Steve Jobs: A Few Memories

I’m so sad this evening—as millions are—to hear of Steve Jobs’s death. Scattered over the last quarter century, I learned much from Steve Jobs, and was proud to consider him a friend. And indeed, he contributed in various ways to all three of my major life projects so far: Mathematica, A New Kind of Science and Wolfram|Alpha.

I first met Steve Jobs in 1987, when he was quietly building his first NeXT computer, and I was quietly building the first version of Mathematica. A mutual friend had made the introduction, and Steve Jobs wasted no time in saying that he was planning to make the definitive computer for higher education, and he wanted Mathematica to be part of it. I don’t now remember the details of our first meeting, but at the end of it, Steve gave me his business card, which tonight I found duly still sitting in my files:

Steve Jobs business card

This essay is also in Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People »

Over the months after our first meeting, I had all sorts of interactions with Steve about Mathematica. Actually, it wasn’t yet called Mathematica then, and one of the big topics of discussion was what it should be called. At first it had been Omega (yes, like Alpha) and later PolyMath. Steve thought those were lousy names. I gave him lists of names I’d considered, and pressed him for his suggestions. For a while he wouldn’t suggest anything. But then one day he said to me: “You should call it Mathematica”.

I’d actually considered that name, but rejected it. I asked Steve why he thought it was good, and he told me his theory for a name was to start from the generic term for something, then romanticize it. His favorite example at the time was Sony’s Trinitron. Well, it went back and forth for a while. But in the end I agreed that, yes, Mathematica was a good name. And so it has been now for nearly 24 years.

As Mathematica was being developed, we showed it to Steve Jobs quite often. He always claimed he didn’t understand the math of it (though I later learned from a good friend of mine who had known Steve in high school that Steve had definitely taken at least one calculus course). But he made all sorts of “make it simpler” suggestions about the interface and the documentation. With one slight exception, perhaps of at least curiosity interest to Mathematica aficionados: he suggested that cells in Mathematica notebook documents (now CDFs) should be indicated not by simple vertical lines—but instead by brackets with little serifs at their ends. And as it happens, that idea opened the way to thinking of hierarchies of cells, and ultimately to many features of symbolic documents.

In June 1988 we were ready to release Mathematica. But NeXT had not yet released its computer, Steve Jobs was rarely seen in public, and speculation about what NeXT was up to had become quite intense. So when Steve Jobs agreed that he would appear at our product announcement, it was a huge thing for us.

He gave a lovely talk, discussing how he expected more and more fields to become computational, and to need the services of algorithms and of Mathematica. It was a very clean statement of a vision which has indeed worked out as he predicted. (And now it’s nice when I hear through the grapevine that there are all sorts of algorithms central to the iPhone that were developed with the help of Mathematica.)

A while later, the NeXT was duly released, and a copy of Mathematica was bundled with every computer. Although the NeXT was not in its own right a commercial success, Steve’s decision to bundle Mathematica turned out to be a really good idea, and was often quoted as the #1 reason people had bought NeXTs.

And as a curious footnote to history (which I learned years later), one batch of NeXTs bought for the purpose of running Mathematica went to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland—where they ended up having no less distinction than being the computers on which the web was first developed.

I used to see Steve Jobs with some regularity in those days. One time I went to see him in NeXT’s swank new offices in Redwood City. I particularly wanted to talk to him about Mathematica as a computer language. He always preferred user interfaces to languages, but he was trying to be helpful. The conversation was going on, but he said he couldn’t go to dinner, and actually he was quite distracted, because he was going out on a date that evening—and he hadn’t been on a date for a long time. He explained that he’d just met the woman he was seeing a few days earlier, and was very nervous about his date. The Steve Jobs—so confident as a businessman and technologist—had melted away, and he was asking me—hardly a noted known authority on such things—about his date.

As it turned out, the date apparently worked out—and within 18 months the woman he met became his wife, and remained so until the end.

