Apple I

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Apple I.jpg
Apple I
CPU: 1 MHz MOS Technology 6502
Maximum RAM: 32 KiB (Apple), 65 KiB (Actual)
Introduced:April 1976
Discontinued:March 1977
Full Specifications
Note icon color.pngWikipedia has more information about Apple I.

Designed by Steve Wozniak, the Apple Ⅰ not only marked several innovations in the computer industry as a whole but played a pivotal part in turning the home computer into a machine that could truly be used by people. Despite its HomeBrew roots, the machine resulted in a new company, Apple.


The invention of the microprocessor by Intel in the late 1960s/early 1970s had resulted in a whole world of new possibilities. Traditionally computers had been room sized machines that were not only inaccessible but totally out of the financial reach of most businesses, let alone individuals. The shift away from the traditional mainframe towards the smaller and cheaper (in relative terms) minicomputer made computing accessible to more users. Yet it was Intel's all-in-one 4004 microprocessor that had really opened some people's eyes to the possibility of creating personal computing.

Machines that were within the reach of the man in the street had already been released by the 1975 in the shape of the Altair 8800, the IMSAI 8080 and several other small scale machines. Despite being fully qualified computers, the likes of the Altair were extremely limited and often relied on toggle switches for input and flashing LEDs for output – they also usually came in kit form, requiring users to hand-build their own machines. It was a radically new, small scale, and still an expensive hobby for most people (especially as most machines were built around the costly Intel 8080 processor). The home computer community in the mid-1970s was a melting pot of ideas, uncertainty, invention and innovation, never more exemplified than in the, now legendary, HomeBrew Computer Club based in Palo Alto, California.

Working for Hewlett Packard at the time, Steve Wozniak had dreams of owning a computer of his own but the cost of the Intel 8080 made such a project far too expensive. Despite this Wozniak, with the support of fellow HomeBrew members had been building (on paper at least) his design for a low-cost computer that would make great use of the cheaper components and parts that were becoming available. The Intel 8080 was still far too expensive so Wozniak opted for the Motorola 6800 instead. Sadly, this also proved to be too expensive ($175) so Wozniak decided to use the MOStek 6502 processor instead (retailing for just $25) and coupled it with the new high-density (4 KiB) dynamic memory chips that were becoming available (he was also able to re-use much of the design for his 6800 based machine).

Having tinkered with the likes of the Altair and IMSAI, Wozniak was frustrated by the man-machine interface and his machine featured not only a built-in interface for a proper keyboard but also output to a regular TV (something that hadn't been done or possibly even thought of before). Yes, the display was only 24 lines of 40 characters, but it was unheard of in a machine of this size or power.

Wozniak's machine was, according to one HomeBrew member, "a beautiful work of art" and his demonstrations inspired fellow HomeBrew member and friend, Steve Jobs, to suggest that they think about selling the machine. It is interesting to note that, when Wozniak was demoing the machine, it lacked any sort of off-line storage and he would, literally, type in the entire BASIC interpreter from memory!. While Wozniak is often seen as the technical genius and Jobs the sales genius, in reality Jobs did make technical suggestions that helped to shape the final product; he suggested using the newer, cheaper dynamic RAM rather than the older, more expensive static RAM for instance, and pushed to get printed circuit boards produced.

Having been given the go-ahead by Hewlett Packard – who, at the time, expressed no interest in the home computer industry whatsoever and relinquished any legal right to the machine's patents – Wozniak and Jobs launched the Apple Computer Company on April 1st 1976 – hardly the most auspicious of starts but indicative of Apple's approach to 'tradition'.

Setting up a company was one thing, but making that company a success was another, and it was through hard work and perseverance that Jobs persuaded Paul Terrel (owner of arguably the first computer store in the world, Byte) to place an order for 50 'Apple' computers. There was, however, one snag: Terrel wanted fully assembled machines and Jobs and Wozniak had intended to sell the machine in kit form only. Nevertheless, Jobs played ball and promised to deliver 50 fully assembled units within the 30 day timeframe. It was his strength of will and charm that persuaded the duo's suppliers to let them have the parts on 'net 30 days' (basically 30 days credit without interest) and, coupled with Jobs selling his Volkswagen camper van and Wozniak his prized Hewlett Packard programmable calculator, that the pair had sufficient funds behind them (even if they were still working out of Jobs' parents garage). The race was now on to supply 50 fully assembled computers and, having stuffed and soldered boards day and night, Apple delivered on time.

The newly christened 'Apple I' might have been 'fully assembled' but what Terrel meant by 'fully assembled' and what Apple understood as 'fully assembled' were two entirely different things. To Terrel it meant a complete package; to Apple it was a circuit board with all chips and connections in place. Terrel, to his credit, bought them as promised, despite the fact that they came without keyboard, power supply, monitor or even case (Terrel ended up supplying the machine in a wooden, custom-designed cabinet).

Retailing at $666.66 (originally to be $777.77, but Wozniak complained that he thought it was too expensive) the price was not only low but also had sufficient religious connotations to incite the ire of certain Christian Fundamentalists. It had no problem in selling, as users – whose only other option had been a row of blinking LEDs and toggle switches – were immediately taken with the Apple I's user interface, speed, and ease-of use.

It wasn't all good news, though. Despite its massive leaps, the Apple I did still have problems and the most important was the issue of secondary storage. Users could write programs and enter data but all of it was lost as soon as the machine was switched off. Terrel suggested that Wozniak develop a tape interface, which duly arrived (selling for a rather steep $75, although it did come with a 3,000 character BASIC Star Wars game). Even though it was still streets ahead of the competition, the machine still lacked any sort of graphical output (text only) or sound capabilities.

In terms of design, the Apple I was a masterpiece of simplicity, with Wozniak re-using circuitry and components as much as possible (to keep costs down), but there was also room for expansion. Although initially available with either 4 KiB or, for just $120 more, 8KB of main memory (based on dynamic RAM), the machine could be expanded all the way up to 65 KiB via the machine's clever edge connector, use static RAM, and even allow for the addition of custom hardware via – what the Apple I manual called – the 'breadboard area'.

Eventually selling approximately 200 units, the Apple I was a milestone in home computing. It may not have been the first, it may not have been the fastest (despite running at a blistering 1MHz), the most powerful or even the cheapest but it was massively innovative and a revolution to all who saw it. Apple knew that they were onto a winner and, buoyed with success, released the Apple ][ less than a year later.

Full Specifications

  • General
    • CPU: 1 MHz MOS Technology 6502
    • ROM: 256 bytes
    • Bus Speed: 1 MHz
    • Data Path: 8-bit
    • RAM Type: DRAM
    • Standard RAM: 4 KiB - 8 KiB
    • Maximum RAM(Apple): 32 KiB
    • Maximum RAM(Actual): 65 KiB
  • Video
    • Max Resolution: 280×192 (1-bit) (40×24 chars)
    • Video Out: Composite Video Output
  • Miscellaneous
    • Power: 58W
    • Dimensions: 16" x 12" x 1" (W x D x H)
    • Introduced: April 1976
    • Introduced: March 1977
    • MSRP: $666.66