Remembering the Apple I

It wasn't Apple's greatest computer, or the most interesting one. But it was the one that started it all -- 35 years ago this month.

Looking Back 35 Years

Thirty-five years ago this month, a couple of geeky young members of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club founded a company to sell a new type of device–which almost nobody had heard of yet–known as a personal computer. The geeks were Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the computer was the Apple I, and the rest is history. Only two hundred or so Apple Is were built; maybe a quarter of them survive. But it was an significant machine in its day, and everything about it–how it was designed, how it was sold, how it was marketed–foreshadowed Apple devices to come, all the way up to the iPad.

Return with us now to April 1976, won’t you?

A Single Board

The Apple I was a single-board computer back when that meant something, with built-in circuitry to add a video monitor and a keyboard, two useful peripherals that weren’t standard fare at the time. It was an early expression of Steve Wozniak’s brilliant design technique–both minimalist and powerful–which was exhibited in its full glory in the groundbreaking Apple II. And the fact that it was supplied without a case didn’t seem the least bit weird in 1976.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Make Your Own Case

Since the Apple I was originally sold without an enclosure, different units wound up in different cases. Here's the Apple I that now lives in the Smithsonian. According to Woz, its snazzy wooden case was built by the father of early Apple employee Randy Wigginton. Randy's dad fabricated cases at the request of the Byte Shop, the first computer store to sell Apple systems. (More on it in a moment.)

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Apple I In Cake Form

In 2006, the Joy of Tech guys celebrated Apple's 30th anniversary by, appropriately enough, baking a cake! It just happened to be one that was an amazing replica of the Smithsonian's Apple I. They not only photographed the historic dessert for posterity but posted the recipe. (Most of the keys are Dentyne Ice Mints, but the space bar is a Kit Kat.)

(Photo from Geek Culture)

The Real First Portable Computer

Did I recently say that 1981's Osborne 1 was the first portable computer? I lied. Back in 2008, Technologizer history guru Benj Edwards wrote about this Apple I, which was built into a suitcase, making it a cinch to take on the road. One minor catch: It didn't have a display. But the labels, apparently produced with a Dymo label-maker, are a nice 1970s touch.

(Photo from Vintage Computing and Gaming)

A Magical and Revolutionary Device

I'm not sure who wrote Apple's ad copy in the Apple I era, but this wordy page reads a bit like a Steve Jobs proto-keynote in textual form. It says that the Apple I is the first computer of its type, claims that setup is "hassle free," and marvels at the fact that the system provides 4KB of RAM for only $666.66. That's not that different from Apple's iPad mantra: "A magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." And hey, the Apple I, like the iPad, didn't come with a keyboard as standard equipment.

Note that this ad doesn't call it the Apple I. It's just the Apple Computer -- the first and last one that required no model name.

(Image courtesy of Apple II History)

Apple I Flyer

This Apple I flyer brags about the machine's cassette interface -- which was designed to work with plain ol' tape recorders -- and, in a manner reminiscent of Apple's current iPad marketing, boasts that it stands a mere 2 inches tall. It says that the Apple I was available at "almost all major computer stores" and uses Apple Computer's original -- and, as far as I'm concerned, best -- logo, featuring Sir Isaac Newton siting under an apple tree. (It was designed by Ron Wayne, who's become at least sort of famous for being Apple's forgotten third founder.)

(Image courtesy of Apple II History)

The Byte Shop

Here's the Byte Shop, the pioneering Mountain View, California computer store whose order for fifty Apple Is was instrumental in turning Apple Computer into a real company. In 2007, I chatted via e-mail with the store's founder, Paul Terrell, who remembered telling the two Steves that he'd sell the Apple I only as a preassembled system that was more or less ready to use, not a kit that the buyer had to assemble. Good advice; it's hard to believe that today's MacBook Air would be quite as successful if we had to put them together ourselves.

Sadly, this historic spot is now an adult video store.

The Creators

Photos of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, like photos of the Beatles, can be divided into eras based on the quantity of facial hair on display. This photo of the Apple I's contemplative creators seems to date from when the machine -- shown here with keyboard but sans case -- was new. Note the reference to the Byte Shop on the display.

A Little Later On

This photo of a slicked-up, less shaggy, slightly dressier Woz and Jobs brandishing an Apple I clearly dates from the period when Apple had become a bigger business: Apple IIs are visible in the background. Woz is wearing an Apple employee badge, but I'm more impressed by his Apple belt buckle.


Until I saw this April 1977 price list, I hadn't realized that the era of the rudimentary Apple I and far fancier Apple II overlapped: Apple offered both systems for awhile. By this point, the I's famous list price of $666.66 had fallen to $475, or twenty-five bucks less than Apple sells an iPad for today. (Of course, $475 was a lot more in 1977 than it is today -- it was about $1700 in 2011 dollars.)

(Image courtesy of Apple II History)

At the Computer History Museum

If you're lucky enough to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View -- not too far from where the Byte Shop once stood -- you can see its wood-cased Apple I in person. If you'rereally lucky, as I was, you might even get to hear Woz tell you about it himself.

The Future Is Apple II

For all its ingenuity, the Apple I was lovably amateurish. But a year after it debuted, Apple took a great leap forward with the Apple II -- a machine that was backed by serious Silicon Valley money, housed in a case that still looks good thirty-five years later, packed with sexy features such as color graphics, and marketed with polished ads such as this one. It's hard to imagine the dude in this photo piecing together his own Apple I. But if he's still around, it's easy to envision him perusing the news on an iPad as he sips his morning coffee.

More Apple nostalgia on Technologizer:

Apple Patentmania: 31 Years of Big Ideas

Inside the Macintosh Portable

The Patents of Steve Jobs

Apple Rumors: The Early Years

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