In December 1978, engineers at Atari unveiled an 8-bit personal computer called the 800. Like the Apple II, which had been released the year before, the 800 was designed to appeal to a new breed of American consumer—the casual computing enthusiast. It was a brick of a machine, ten pounds and cream-colored, with a raised keyboard and a pair of cartridge slots under the front hood. Among the earliest adopters was Ed Zuckerberg, a young dentist from Brooklyn. Ed and his wife, Karen, had recently purchased a home in the Westchester town of Dobbs Ferry, 25 miles north of the city. Using a custom modem provided by Citibank, which held the mortgage on the house, Ed found he could make his payments electronically. “This is going to revolutionize things,” he told Karen. “You’re crazy,” she scoffed. “I can write three checks in three minutes. You can write one in an hour.”
The dial-up was painfully slow, but Ed was persistent. He had always loved machines—he believed he had a natural feel for them. He did some rudimentary basic coding with the tutorial that had shipped with the Atari, and when IBM opened a string of retail stores around the U.S. in the early eighties, Ed promptly laid down ten grand for a new and more powerful computer, the IBM XT, and accompanying accessories. He installed the machine in his office.
“Oh, it was awful,” he tells me. “Close to a second mortgage and barely any active memory.” But he has no regrets: The limitations of the IBM taught him what he wanted in his next machine. “My lesson learned was not to be afraid to dabble in technology early,” he says. “Not to be one of those guys stuck waiting.”
On a cold day last month, I visit the Zuckerbergs at their home. Compared with neighboring Scarsdale, with its rambling mansions, Dobbs Ferry is a relatively diverse community, which prides itself on the open-mindedness of its population—“Berkeley on the Hudson,” the town supervisor, Paul Feiner, is fond of calling it. The Zuckerberg residence sits on the base of a small slope on the east edge of town, not far from the thrum of the Saw Mill River Parkway. Out front, there are black shutters, a terraced lawn, and a metallic signpost depicting a dentist and an assistant hunched over a supine patient. Ed Zuckerberg works out of a dental office around the side. In town, he is known as “Painless Dr. Z.”
The place has changed little in the decade since Mark Zuckerberg left home, first for boarding school and then for Harvard, where he founded the world-altering web company that will soon make the entire Zuckerberg family unfathomably rich. The living room is sparely appointed and carpeted in a soft shade of blue, and the bulk of the decorations are family portraits—in one, Mark and his three sisters, Randi, Donna, and Arielle, pose like spies, their fingers folded into the shape of pistols. The kitchen is small, sunstruck, cozily familiar. Downstairs, a row of theater-style seats faces a large television and a plastic drum set from the video game Rock Band. I ask Ed if he is any good. “Terrible,” he says, grinning.
Zuckerberg is short and densely built, with soft almond eyes and a stare he often holds one beat too long, as if he is attempting to stare directly through you. Despite his bald pate, the 57-year-old is notably youthful. He is wearing a blue button-down tucked into Calvin Klein jeans, a thick leather belt, and a smart pair of loafers. A gold medallion of a triggerfish is nestled in the collar of his shirt. “In Hawaiian,” he tells me, “you’d call it a humuhumunukunukuapua’a.” He says it quickly and melodically, like a song, and one he’d probably been singing since he picked up the medallion, years ago, on a snorkeling trip to Hawaii. At the age of 6, his youngest daughter, Arielle, could pronounce the entire word without once stumbling, Ed recalls proudly. Occasionally, she’d perform the trick for his patients. “Boy, they got a real kick out of that.”
Ed leads me down a short, airless hallway and toward his offices. He is chattering happily—about the New York Giants (triumphant) and the New York Yankees (less so) and the weather (a little nippy). He’s like your standard-issue eighties dad, giving a tour of his comfortingly ordinary home. The one with the really sweet new video games.
We stop in an examination room that gleams with white machines. Ed points to a pair of recent acquisitions: an E4D Dentist, which has a diamond-drill attachment to quickly mill crowns for root-canal patients, and a Strato 2000, a low-radiation, panoramic X-ray machine. Zuckerberg estimates the E4D had cost him $125,000, then launches into an elaborate primer on tax breaks and deferred-payment schemes and the wonders of modern dental technology. “Bottom line,” he says finally, clapping his hands together, “I’m not going to lose any money on this.”