My direct interactions with Steve Jobs decreased during the decade that I was for all practical purposes a hermit working on A New Kind of Science. For most of that time, though, I used a NeXT computer in almost every waking hour—and in fact my main discoveries were made on it. And when the book was finished, Steve asked for a pre-release copy, which I duly sent.

At the time, all sorts of people were telling me that I needed to put quotes on the back cover of the book. So I asked Steve Jobs if he’d give me one. Various questions came back. But eventually Steve said, “Isaac Newton didn’t have back-cover quotes; why do you want them?” And that’s how, at the last minute, the back cover of A New Kind of Science ended up with just a simple and elegant array of pictures. Another contribution from Steve Jobs, that I notice every time I look at my big book.

In my life, I have had the good fortune to interact with all sorts of talented people. To me, Steve Jobs stands out most for his clarity of thought. Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.

I myself have spent much of my life—in science and in technology—trying to work in somewhat similar ways. And trying to build the very best possible things I can.

Yet looking at the practical world of technology and business there are certainly times when it has not been obvious that any of this is a good strategy. Indeed, sometimes it looks as if all that clarity, understanding, quality and new ideas aren’t really the point—and that the winners are those with quite different interests.

So for me—and our company—it has been immensely inspiring to watch Steve Jobs’s—and Apple’s—amazing success in recent years. It validates so many of the principles that I have long believed in. And encourages me to pursue them with even greater vigor.

I think that over the years Steve Jobs appreciated the approach I’ve tried to take with our company. He was certainly always a great supporter. (Just tonight, for example, I was reminded of a terrific video that he sent us for the 10th anniversary Mathematica user conference.) And he was always keen for us to work first with NeXT, and later with Apple.

I think Mathematica may hold the distinction of having been the only major software system available at launch on every single computer that Steve Jobs created since 1988. Of course, that’s often led to highly secretive emergency Mathematica porting projects—culminating a couple of times in Theo Gray demoing the results in Steve Jobs’s keynote speeches.

When Apple started producing the iPod and iPhone I wasn’t sure how they would relate to anything we did. But after Wolfram|Alpha came out, we started realizing just how powerful it was to have computational knowledge on this new platform that Steve Jobs had created. And when the iPad was coming out, Theo Gray—at Steve Jobs’s urging—insisted that we had to do something significant for it.

The result was the formation last year of Touch Press, the publication of Theo’s Elements iPad ebook, and now a string of other iPad ebooks. A whole new direction made possible by Steve Jobs’s creation of the iPad.

It’s hard to remember tonight all the ways Steve Jobs has supported and encouraged us over the years. Big things and small things. Looking at my archive I realize I’d forgotten just how many detailed problems he jumped in to solve. From the glitches in versions of NEXTSTEP, to the personal phone call not long ago to assure us that if we ported Mathematica and CDF to iOS they wouldn’t be banned.

There is much that I am grateful to Steve Jobs for. But tragically, his greatest contribution to my latest life project—Wolfram|Alpha—happened just yesterday: the announcement that Wolfram|Alpha will be used in Siri on the iPhone 4S.

It is somehow a quintessential Steve Jobs move. To realize that people just want direct access to knowledge and actions on their phones. Without all the extra steps that people would usually assume have to be there.

I’m proud that we are in a position to provide an important component for that vision with Wolfram|Alpha. What’s coming out now is just a beginning, and I look forward to what we will do with Apple in this direction in the future. I’m just sad that Steve Jobs will now not be part of it.

When I first met Steve Jobs nearly 25 years ago I was struck by him explaining to me that NeXT was what he “wanted to do with his thirties”. At the time, I thought it was a bold thing to plan one’s life in decades like that. And—particularly for those of us who spend their lives doing large projects—it’s incredibly inspiring to see what Steve Jobs was able to achieve in his small number of decades, so tragically cut short today.

Thank you, Steve, for everything.

177 comments. Show all »

  1.  

    That is the most beautiful letter. Thank you.

