College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Father-son ISU alumni spend careers pioneering technology

Brian and Wendell Sander
Brian Sander (L) and his father Wendell Sander (R) sit in Brian’s office at Apple Inc.

Whenever you click the volume up and down on your earbuds, you can thank two Iowa State University Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) father-son alumni for creating that technology. Wendell Sander and son Brian Sander worked together at Apple Inc. on this earbuds project when Brian was vice president and Wendell, his father, worked for him. But long before that, in the 1970s, Wendell was only the 16th employee at Apple, and he became the “Father of the Apple III” computer, released in 1980.

Apple ear buds
Apple earbud-style headphones, featuring the up-down volume control button, a technology pioneered by Wendell Sander and son Brian Sander.

Born and raised on an Iowa farm, Wendell came to Iowa State in the 1950s and earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (EE) in 1956. He went on to receive his master’s degree and Ph.D. in EE in 1962 and 1963, respectively.

“We got taught the fundamentals. In other words, how to solve problems,” Wendell said, about his time with the ECpE department. “But to solve problems, I needed tools, and they were really good at getting me the tools I needed.”

Those fundamentals provided Wendell the expertise and motivation to join Apple’s team. Back in the 1970s, Wendell approached Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Wendell demonstrated a Star Trek game on an Apple I computer to Steve.

“Wendell Sander…had become intrigued by Apple after adding some memory chips of his own design to the Apple I,” wrote Michael Moritz in the book “Return to the Little Kingdom: Steve Jobs, the Creation of Apple, and How it Changed the World.” “He wrote a Star Trek program to amuse his children, demonstrated it to Jobs while Apple was still in the garage, and eventually, after thirteen years with Fairchild [semiconductor company], decided to let his passion guide his star.”

Apple III computer
Apple III computer

At that point, Wendell knew he wanted to work with Apple, and he joined the company in 1977; he was hired to work on the Apple II, but he went on to design the Apple III.

“A brilliant hardware engineer by the name of Wendell Sander…won his way into Apple after impressing Steve Jobs with a souped-up version of the Apple I,” wrote Luke Dormehl in the book “The Apple Revolution: Steve Jobs, The Counter Culture and How the Crazy Ones Took Over the World.” “When he [Wendell] was asked to come up with a codename for the project…he decided to call it Sara, after his daughter.”

Wendell and Brian Sander
Wendell Sander poses with his baby son Brian at his own Ph.D. graduation in 1963.

Back to Wendell’s other child, Brian, and his graduation from Iowa State in 1985, when he received his bachelor’s degree in EE from ECpE. Brian went on to work for The Engineering Department, a Silicon Valley startup. There, he worked on a handheld computer project, which eventually led him to work on iPods at Apple, following in his father’s footsteps. Brian oversaw all systems engineering for iPods and met with Steve Jobs every two weeks. Brian was then promoted to Vice President at Apple, and Wendell came back to Apple, where he worked for his son on the earbuds volume control project. To this day, these same earbuds ship with all Apple computers, iPods and iPhones worldwide that use headphones. Wendell now has approximately 100 patents to his name.

“Looking back in retrospect, it’s an interesting experience of time to have gone through, and an interesting place to be in the middle of everything when it’s happening,” Wendell said.

Brian, like his father, credits his education at Iowa State for helping him reach success.

“It was really the theoretical foundation I got from the school that really became the foundation that helped guide me through the career,” Brian said.