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The Original Macintosh:    44 of 128 
I'll Be Your Best Friend
Author: Andy Hertzfeld
Date: August 1979
Characters: Burrell Smith, Andy Hertzfeld, Wendell Sander, Steve Wozniak
Topics: Origins, Personality, Hardware Design, Apple II
Summary: Burrell Smith was creative in more than just engineering.
Andy and Burrell in January 1983

Toward the end of my first week as an Apple employee in August 1979, I noticed that someone had left a black binder on my desk, with a hand-written title that read, "Apple II: Principles of Operation". It contained a brilliant, concise description of how the Apple II hardware worked, reverently explaining details of Woz's epic, creative design hacks, in a clearer fashion than I'd ever read before. I didn't know who left it there, but the title page said it was written by "Burrell C. Smith".



Later that day, in the late afternoon, I was approached by a young, animated, slightly nervous guy with long, straight, blond hair, who entered my cubicle and walked right up to me.

"Are you Andy Hertzfeld? Wow, it's amazing to meet you. I read your articles in Call A.P.P.L.E. and Dr. Dobb's. Apple's lucky they got you to work here. I want to shake your hand."

With exaggerated formality, he extended his right arm stiffly, almost in a parody of a handshake offer. "I'm Burrell. Burrell Carver Smith. Pleased to meet you. I wrote that manual I left on your desk.", he said, pointing to the black binder on my desk. We shook hands and then he suddenly turned around nervously and darted off, without explanation. "See you later!", he said, without looking back.

My cubicle in Bandley 1 was in the hardware engineering section, since my first project was writing the firmware for the Silentype thermal printer. It was across the aisle from Wendell Sander's office. Wendell was the designer of the Apple III and an extremely brilliant and seasoned engineer, who used to design RAM chips for Fairchild and understood the Apple II hardware design inside out. All the other hardware engineers on the team, except for Woz, usually came to Wendell for advice.

I began to notice that Burrell, even though he was supposed to be working in the service department in a different building, often hung around outside of Wendell's office, sometimes for hours at a time, waiting for Wendell to have a free moment, so he could ask him to verify his latest insight about the Apple II timings. Sometimes, when Wendell was busy, he would try the insight out on me instead, or discuss a fine point of the Apple II firmware. Soon, we started to occasionally go out for lunch together.

The first time we went to lunch, I found out that Burrell's creativity extended beyond his engineering work. He would often try to convince our waitress to concoct variations of the standard fare on the menu, thinking of something different every time.

For example, after he successfully persuaded a waitress to divide his pizza toppings into thirds, he asked her to do fifths the next time. Or he would sometimes try to order mixed sodas as if they were cocktails, in ever varying proportions, like three quarters Coke, and one quarter Sprite. Often, the waitress would balk but Burrell was sometimes charming enough to eventually convince her to comply. He would also obsess on certain foods, becoming fixated on Bulgarian Beef sandwiches from Vivi's for a while, and then a Pineapple Pizza phase (see Pineapple Pizza), evolving to his most enduring favorite, sushi, which provided a new range of interesting choices and combinations.

Burrell also had a distinctive way of expressing himself, applying technical jargon to ordinary life (like a situation that was "meta-stable", or someone being a "state machine"), mixed with a dash of baby talk (like adding plurals to people's names). An attractive woman was referred to as a "good prototype", or a "good proto" for short. Burrell had a great sense of humor and periodically performed hilarious impressions of everyone else on the team, caricaturing their personality quirks with an incisive phrase or nickname (see I Invented Burrell). He also liked to make fun of various language conventions; for example, if he was pleased with new software, he'd say "Happiness comma software".

One of his favorite expressions was "I'll be your best friend". He offered "best friendship" for a wide range of activities, like making some change in the software for him or getting him a Coke from the gas station. "Best friendship takes place", he would declare if pleased with the results. He also had a habit of reducing things to initials, like "B.F.R." for "Best Friendship Relationship".

Once, right after Burrell conferred best friendship upon me, I heard him offer best friendship to someone else, for a different favor. "Wait a second", I challenged Burrell, "How can you give out best friendship to someone else? There can be only one best friend at a time, can't there?"

Burrell had a quick reply, delivered with a smile. "Of course there can be only one "best" friend at a given instant of time. But best friendship relationships may be highly dynamic. The average length of a best friendship is three to five milliseconds. So there's no problem in having a new B.F.R. a second or two later."

