|Filed under Hacks & mods, Happenings;|
It's not often that retrocomputing news spreads quickly, but by the time I write this blog, it's already old news: on Nov. 23, Christie's auction house in London will auction an Apple-1 computer. The estimated value is $160,300–$240,450.
I first heard the news via Sean Fahey's Twitter, which linked to the Daily Mail Reporter's story. I figured the number of people who even knew what an Apple-1 was would end the story there — but within 24 hours, it was making homepage headlines on everything from Computerworld to CNN. A Google News search shows nearly 300 news stories covering the story.
All this attention is a bit mystifying, as although only a quarter of the original 200 Apple-1 units are known to exist, their appearance on the auction lot is not that unusual. There was one on eBay just two months ago, which sold for just under $23K. That one came with a caveat: "I have not applied electricity to the motherboard in well over ten years, and do not intend to for this auction. Thus, you should assume this is an auction for a museum quality historical artifact, not a working computer." Similarly, the Christie's lot does not describe their unit's working state. Why theirs is going for so much, other than the prestige of the Christie's name, I cannot discern.
Some of the marvel being heaped upon this ancient technology is also both baffling and irritating. "Song storage capacity: Zero", indicates the Daily Mail Reporter; "Its minuscule amount of memory — eight kilobytes — wouldn't even be enough to store a single iTunes song", wrote PC Magazine. If you mean MP3 files, then sure — not even Maxster would run on this machine. The MP3 codec was not developed until the 1990s, well after the Apple-1's debut in 1976. But to consider "song" and "MP3" to be analogous is narrow-minded. I bet the Apple-1 could beep a mean rendition of "Turkey in the Straw". Other functions within its ability are also being misgauged; "this setup 'could barely power a game of Pong'", quoted CNN. I didn't realize Pong required more than 8K of RAM? But both comparisons miss the point. To say that the modern consequence of the Apple-1 is a digital Walkman casts Steve Wozniak's invention as more of a quaint novelty than the technological revolution it was.
For my money, I'd rather buy a Replica I. This Apple-1 clone comes as either a kit ($149) or preassembled ($199) from Vince Briel, expert hardware developer. As related in the documentary Welcome to Macintosh, Briel created the clone with a unique look and even some additional features, so that it would not be confused for (or passed off as) an original Apple-1 (though Mike Willegal seems to be working on a more authentic replica). I built my own Replica I at KansasFest 2009 and had a blast, though my manufacture was not without its flaws (which some Computerworld readers have accused me of staging!). Due to the lack of a monitor, I've not used the Apple-1 in the 16 months since I built it, which I feel better about for having paid $149 than $240,450.
It's unfortunate that all this attention has been focused more on the Apple-1 has a historical artifact than on the vibrant and modern retrocomputing scene. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see where the Apple-1 goes. There's already one in the Smithsonian Institute, but another museum might benefit from its own. Does the Computer History Museum have one? How about the Louvre? Surely we can all agree the Apple-1 is a work of art!
Watch this blog for the exciting conclusion to this fast-breaking news story.