Thirty years ago on January 24, 1984, the world was introduced to Macintosh … and 1984 wasn’t like 1984.
One of the memes going around today was “What was your first Mac?” As I spent a few minutes reminiscing, I thought I might as well write about it my history with Mac and, more generally, Apple.
It’s the late 70s (probably ‘78, maybe ‘79) and I was in junior high and nerdy as all get out. The local Teacher’s College had their library open to the general public where you could sign out media and spend some time using the computers. They had a small assembly of Commodore PET 2001s.
But what was really special was that they also had two Bell & Howell Apple][+s.
I’ve never seen the black B&H Apple][s again, but they were quite striking to 14-ish-year-old me. The library policy was that you had to prove yourself as responsible on the PETs before being given access to the Apples. So it began. I started getting cassettes (for the PETs; the Apples had disk drives) for various games and generally getting familiar with these intriguing new machines. Before log, though, I was getting the BASIC interpreter and laboriously typing in code from Dave Ahl’s “Creative Computing”.
In time I was allowed to use the Apples. Then shit got real. I soon tired of BASIC. They had the 6502 Assembler on disk so I taught myself that.
Things get a bit hazy with time then. I know I spent plenty of time with those computers. In 1981 Sinclair released the ZX81 (Timex-Sinclair 1000 in the US) and I jumped at the chance to get one in kit form for a mere $80.
This kept me busy hacking for quite a while. Of course, I learned Z80 assembly and wrote code. I also hacked the hardware, adding a full size mechanical keyboard, hacking on various sound generation circuits including the MOS Technology 6581 pilfered from a C64, and the Texas Instruments SN76477. But I still wanted an Apple ][ of my own.
While I was in high school, Apple ][ clones are in vogue (thanks to Chinese entrepreneurs with more balls than ethics), including bare circuit boards and cases. So with whatever little income I had, allowance-based no doubt, I started gathering the bits and pieces I needed: a case, a keyboard, power supply, blank circuit board, resisters, capacitors, sockets, and finally chips. As I recall, the dynamic memory chips were the last (and most likely also the most expensive). My parents were amused, and maybe a little concerned, when given the choice between memory chips and driver’s insurance for my high school graduation gift, I asked for the memory with no hesitation.
So now I had my own Apple][+, somewhat illegitimate though it was. I wasted no time (unless you count day long Loadrunner marathons a waste of time) and taught myself more languages. Pascal, Forth, and C come to mind. I eventually started hitting against the limitations of the ][+ (48K of RAM … yes Kilobyte … that’s a millionth of a Gigabyte. By comparison, the iMac I’m writing this on has almost 700,000 times as much RAM in it.) and bought a shiny, new //e with 128K and a slightly better CPU. Life went on, and I continued to hone my skills.
I spent too many years (a few before, but largely all of my undergrad) with an IBM PC clone (MS-DOS) about which I now feel much shame and self-loathing.
I remember when the Mac was announced. I remember the “1984” Superbowl ad. I lusted after the original Mac. I have the Byte issues that did a deep analysis of it. I got a copy of Inside Macintosh and devoured it.
But I never had a Mac. Much later, while in grad school (early 90s), I picked up a used MacPlus and had some fun with it for a while. I borrowed a Centris of some sort from work for a while. I never lost the desire for a Mac. Other than those two short flirtations and a Newton MP100, it took a while to get an Apple product back into my life.
Rest assured it wasn’t all DOS & Windows: I moved on to Linux at the first opportunity. I remember installing Slackware on a mini-laptop off of 100 floppy disks. Oh, those were the days!
In 2004 I found myself joining up with Thoughtworks for a while. They were still in a rather primitive phase at the time, requiring everyone to use Windows and Java. They’ve since made incredible strides forward. After parting ways with them I found myself consulting on a Java project and in need of a laptop. “Well,” I though to myself, “I can write/run Java on anything. Time to get a Mac!” And so, impatient as I am wont to be, I grabbed the best that was available locally (I lived in a fairly technology backward area at the time): a late 2004 iBook G4. It wasn’t the machine I wanted: I think it wasn’t maxed out on memory, and didn’t have bluetooth. As things turned out, the woman I was living with at the time took a shine to it. That resulted in me ordering a fully loaded model from Apple and handing on the one I had.
A few months later I was in the Apple Store near my client (in a non-technology backward area) to pick up a firewire cable. Standing in line at the checkout (this was before there were iPhone wielding employees who could check you out anywhere) I noticed a table piled with clearance items and refurbished units. I had to look.
“Probably nothing of interest”
Oh, a PowerBook G4.
“It’s probably not a 15” model”
Yes… yes it was.
“The specs are probably low”
Nope.. fastest CPU and biggest disk, though not maxed out memory.
“The memory probably isn’t field upgradable.”
(I had to ask a service tech about this) … yes, it indeed was. Easily user upgradable, even.
Well. That was that. I walked out with a new laptop.
In the short while following that I bought used fruit colored early iMacs for the kids, who were characteristically ungrateful because they didn’t run Windows like the computers at school. Like it’s my fault their school technology people were retards or something.
When I moved to California to work at Google, I took some of my signing bonus along with my corporate discount and bought a 24” iMac. I also got my very first iPhone. It was quite an evening!
A year and a half later when my old external screen died I bought a 24” external Apple screen. When that arrived, it turned out to need the new Mini DisplayPort rather than the older Mini DVI connector supported by my iMac. The change was new enough that no adapters were available. There was only one thing to do: hop on the bus to Palo Alto to buy a new iMac. This one maxed out at 8G of ram and a 1T disk. The AppleStore in downtown Palo Alto liked me.
Last summer it was time to upgrade to a new 27” i7 iMac, this time with 4 64-bit cores running at 3.4GHz, with 32G RAM, 3T of disk, and a 2560x1440 27” screen. That’s a long way from the Apple][ I started with (a single 1MHz 8-bit 6502 CPU, 48K RAM, 140K floppy disks, 280x192 screen). It’s also a long way from the first Mac (8MHz 32 bit 68000 CPU, 128K RAM, and 400K 3.5 disks, 512x342 9” screen).
Of course, since I’m talking about Apple products, this isn’t complete without mentioning the series of iPods, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs, and Apple networking equipment.
My partner, Suzanne, has never owned a non-Mac computer. So we’re a pretty dedicated Apple household.
I still have my Newton. But one of my more prized pieces of Apple history is a logic board from the first model of Macintosh:
And then there’s this:
Now, you may be asking, “WTF does the ‘84 election have to do with Mac?”
Well, when you flip the cover open you see this:
“Huh” you say. Looking closer at the screen it’s clear what this is all about:
Apple bought all the ad space in that issue of Newsweek, the election issue, and filled it with Macintosh. Possibly the most read issue of Newsweek in the 8 years surrounding it. Nice advertising coup.