    Reto
  2.  

    Amazing

    Vinicius0881
  3.  

    Increíble, yo he usado Mathematica por años y no conocía esta historia. Estoy muy triste por la perdida de uno de los hombres que cambiaron el mundo. Hay algo que sin duda es cierto, su legado durara siempre y estoy orgulloso de utilizar un software que de alguna u otra forma tiene parte de Steve Jobs. R.I.P. Steve Jobs

    Saludos desde Guayauil-Ecuador

    Xavier Cabezas

    Xavier
  4.  

    It is very interesting to read about Steve jobs.. RIP Steave jobs

    Balaji
  5.  

    Very thoughtful and beautiful post and tribute

  6.  

    Thank you for sharing the origin of Mathematica and the story with Jobs.

    Julius Huang
  7.  

    I’m sad too, more than I would have thought, and I didn’t even have the chance to meet him. These are very meaningful thoughts you’ve shared, thanks.

    Daniel Bigham
  8.  

    Very nice tribute and interesting history.

    Kim Pillischafske
  9.  

    A wonderfully gracious tribute to Jobs. Thanks for sharing your personal insight into your relationship and doing it in a way that gives us a feel for Jobs as a friend.

    Bart Hanlon
  10.  

    Steve has changed the whole world for the better. It’s amazing to me that all of us here at Mathematica, through you Stephen, are connected to him by only one degree of separation.

    Ryan Smith
  11.  

    Thanks for sharing such a moving and useful tribute. It’s like loosing a family member.

    Stephen Carter
  12.  

    What an incredibly well written and thoughtful letter.

    mark ptak
  13.  

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Although not unexpected, I am very sad about Steve’s passing and I so much appreciate your poignant remembrances.

    Siri + Wolfram|Alpha is phenomenal.

    Lila Roberts
  14.  

    Thanks for your letter. We need to inspire others to be like you and Steve.

  15.  

    Great tribute and inspiring post. Thank you for sharing.

    Dragan L
  16.  

    Thanks for sharing that, it’s a fascinating insight

  17.  

    It was the most elegant piece of information i have about Steve. Thanks for sharing ur moments with such a wonderful technologist man

    Shahid
  18.  

    A Very nice letter about a friendship between two smart men making a change in the way the world sees everyday things.RIP Steve Jobs.

    Siva
  19.  

    Thank you for sharing.By the way,Mathematica is really beautiful.

    Jack Lin
  20.  

    I love Mathematica and I loved Steve. After this post, everytime I use Mathematica, It will remind me that his insights are still there with us.

    Bhavesh Chauhan
  21.  

    Stephen, I knew you would write. Thank you.

    Fred Meinberg
  22.  

    A very nice tribute to a great man. Thank you.

    praveen
  23.  

    Thank you – thank you.

    Soren
  24.  

    Indeed the integration of wolframalpha in iphone Siri is the greatest combination ever.

  25.  

    you are awesome stephen….you have shown such a nice way to get ease in studies….thank you…

    uroosa arif
  26.  

    One of the best tributes I’ve read today. With each one I keep coming back to a line from It’s A Wonderful Life… “One person touches so many lives and without that person so many tings change”. Although I never met him, I know y life was changed because of his decisions.

    Mac
  27.  

    Thanks for writing this; it brought tears to my eyes.

  28.  

    Perfect.

    Doug Pasnak
  29.  

    thanks. It’s wonderful to read this

    Josh
  30.  

    Finally, the dots connected. I never knew the Two Great person ever connected so. and thanks to share the part of life of Steve Jobs with us.

  31.  

    really nice article. next was sweet :D

  32.  

    This is a wonderful letter and fitting tribute tona truly great man. Thank you for this and thank you to Steve for all that he has brought to this world – you’ll be truly missed.

    Simon Tudor
  33.  

    This is a wonderful letter and fitting tribute tona truly great man. Thank you for this and thank you to Steve for all that he has brought to this world – you’ll be truly missed – thank you.

