Ben Heck's Apple-1

November 24th, 2014 10:31 AM
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Back in 2008, engineer and hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn made headlines in the Apple II world when he built an Apple IIGS in a laptop form factor. Although his first computer was an Atari 800, not an Apple II, the same wistfulness applies to many of Ben Heck's projects. In an interview for Juiced.GS and Computerworld, he told me:

People go to the junkyard, get an old car, and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. Computers are a lot like old cars. "I grew up with this, my dad drove me around in this" — it's the same thing with old computers: I programmed my first program on this old computer, it's such a great memory, now I can remember it… expensively. I think that's what it is, almost a car culture with computers. It's a different object, but the same kind of nostalgia.

Heck insisted the interview be conducted over the phone, not email, so as to better capture his personality. Other media outlets have since recognized that same spark and have given Heck his own web series, The Ben Heck Show, in which he builds and tears down a variety of unusual hardware in zany style.

In his latest project, Heck returns to that IIGS laptop's roots and tackles designing his own Apple-1 clone. Instead of buying a Replica 1 from Briel Computers, he assembles and builds his own components from DreamBoard. Over three episodes and 56 minutes that aired Nov 7–21, he demonstrates how anyone with the proper equipment and soldering skill can build their own original Apple.

Heck ends by providing his Apple-1 something the original never had: a case. Keeping in mind the aesthetic of 1977, he designed a wooden frame for his machine.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

Grandpa? Is that you?

As someone who'd never soldered before Vince Briel showed me how at KansasFest 2009, Heck's tutorial is beyond my ken. But among today's retrocomputing enthusiasts, I'm unusual in my lack of hardware familiarity, and I suspect many hardcore fans will enjoy not his step-by-step instructions and energetic delivery.

(Hat tip to Joyniece Kirkland)

Woz's modern optimization of the Apple II

November 17th, 2014 10:58 AM
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I've never been a hardware hacker, but I have enough programming experience to appreciate optimized code. I've written some programs that were serviceable but kludgy; had they been meant for widespread distribution and deployment, I would've taken more time to reduce the number of lines and variables, and hence, the execution time. It's one of the challenges I love most about the Apple II: doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Nowhere is that principle more effectively demonstrated than in the designs of Steve Wozniak. Before he co-founded Apple, he took Atari's BREAKOUT coin-op and reduced the number of chips by fifty. The brain that mastered this design is still at work, as evidenced by a recent email exchange.

Apple-1 cloner and Vintage Computer Festival East alumnus Mike Willegal recently had some questions about the Apple-1 power supply — so he emailed Woz. Tacked onto the end of Woz's reply was this remark:

I awoke one night in Quito, Ecuador, this year and came up with a way to save a chip or two from the Apple II, and a trivial way to have the 2 grays of the Apple II be different (light gray and dark gray) but it's 38 years too late. It did give me a good smile, since I know how hard it is to improve on that design.

How much different a world would the Apple II community be, if this minor change had been made? Probably not very. But it's good to know that, while many of us are preoccupied grafting modern USB and Ethernet ports onto the Apple II, the original genius is still contemplating how he could've laid for us a stronger foundation.

(Hat tips to Luke Dormehl and Greg Kumparak)

Follow-up on Christie's Apple-1

August 20th, 2012 2:43 PM
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Two years ago, Christie's of London auctioned an Apple-1 for $213,600 USD. Although that amount has since been bested by Sotheby's, the Christie's auction is still an interesting tale — and one that isn't over. What happened to that machine after Marco Boglione purchased it? Did it ever become the centerpiece of a museum exhibit, as he intended?

According to Federico Viticci, it has, if only temporarily. Viticci writes at MacStories.net:

I live in Viterbo, a small town in Lazio, Italy, not too far away from Rome… Today, the medieval buildings that make Viterbo an evocative architectural tapestry of art and history became, for a moment, a gallery for the modern history of technology.

Thanks to the efforts of Medioera, a festival of "digital culture" at its third annual edition here in Viterbo, Marco Boglione's original Apple I gained a prominent spot in the gorgeous Piazza del Gesù…

The Apple I exhibited at Medioera is the same that was auctioned (and sold) at Christie's in November 2010.

Viticci goes on to quote me (which would be a bit too meta to quote here) before offering an extensive history of the ownership of this particular Apple-1 — a lineage I've not seen published elsewhere — and photos of this and other machines that were a part of the festival.

Medioera is a temporary exhibit that has since left Viterbo. Where will Boglione's Apple-1 appear next? … Maybe Russia?

