Remembering the Apple II

Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Mainstream coverage;

A recent CNET story has popularized the unearthing of design schematics for the Disk ][ floppy drive and the contract that outsourced its operating system. This story has been a Big Deal, having been picked up by TUAW, Slashdot,, and others.

This story is also an opportunity to consider the scale and scope of computer history. We Apple II users have gobbled up this news, but I suspect it hasn’t achieved awareness outside the small circles of retrocomputing enthusiasts and computer historians. After all, what relevancy does the Apple II have to the Apple Inc. of today, whose foundation lies not in desktop or even laptop computers, but in cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players?

It wouldn’t be the first time the Apple II has failed to penetrate the public awareness. When I presented the history of the Apple II to the Denver Apple Pi users group, the audience was eager and receptive — with one exception. When one person learned the topic of my speech would be the computer that Apple made before the Macintosh, her response was, "Apple made computers before the Macintosh?" She didn’t see the relevancy in this archaic machine and chose not to stay for the presentation.

Similarly, when I recruited Jason Scott as a guest speaker for my college course, he asked my students the loaded question, "How many of you would agree with me if I said Nintendo is thirty years old?" Nintendo was in fact founded in 1889 and dabbled in many industries, from playing cards to hotels to taxi services, before landing in electronic entertainment. Home video games are just a blip in the timeline of the company that set the standard.

These are just two examples of modern consumers being ignorant or uncaring of the lineage behind their everyday tech. I don’t know that this oversight is necessarily evil so much as it is the product of irrelevance. Is it one we need to change? I would presume that awareness of the existence of pre-Macintosh computers has improved since the passing of Steve Jobs, but my experience is that just as many people as ever respond to my stories of the Apple II with a comment such as "That was my first Mac!"

The Apple II was sold for 16 years, 1977–1993. Sixteen years ago this year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. That second era has achieved historical notoriety, both for the metaphoric prodigal son’s return and for the reinvention of Apple Computer Inc. as a profitable company. Yet what was long the flagship product of the company’s first 16 years seems to have fallen from public consciousness. Is all tech history susceptible to the vagaries of time? Or is the popularity of computer history directly proportionate the penetration of that era’s computers? Since 1970s computers were not widely adopted by the mass market, is their history similarly of limited appeal? Do we need to improve the Apple II’s public image — not just for the health of our retrocomputing hobby, but for the annals of time? If so, how?

I welcome your historical perspective on this matter!

  1. I would like to say that yes, the public should be aware of the significance of the Apple II to Apple the company. Without the success of the Apple II, there would be no Macintosh, no iPod, no iPhone, no iPad. The company would have disappeared as did all of the other early computer models that started in the late 1970s. (The only companies who have survived are those whose business was not fully dependent on the success of their computer; Radio Shack and Texas Instruments come to mind).

    However, whether or not the public CARES that they should know this is another issue. I believe it is important to know the major events of the 20th century and their effect on the world of today (World War I, World War II, etc, etc). Sadly, many people find this information irrelevant to their daily lives, and really don’t care about it. Similarly, WHERE we got today’s tech devices are less important to people than the fact that they HAVE those devices.

    There will be a subset of the public who DOES care about the past, how we got from where we were to where we are. Those people WILL pay attention to those aspects of history that are important to them (be it world events or tech events). At least for that subset of people, it will help to have web sites searchable that provide this information, and books (print or e-book) that make such info available.

    74 years ago this month, April 1939, Hitler was preparing for his invasion of Poland that happened in September. A footnote in history, yes, but it set the stage for the major events that shaped the world for the second half of the 20th century. Was it an important event? Absolutely. Does anyone today care or remember? Difficult to say. But who knows what history might be written that will (perhaps) be dimly remembered 74 years from now in 2087 regarding the current events in North Korea? Will the tech world remember the events of 2013 (Apple, Samsung, Google, and others) and their impact on the world of 2048?

  2. I don’t think we need to improve the Apple II’s public image, as I think that the Apple II’s image has stood the test of time. Some months ago, I ran Oregon Trail in an emulator for a 10 year old who played the entire game through! Last time we met, they wanted to play Oregon Trail again.

    There is truly something about the Apple II for me that still puts it ahead modern computing devices: openess, accessibility to hardware and software, built-in programming as given, simple yet not too simple.