A gift from Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs returns home after 33 yrs from Kathmandu

Written by New York Times | Updated: Nov 22 2013, 18:49pm hrs
On a recent night at an elegant Beaux-Arts ballroom in San Franciscos financial district, Laurene Powell Jobs received an Apple Inc. computer with an unusually rich history. Around 1980, Powell Jobs husband, Steve Jobs, donated the computer to a non-profit organisation, the Seva Foundation, to help the group manage data from its efforts to restore sight in the developing world.

The non-profit was now giving the computer an Apple II that spent the last 33 years in Kathmandu, most of it packed away in a hospital basement there back to Powell Jobs and her children from her marriage to Jobs.

The Apple II would be little more than an artefact in the history of a non-profit if it was not also a rare symbol of the charity of Jobs, a man celebrated for his vision and leadership in the technology industry but who was routinely criticised before his death for his lack of giving. Some other billionaire technology innovators have given away huge chunks of their wealth most notably Jobs long-time rival, Bill Gates. But Jobs shied away from philanthropy, at least of the public variety. Although his wife has long been an active benefactor of various causes, Jobs was portrayed as somewhat disdainful of philanthropic endeavours by his authorised biographer, Walter Isaacson.

That perception of Jobs has troubled Larry Brilliant, a long-time friend of the Jobses who, as a young physician, co-founded Seva in 1978. I do want to counter the meme that he was disinterested in philanthropy and things for the greater good, said Brilliant. It wasnt true.

Brilliant has a close-up view of the intersection between technology and philanthropy. He is the president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a non-profit created by Jeff Skoll, a co-founder of eBay. Before that, Brilliant ran Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search giant.

He also had a unique perspective on Jobs, first meeting him in India in the early 1970s when an enlightenment-seeking Jobs showed up with bare feet and a shaved head at the Himalayan ashram where Brilliant was living. Brilliant went on to oversee a smallpox eradication programme in India for the World Health Organisation. Jobs came back to the US and started Apple.

Jobs got back in touch with Brilliant in the late 1970s, after reading a magazine article about his smallpox efforts in India. By then, Jobs was on his way to becoming a millionaire through Apple, and he wrote a $5,000 check to Brilliant so that he could create the organisation that became Seva, which planned to make cataract surgery widely available to the poor.

While the amount from Jobs was small, that first spurt of money was meaningful for the organisation, Brilliant said, and had a galvanising effect on other donors, helping it to quickly raise a total of $20,000 in a few weeks. Seva wouldnt exist without that grant, he said.

A letter from Jobs to one of Brilliants Seva co-founders around that time bears the letterhead of Apple Computer with one of its earliest corporate addresses on Bandley Drive in Cupertino, California. I wholeheartedly accept your invitation to become a member of SEVA, reads the letter, signed by Steven Jobs, with the first letter of both names in lowercase. Please let me know of any other specific opportunities where I can be of service.

He gave the organisation the computer around 1980, to help Seva enter and analyse survey data from its eye surgeries in Nepal. Jobs threw in a copy of an early spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, and an external hard drive that he boasted was the largest of its kind.

Youll never be able to use all the memory, Brilliant recalled Jobs telling him. Its five megabytes!

The computer also played an accidental role in the evolution of online communities. When a helicopter ferrying several ophthalmologists went down in a remote area of Nepal because of an engine failure, Brilliant used the Apple II to set up an electronic chat using a primitive modem to help figure out how to salvage the helicopter. Participants around the world, including the maker of the helicopter, Seva colleagues in Michigan and WHO offices, were linked together through their keyboards.

Powell Jobs accepted the computer with her son, Reed, at a ceremony commemorating the organisations 35th anniversary. Seva says it has helped restore sight to 3.5 million people in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet, India and other countries since it was founded.