    Simon Tudor
  34.  

    Stephen,

    This is a wonderful remembrance. Wide ranging, and deeply touching.

    Just as you closed your letter, upon learning of Steve Jobs’ passing (via Twitter on my iPad), my initial reaction was of overwhelming gratitude. I bought my first Mac in 1986, and it changed my life. I’ve used Apple exclusively since then, and I can only imagine the influence of Steve Jobs and Apple growing in my life going forward.

    One other observation comes to mind, and you demonstrate it here so well, Stephen. In addition to the profound manner in which Steve Jobs has, through Apple and a myriad of other ways, changed the world materially, perhaps his greatest legacy might well be the millions of people he has inspired, and will continue to inspire going forward.

    Thank you, Steve Jobs!

  35.  

    Thank you for providing a wonderful insight into Steve Jobs (and Mathematica).

    Albert
  36.  

    Thanks for your Steve Job stories

    George
  37.  

    mmm .. Mathematica on the NeXT platform was an utter joy to work with – the simplicity and elegance of the layout on a simple, clean, uncluttered desktop (loved the single cable for power and signal to the monitor) was a thing of beauty .. I regret leaving mine on a street corner out in Seattle (didn’t feel like lugging it all the way back to NYC)

    Jon E
  38.  

    Thank you for this powerful, beautiful tribute.

    Clay
  39.  

    Steven, you had a privilege to knew such a great man in person. And it’s also great thing to live in society that recognise talented individuals and gives them opportunity to succeed. Great people and societies they emerged from changed the whole world in a way no one could imagine half a century ago. Legacy that is left behind made new standards in every aspect of human life. Our civilisation should be grateful to have people like Steve Jobs, working inexhaustible for decades on behalf of entire society through their advanced ideas. Those people are jewels of our own kind, motors of the presence and pledges of better future.

  40.  

    Beautiful, Stephen.

    Elle Destree
  41.  

    amazing, thanks for sharing all this

  42.  

    Thank you

    ruffneckc
  43.  

    Thanks for sharing this Stephen. It’s a unique and rare insight into the life and the mind of a man that has helped changed for the better the world we live in. I’m a fan of Mathematica and of Apple and this a memorable blog post.

  44.  

    Thank you for sharing these memories about Steve! I helps baring the sad news …

    Luis
  45.  

    What a poignant memories – Thank you for sharing

    Neil Evans
  46.  

    Thank you for your heartfelt blog on Jobs’s death. I hope Gates reads it and realizes that you like Jobs are more of an innovator than the entire Microsoft worldwide conglomerate. Please accept my sympathies on the loss of your friend. Jobs was a true titan, changing how we interact with of our everyday universe. Steve Jobs once wrote, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” http://pokerknave.com/files/2011/08/steve-jobs.jpg

  47.  

    Very beautiful letter. Thanks for sharing us your impressive stories.

    Xiaoqi Wang
  48.  

    I’m excited to see where the Apple + Wolfram|Alpha collaboration will lead. Siri is an extremely exciting technology that finally realizes the dream of conversational computer interaction. I only hope that Apple’s greatest days are ahead, not behind.

  49.  

    I enjoyed reading this tribute to Steve Jobs, and to his most unsung accomplishment, the NeXT Computer. I was a NeXT developer, and have retained all the NeXT systems I have used over the years. They all still run early versions of Mathematica, and to this day I marvel at the power of the tool that you created. I’ve used Wolfram|Alpha on my iOS devices for years now, and I did notice that Siri was utilizing Alpha in the background, too. What an incredible accomplishment to come from the synthesis of Wolfram Research and Apple, Inc. I look forward to seeing the video you want to post, and I thank you for your kind words about Steven Jobs. He, and you, are remarkable people. Never stop innovating!

  50.  

    Really wonderful post. I remember loading up Mathematica on my NeXT Stationturbo. It really opened my eyes to an incredibly powerful future.

    Thank you Stephen

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