Apple-1 sells for record-breaking $374K

June 18th, 2012 4:13 PM
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It started simply enough: three years ago, an Apple-1 was estimated to be worth around $15,000.

Shortly thereafter, an Apple-1 sold on eBay (auction #320451173813) for $50,000.

A year later, that same Apple-1 sold at Christie's of London for $213,000.

The latest Apple-1 to appear on the auction block, this one at Sotheby's in New York, had a more modest estimated value of $120,000 – $180,000. Yet it set a new record when it sold for $374,500.

Sotheby's Apple-1

And worth every penny!

Addressing that staggering price tag, Vintage Computer Festival East organizer Evan Koblentz made a brief appearance in this CNN.com story about the auction:

It's not surprising that mainstream media would attribute the auction's high fetching price to "the cult of Apple". But that inaccurately identifies a working Apple-1 as an illogical object of geek lust, instead of the rare and significant historical relic it is.

But even geeks sometimes buy into the hype. The CNN video recommends viewers hold onto their old iPod or first-generation iPad: "Some day, it might be a precious artifact." Although those devices were revolutionary (or at least evolutionary), they don't signify the humble beginnings of an empire like the Apple-1 does. More important, possibly no Apple product has ever been manufactured in as low a quantity as the Apple-1. As much as we may complain about the current going rates for an Apple II on eBay, the machine isn't exactly rare, despite the newest model being 19 years old. Given the proliferation of iOS devices, it is unlikely we will ever see them in the scarcity that now drives the Apple-1's auctions.

On the bright side, events such as this auction have the potential to bring attention to the value and significance of classic computing. Besides Koblentz, other familiar retrocomputing enthusiasts got some nice press as a result of this event: after appearing in my previous coverage of this topic, Mike Willegal was interviewed for the run-up to this auction.

(Hat tip to Christian)

Computer History Museum interview with Woz

January 20th, 2011 10:17 AM
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As previously reported, Steve Wozniak was on-hand last month to give the press a tour of the Computer History Museum's new exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing". The exhibit opened last week, and Todd Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle took the opportunity to speak further with Apple Inc.'s lesser-known founder, learning more about Woz's motivation to write BASIC for the Apple-1 and how he improved upon the original machine's design with the Apple II:

Here's my favorite quotation: "Most of the big companies and — a lot of new thinking went into them. They were risky, and it was difficult to say whether they would work or not — just like the Apple II."

It's so encouraging to know that the genius who invented our favorite computer is so welcome to continue speaking about that topic. As Jason Scott recently said in the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, "The retrocomputing culture is very, very lucky, because … so many of the people who formed what's important to us are part of the community still. It's so rare that you'd have someone who's into old cars, and the guy who invented the cars shows up all the time. We're so lucky because we get people like Wozniak who show up and are like, 'Oh, yeah! Yeah, hi! Oh, did you like that? Oh, thanks!' as opposed to we all dream of what that person must've thought." Thank you, Steve Wozniak, for being that guy.

While Mr. Miller's videos are new, there were plenty more shot at last month's press tour. Check out the original blog post for a half-dozen other appearances by the Woz.

Vince Briel talks with Racketboy

November 29th, 2010 1:17 PM
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Since the Apple-1 has been making headlines lately, it seems timely to hear from the man who's helped revitalize interest in this historic machine. Vince Briel is the creator of the Replica I, a fully functional Apple-1 clone authorized by Steve Wozniak himself. The unit sells as a kit of 88 unassembled parts for $149, or as an assembled, ready-to-use circuit board for $199. Both options make it a significantly more affordable alternative than buying one at Christie's auction house.

Vince is no stranger to the pages of magazine Juiced.GS, where he was interviewed by Doug Cuff in 2004, with Andy Molloy's review of the Apple-1 replica following four years later — a topic I myself then tackled for Computerworld.com in 2009. Vince was also part of a five-person roundtable in what remains one of my most memorable Juiced.GS issues to date.

Briel's latest interview, however, is not in print, but in podcast, and not even in one of the many aimed at an Apple II audience. Instead, Vince was a guest of Racketboy.com, "an independent video game site that caters to the old-school console gamer and their unique gaming lifestyles." The show's guests were decided by reader vote, with Vince being of sufficient reputation to make the cut. The interview was published this past January and is an entertaining listen, revealing details about the creation of the Replica I, Vince's interactions with Woz, the product's timeless popularity, and upcoming products, including an MP3 card.

Although the podcast is available via iTunes, this particular episode is not, so you'll have to download the MP3 manually to add it to your audio collection. It's worth this simple effort to hear from one of the Apple II community's leading hardware developers.