Ron Wayne: The Apple founder who missed out on a fortune

As a new film tells the story of a partner in a tech firm who quits and misses out on billions, Tim Walker meets the Apple co-founder Ron Wayne, who left the company after just 12 days – and so passed up on a potential fortune of $50bn

Larry David may be uncharacteristically hairy for his latest starring role, but he is still recognisably Larry David.

In Clear History, the grouchy American comedian plays a grouchy partner in a promising technology firm, who flounces out, missing a potential fortune because he can’t abide the name the CEO has chosen for their product, an electric car called “the Howard”. Soon the company is a squillion-dollar business, the CEO is Time’s Man of the Year, and David’s character, Nathan Flomm, is living modestly and anonymously in a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, cultivating a grudge.

The forgotten founding partner has become a recurring character in the history of Silicon Valley – think Eduardo Saverin of Facebook, or Noah Glass of Twitter – but few such figures left their flourishing start-ups voluntarily. The exception is 79-year-old Ron Wayne, on whom Flomm is very loosely based. Wayne was the third man in the room on the day Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created Apple Computers. If he’d held on to his 10 per cent of the company, he could be worth more than $50bn. Instead, almost four decades later, Jobs is an icon, Wozniak is fabulously wealthy, and Wayne lives on his monthly social security cheque in a small town not far from Las Vegas. Unlike Flomm, however, he insists he has few regrets.

Wayne, a self-taught engineer from Ohio, was already in his forties by 1975, when he was appointed chief draftsman for product development at Atari, the videogame manufacturer behind Pong. It was at Atari’s Silicon Valley HQ that he met a twentysomething Jobs, then a consulting engineer to the firm. They had shared interests, and Jobs was impressed by Wayne’s streamlining of the company’s internal documentation system. “We became fairly chummy,” Wayne recalls. “We used to go to lunch together and chat about all sorts of things.”

In March 1976, Jobs came to Wayne with a request. He and his friend Steve Wozniak had developed a working design for a personal computer, which Jobs was eager to turn into a business. But he was having trouble convincing the laid-back Wozniak not to use the circuitry he’d designed for Apple elsewhere. “He was trying to get Woz to understand that the circuit was proprietary to Apple,” Wayne explains.  “But Jobs was not the most diplomatic guy in the world.”  On 1 April, Wayne invited the two younger men to his apartment, where he’d agreed to explain the issue to Wozniak as “the grown-up in the room”. With his intervention, Wayne says Woz quickly came around. “Jobs was sufficiently impressed by my diplomatic skills that he immediately said, ‘We’re going to form a company’.”

Jobs and Wozniak both took 45 per cent shares in the company, while Wayne held the remaining 10 per cent – and thus the balance of power. Wayne even designed the firm’s first logo, which Jobs liked enough to have it blown up into a banner to hang over their very first convention booth. And yet, 12 days after that fateful meeting, Wayne quit Apple altogether.

Though he believed in the product and thought Apple would be a success, Wayne explains that he was concerned about the implications of failure. Several years previously, he had established his own company making slot machines for Las Vegas casinos, which had quickly gone belly-up. Moreover, as the only partner with real means – “Jobs and Woz didn’t have two nickels to rub together” – he was the one with the most to lose if Apple went the same way.

“I also realised that I was standing in the shadow of giants,” he says. “Those two guys had skills and capabilities far beyond anything I could hope to achieve, and I didn’t want to spend the next 20 years in a back office shuffling papers. So I went back to Atari, and off to the rest of my life.”

For Jobs and Wozniak, the rest is history. Wayne, meanwhile, passed the last 16 years of his career as the chief engineer of a small military electronics company. Upon retiring in 1999, he bought a large house in Florida, but soon afterwards his life savings were stolen from the safe in his garage. He was forced to sell the house and settle in Nevada. Until 1995, he didn’t even own a computer, and it took him until 2011 to acquire his first Apple product: an iPad, given to him by the organisers of a tech event in Brighton.

The last time Wayne saw Jobs was in 2000, when he was invited to an Apple event in San Francisco. Their conversation there was perfunctory. Wozniak, by contrast, was effusive when the pair last met, at a convention in San Jose. “He came across the room at me like a long-lost brother. Woz can approach me, but I can’t approach Woz. It’s simply the reality of how you deal with people when they’re phenomenally wealthy and you are not.”

Wayne nevertheless stands by the decision he made in 1976. “I separated myself from the enterprise,” he says. “Nobody ever diddled me out of anything. On several occasions over the next three years Jobs and I had lunch together, he offered me positions at Apple and I always declined.”

Today Wayne supplements his pension by dealing in collectors’ stamps and coins to his neighbours. His passion project is a new slot machine design, for which he’s been trying to attract funding for the past 10 years. His own gambling habit is modest, though. “It’s just a pastime,” he says. “I’m not a serious gambler – I’m too gutless for that!”