In two months an original Apple I computer is being auctioned off to the highest bidder — one of only eight left in the world which is still fully functional.
Only 200 were ever built, and the auctioneers have created a video showing this rare 1976 computer in action — displaying, appropriately, the special 30th-anniversary graphics with ASCII images of their creators, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.
41 years after its original sale, it’s now up for auction as a rare piece of historic memorabilia.
The winning bidder will also get a letter dated April 2, 1979, to confirm the device’s authenticity, in which Apple customer service rep Carol Sandler wrote that she was enclosing a price list and catalog, adding “I have no information regarding a trade-in on your Apple I. I would suggest that you check with your local dealer and see if he offers any programs like that.”
More interesting is the inclusion of the original Apple I operation manual, which shows the company’s first logo — Sir Isaac Newton sitting under a tree with a shining apple dangling over his head.
A typewritten page notes that the manual is “preliminary,” adding “It will, most likely, contain errors, incorrect wordings, etc.
“Your effort in noting these areas of improvement will be greatly appreciated.”
Ironically, because the device was never traded in, its value has now skyrocketed. The auctioneers of this device boast that another Apple 1 that they auctioned off in 2013 sold for $671,400. “If you think today’s Macs are expensive, hold on to your butts,” joked Ars Technica.
And Wikipedia has a detailed list of the high prices commanded by other fairly recent Apple I sales. Some of the highlights:
- In 2010, CNN reported one sold for $213,000, which included a typewritten note signed by Steve Jobs, and was augmented by a new signed letter from Steve Wozniak, who was attending the auction.
- In 2013 the Ford Foundation bought an Apple I for $905,000 — which at the time set a new record, according to the BBC.
- The BBC also reports that the next year one of the few fully operational Apple I’s sold for $365,000, “the only machine known to have been personally sold by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, from a garage in California in 1976,” the Been reported.
- In 2015 the same seller then sold another Apple I for $236,000 on eBay. It was also in working order, and “included a rare cassette interface, which connected to a cassette tape recorder for storing programs on tape.”
“Somebody is going to get a hefty payout for hanging on to that outdated machine,” joked one of the commenters at MacRumors.
But there’s also been a special glow to these rare Apple I’s. In a 1984 interview with Byte magazine, Wozniak remembered how it all began, back when he was still connecting a TV monitor to a modem so he could dial into ARPANET and play games. This gave him the idea for his next project. “I didn’t want to pay to use somebody else’s computer, so I decided to build my own.”
It’s an era that’s fondly recollected in Steven Levy‘s classic 1984 book “Hackers.” Wozniak had a day job at Hewlett Packard, while Steve Jobs was working at Atari, and Wozniak cobbled together a new board to show his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club. “[W]hen you attached a power supply and a keyboard and a video monitor and a cassette tape player to the board, you would have a working computer with video display, mass storage, and input/output,” Levy wrote.
It was a time when 22-year-old Steve Jobs “had what was described as a ‘Fidel Castro beard,’ often went shoeless, and had a Californian interest in Oriental philosophies…” But soon “the two Steves” were launching their first amateur business together. Their official address was a mail drop, while they began operating out of that famous Silicon Valley garage.
To fund the device, Wozniak sold his beloved Hewlett-Packard calculator, while Steve Jobs sold his Volkswagen van, to raise $1,000 that they needed to buy 50 circuit boards to start building Apple I computers for the Homebrew Computer Club.
“Believe it or not, it was only a couple of weeks later when we came up with a name for the partnership,” Woz told biographer Gina Smith back in 2006. “I remember I was driving Steve back from the airport along Highway 85. Steve had just come back from Oregon — from a place he called an ‘apple orchard.’ I thought of it as a commune.
“We needed a name for the company. Steve suggested one. Apple Computer.”
But it also represents that crucial moment in time when Wozniak’s computers went from a hobbyist project to the beginning of a business. “[W]e manufactured 200 of them,” Wozniak told Byte, “and sold all but 25 over a period of nine or 10 months. We were just having fun and getting known.
“It was the most incredible thing we had ever done in our lives.”
The Apple I was basically what’s described as a motherboard kit. “Apple never offered an external housing for the computer,” explained MacRumors. “We supplied the boards completely put together,” Wozniak told Byte in 1984, “and it had a video connector, but you still had to connect a video monitor on your own. You also had to get a keyboard and wire it into a 16-pin DIP connector. We built a power supply onto the board, but you had to connect two transformers for 5 volts and 12 volts.” Along with their initial run of 50, Woz and Jobs also received an order for another 100 which had been pre-assembled, an order they happily fulfilled in just 10 days.
The scarcity of the Apple I is explained on a web page run by a family practice physician in Omaha, Nebraska who’s also been a long-time fan of the Apple II. While writing his own history of the Apple II, he reports that the Apple I created a problem when it came to offering technical support.
“Most questions about it had to be handled directly by Steve Wozniak.”
In addition, Steve Jobs thought the Apple I looked primitive compared to the Apple II, with its plastic molded case around the keyboard. So the company launched an aggressive program to get customers to trade in their Apple I for an Apple II.
“It is this aggressive drive by Apple that has contributed to the dearth of Apple-1 computers that survive to this day”
The auction’s flier claims it’s the “best-preserved example of an Apple-1…direct from its original owner, a computer engineer from Berkeley, California.” But it’s surrounded by a glow of history. A 1976 ad described the Apple I as “the first low-cost microcomputer system with a video terminal and 8K of RAM on a single PC card… that can be used for anything from developing programs to playing games or running BASIC.” But it was a precursor of great things to come. The computer’s slogan?
“Byte into an Apple.”
A site called the Apple I Registry claims there’s now just 66 Apple I computers known to be in existence, though “Besides those listed here, I have heard through the grapevine of several more.” But it’s safe to say that each one is cherished by its owner. One of the highly coveted machines rests in the collection of a computer museum in Bozeman, Montana — signed and donated by Steve Wozniak himself.
But as auction day is approaching, and you’re worrying about missing your chance at a piece of computer history, there are other ways to appreciate vintage technology — and with devices that are even older. Other items being auctioned off by the same firm include an 1867 typewriter (then known as the “writing ball”) and a hand-cranked film projected from 1897, as a vintage adding machines, music boxes and other mechanical toys.
Images: Auction Team Breker.