game about six years ago called Cybertrek. It was an online adventure game where you had to solve puzzles to get from one Web page to the other, and that idea has since caught on. Probably the most famous riddle wasn't one I developed, but that came after mine. It was a game called "This Is Not Pr0n", and that's what's always cited as an example of an online riddle. But it came after mine. I've done about fifteen or so online riddle games. I've created a new programming language called SIMPLE, which is based on the original Apple philosophy of having an easy to use programming language. I've been teaching SIMPLE at several of the schools in the area. I've written books, magazine articles, I've been a science and technology radio talk-show host.

Maginnis: As Mr. Logic, right?

Bishop: Yeah. That's what I use in my games, too. I write my games under the name of Mr. Logic.

Maginnis: Are you still actively doing the show?

Bishop: No. I did that for about ten years when I lived in Santa Cruz, but I occasionally still go on—I've been on several times since I moved here to Paradise. Now, I'm kinda sloughing off a little bit. I'm not as active as I used to be in doing all this computer stuff. I figure, there's a life to live, I might as well live it while I'm still alive.

Maginnis: Sure. So, if you had to sum up Bob Bishop in one statement, what would it be?

Bishop: Heh, I give up! What would it be? I don't know, that's a tough one. I'd have to think about that!

Visit Bob Bishop's homepage at

http://bob-bishop.awardspace.com/