When I joined the staff of The Henry Ford, if someone had offered me a glimpse into the future—a bird’s eye view of the events that one short year would bring—it would have taken some time for me to suspend my disbelief. I would have been skeptical if anyone told me I’d play a part in bidding on and acquiring a rare, key, artifact in the history of computing. And if someone told me that this auction would break world records? This is information that I’m still trying to reconcile. Nothing could have prepared me for the anticipation I felt while sitting next to Marilyn Zoidis, former Director of Historical Resources, at Bonhams auctions in just a few short weeks ago. I’ll always remember the excitement in the room as we waited for Lot 285 to end—and for Lot 286 to arrive: the 1976 Apple 1 Computer.
On Wednesday, October 22, 2014 The Henry Ford achieved a major acquisition goal. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent flurry of press: “The Henry Ford Acquires a 1976 Apple-1 Computer at Bonhams History of Science Auction.” Variations on this headline reveal a record-breaking bid amount of $905,000 – but they also hint at the importance, rarity, originality and provenance of this incredible piece of computing history. At the time of this writing, over 1200 news mentions of the Apple 1 have appeared in print, television, radio, and social media outlets.
The Apple 1 has long been a collecting goal of this institution as a “seed” artifact of the digital and Internet-connected age. In the 1970s, the affordability and accessibility of the Apple 1 helped to popularize home computing. It is a powerful and humanized example of information technology that is absolutely bursting with stories of innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.
The Apple 1 made its public debut in 1976 at the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto, California. At the Homebrew Club, countercultural and hacker ethics fused with the obsession to push technology to its limits. It made for an inspiring—if not competitive—environment. Steve Wozniak was a member, and his incessant tinkering led to the creation of a powerful, miniaturized, and affordable computer for the everyday home user. Wozniak’s design, coupled with his friend Steve Jobs’ bold marketing moves, led to an order for 50 assembled Apple 1 motherboards by ByteShop owner Paul Terrell. These Apple 1’s were assembled over the course of thirty days by Wozniak in Jobs’ family garage—the humble, almost cottage industry-like beginnings of what would become one of the world’s most profitable companies.
The Apple 1 computer acquired by The Henry Ford is one of the original fifty made. The opportunity to acquire an Apple 1 is a rare one, given their low production numbers. In 1976, ByteShop recognized the potential popularity of the Apple 1, increasing their order from 50 to 200 units. According to the Apple 1 Registry compiled by Mike Willegal, only 64 authentic Apple 1’s are known to exist, and only 15 of this group are known to be operational. Typical Apple 1 motherboards have had extensive modifications, but the example acquired by the museum is in excellent, unmodified condition—and is fully operational. The operability of this computer lends it value as a complete, uncompromised artifact with a potential for rich interpretive and research opportunities among future generations. This is a pure, primary physical document of the computing age.
One of the biggest threats to a museum interested in collecting the history of computing is rapid obsolescence. Given the short lifecycle of technology, devices often land in the dustbin before they are given the opportunity to be considered as objects relevant to future museumgoers. The Apple 1 is especially precarious in this way: when the Apple II was released in 1977, an exchange program allowed Apple 1 buyers to mail their original purchase in for an upgrade. Many Apple 1’s were scrapped as a result.
In addition to the central “motherboard” (the brain the makes the computer run), the auction lot acquired at Bonhams includes an original keyboard, monitor, power source, and two tape drives to run programs. Supporting historical documents include an owner’s manual and schematics signed by Wozniak, authenticating certificates, paper programs from early “AppleVention” conferences, VHS copies of Wozniak’s 1980 AppleVention keynote speech, and a collection of newsletters from the Cincinnati AppleSiders user group.
Understanding Technology through the Material
While the average person may not understand the specifics of its circuitry, the Apple 1 is the opposite of collapsed, encased technologies (such as Smartphones and laptops) that have come to dominate the 21st century. With subsequent models, Steve Jobs began to apply design principles that made home computers more approachable, and Steve Wozniak continued to refine the Apple’s engineering principles. Beginning with the Apple II, the “look” of consumer grade computers was established with Jobs’ designs for sleek, inclusive cases with built in keyboards, drives, and power supplies.
The acquisition of an Apple 1 represents The Henry Ford’s commitment to collecting the material culture of technology. It is an observable artifact with visual appeal. It has a clear sense of purpose and an honesty expressed through its exposure of internal workings. We might even consider it as a piece of “electronic folk art.” The Apple 1 is a product of the Homebrew Club’s Maker ethos—hurried, excited, and a product born of pure functionality. When Wozniak and Jobs took their first order, they had no way of predicting what the future would bring.
In 2008, The Henry Ford interviewed Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak for its OnInnovation oral history series. Wozniak spoke of his interest in “how computers should treat a person, how you can make the human being more important than the technology” and how we could be “better educated with a machine that can answer us back, instead of just a book that can only present data one way.” He was also driven to provide the maximum amount of computing power using the least amount of components. This idea of miniaturization is essential to the history of home computing—a concept that was as yet unavailable to home computer users. Leading up to the Apple 1, home users cobbled together kit-built boxes with modified interface components like the teletype machines and typewriters. In spite of their size and expense, these early home computers lacked the capabilities of the Apple 1. According to Wozniak: “Nobody'd ever imagined it, a full computer that could run programs could be that small.”
Details announcing the display of the Apple 1 Computer at The Henry Ford will be available soon.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
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