Laboratory origins of the Apple II


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1 comment.

The past week has been one of milestones: the IBM PC turned 30, just days before the Web itself turned 20. Of course, both are still whippersnappers compared to the Apple II, but it's timely to consider the birthplace of that and other innovations.

Of course, Steve Wozniak was the genius behind the Apple II, but many of the ideas found in the Apple II and other computers were devised in collaborative environments. A recent story looks at six computer labs that gave birth to the digital world. The penultimate page is dedicated to the many innovations to come out of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and how they influenced Apple's products:

These inventions culminated in 1973 with the Xerox Alto, the first GUI-driven personal computer (check out the three-button mouse!) Sadly the Alto was never sold commercially, and only 2,000 units were built — but don’t worry, its legacy lived on with the 1977 Apple II, the first mouse-and-GUI-driven home computer, and the 1984 Macintosh.

Although the Apple II did indeed have a mouse, I (as some article's readers do) think the author intended to reference the Apple Lisa. Steve Weyhrich's history of the Apple II supports that reading:

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) develops the “Alto”, a breakthrough computer which used a pointing device called a “mouse”, a bit-mapped graphic screen, and icons to represent documents. Also, it had a 2.5 megabyte removable disk cartridge and the first implementation of Ethernet. It cost $15,000 just to build it, and only 1,200 were ever produced. This computer and the Xerox Star were the inspirations within a decade for the Lisa and the Macintosh.

Readers also take exception to a statement on the preceding page that "in 1981, IBM released the Personal Computer, the first home computer made from off-the-shelf parts". Was not the Apple II that machine? At least one reader says yes:

The Apple II was all off the shelf parts 6502 processor, 4K memory (8102 DRAM?), etc. There were no custom IC's. The only "non off the shelf" were things like the power supply, keyboard, paddles, etc. The same was true for other microcomputers sold before IBM played catch up with the 5150 (including the Altair 8800). On all of the microcomputers, (including the IBM 5150) the design, circuit board, case, keyboard, expansion slots, power supply, were custom as well as the BIOS. The IBM 5150 helped to mainstream microcomputers (outside the classroom) because "No one ever got fired for recommending IBM" — a common quote from that era.

What say you, dedicated retrocomputing enthusiasts? Did the author of this gallery do his homework, or are a few of his facts a wee bit off?

  1. Well, obviously I agree with the Apple II History web site. :-)

    The Lisa was the first commercially available computer using the graphic user interface and the mouse, although the Macintosh was the first SUCCESSFUL computer of that type. The Apple II certainly was NOT released with a mouse or GUI, and those additions did not appear for the Apple II series until after the Apple IIc and AppleMouse card appeared in 1984. Even then, on the 8-bit Apple II series these were not widely used, since the OS did not require such devices (much as a mouse was unnecessary for 808x series PCs until Windows appeared on the scene and gave a REASON to use a mouse.

    IBM's design of its IBM PC (the 5150) was clearly influenced by the best features of the computers that preceded it; the more open architecture was consistent with the Altair 8800 and the Apple II. It just did what the Apple II was already doing, but did some things with it a bit better (better graphics capabilities, upper and lower case display, 80 column display, etc).