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Nerding Out on the Making of the Apple I

A curator at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum reflects on an essential Silicon Valley artifact.

ON BOARD
The Apple I, the first Apple product, was hand-assembled by company founders Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne.

 

I get asked a lot about my favorite object in the collection at the museum. As a curator, I’m supposed to be neutral, but I will admit: I love the Apple I.

Dating back to his elementary school days, Steve Wozniak has been fascinated by the idea of creating a personal computer. His first device, the Cream Soda computer, was a simple computer system with no monitor or keyboard. Sadly, it was destroyed by the errant footstep of a local reporter covering the device. Woz eventually teamed with fellow Homestead High School graduate Steve Jobs, first devising an instrument to make illegal long-distance phone calls, and later debuting the prototype Apple I at the Homebrew Computer Club in 1976.

Woz offered the Apple I to his employer, Hewlett-Packard, who decided not to market it, leaving Woz free to develop and sell the system. It was one of the earliest personal computers, and users could buy it for $666.66. The Byte Shop in Mountain View placed an order for 100 units at $500 each. Jobs arranged for a $20,000 credit line and borrowed money from Elmer Baum—whose son, Allen, was a friend of Jobs’ and Wozniak’s—to allow them to fulfill the order in just 10 days. Buyers received a simple single-board computer with 4KB of RAM, as well as an operations manual. This left the users to provide displays, keyboards or storage devices, not to mention power supplies. The system, using an MOS 6502 microprocessor, only sold about 200 units, since users had to be very familiar with both hardware and software engineering to do anything useful with the computer.

Jobs, Woz and Ronald Wayne founded Apple as a full-fledged company April 1, 1976. Soon, Woz and Jobs bought Wayne out, and Woz designed a new system: the Apple II. The Apple II revolutionized the world of personal computing. Apple sold millions of units and gave thousands of machines to schools, introducing scores of school kids to computers for the first time. For his designs, Woz received several patents and later awards like the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Apple would revolutionize the personal computer industry many times, but it all began with the Apple I.

Apple I, on view at Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, 650.810.1010.
 

Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley

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