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13 Comments     
I've been so thrilled to read these stories on the early days of the Mac. I've searched the web for more details on a lot of the people involved with the Mac project, to see what they've done since the Mac. One person I can find really nothing on is Burrell Smith - anyone have any ideas?
Sure it´d be very nice to know where are that people and what they´re doing on these days. I became very impressed about Burrell Smith but could find even nothing about him beyond his role as co-founder of Radius.
Burrell left Radius in the fall of 1988, with enough money to retire from the computer industry. He is still living in Palo Alto, and I run into him occassionally, but he is a very private person, so I can't talk about what he's up to these days.
I've read through these articles several times and find them priceless. I only wish that more of the original group would publish articles. Isn't there any way that you could persuade Burrell to provide his perspective? Or the Steves?
Ditto John Spear. This is the stuff of legend, only it's real. If you find the others, and they need help writing, I'm a published author and would be thrilled to help tell more of the Apple story and more importantly, the stories of the people who MADE Apple. My email is swwrites@hotmail.com.
So, um... How is Burrell? Having had my own battles with depression and mental illness, I don't think things like this should be ignored or act like nothing is going on. He doesn't look well. Years and years ago I would see him late at night at the local 7-11. He was buying handfuls of candy. I was buying beer. I kinda knew we were both stocking up for the long night ahead. That was probably late 1980's. I asked Tina awhile back and she something to the effect of, "when the pain of his nerousis gets worse than than pain of what started it, he do something about it". I don't know. I feel sad when I see him. He doesn't know me, so I don't say anything. Anyway, Burrell, my heart goes out to you. Is there anything we can do for you?
I really find this anecdote interesting because I have actually known other people who have a similar best friend habit. It must have been pretty hilarious to work with Burrell. The creative freedom you guys had back then seems amazing. It would hard to find that today. I do hope Burrell is doing well and that he still lending his genius to the technology world.
Thanks for posting these stories, Andy. I read them last Christmas while avoiding work before the Christmas break, and I've re-read them this year under the same circumstances. You convey the magic and energy of the time beautifully. Even with all the down sides and politicking and general crap attached to the job, it still sounds like you and the rest of the Mac team experienced an enviable few years.
hello from France; sorry for my broken english. As there seem to be no other way to deposit a general commentarie of the whole site, I drop it here on the first page... I just want to thank the writers of these stories, and the creator of this site. I am a great fan of everything Apple was, is ,does, will be, and this of course means the company AND the crew who run it. I collect apple hardware since 1989 and read all i can find about Apple history. So this site has become my relief moment at work... ;-)
I would love to read "Apple II: Principles of Operation" by Burrell Smith mentioned in the anecdote above. Is there any way this could be published on this web page?
I'm reading Andy's book. It is insanely awesome! And Burrell was one of the guys who impressed me very much. He was really funny! Maybe I should study his B.F.R theory and put it into application. :)
Great writing Andy, I love it. I guess visitor numbers will increase since October 5th 2011 but on the other hand only visitors who look beyond Steve. Burrell intrigued me, and no doubt many other people too, from the moment I read Walter Isaacsons words telling about Burrell having gotten schizophrenia. I was already dreaming about inventing future technology when I was 16 and experimenting with electronics in 1983. Alas I wasn't born in the States and even less around Silicon Valley. I always hoped to be able to assist engineers with the boring stuff while they could focus on their important stuff and having my eyes and ears wide open (and my mouth shut ;)) after graduating as professional bachelor in electronics specialized in microprocessor and telecommunications technologies in 1988. Alas Belgium (Europe) lacks the open minded hiring policies. I started my career in 1992 at Philips factory as pre-sale engineer and what I saw there was hilarius! I was hoping to join the 16-9 widescreen R§D which was happening. The factory qualities were deplorable, damaged esd floor protection, scrap tables with always ar least 1 wheel rolling crazy because of misbalanced table constuction. The tables seemed to originate from preschool classes. The manufacturing was terrible with far separared final assembly and PCB assembly lines. By the time a misalligned cooling plate causeing shortcuts got discovered at the final assembly line it had a full trolley of 100 PCB's with missalligned components. And no, they wouldn't listen to my suggestions as a pre-sale repair engineer since that wasn't my job. That's Belgium... tech ego's galore.
I was probably wrong into believing what Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs biography) wrote about Burrell in the first pages... you can't just write someone has this or that mental condition because when you might not have the best diagnose you just might walk around with the wrong stigma for the rest of your life and find yourself acting on the wrong presumptions of people calling themselves experts.