My first personal computer: the Apple II

My first personal computer: the Apple II

Summary: In 1977 I decided to buy a computer. Microsoft and Apple were newly founded, the IBM PC was years away and there were no killer apps. It took over a year, but I had to have one and it changed my life.

TOPICS: Apple, Hardware, Storage

I'd read about computers in junior high in the early 60s. I even played with an analog computer at school. But computers were too expensive and rare for anything more in the 1960s.

Fast forward to the last semester of college. I did a computer mapping project, the program a stack of IBM punchcards. Although the punchcards – and batch computing – were a hassle I immediately saw computers as a boon to lazy people. I knew computing was a winner.

A few months after graduation, in September 1977, Scientific American devoted an issue to microelectronics with articles by Robert Noyce, Ivan Sutherland, Carver Mead and Alan Kay, among others, including one on Microelectronic Memories by Berkeley professor David A. Hodges. I read it cover to cover at least a half-dozen times and began my search for a personal computer.

And the ads! Heathkit. Apple. TI. The HP-01 calculator watch for $650!

Those were the days! Tech debates raged. The hobbyist favorite was the Z80 microprocessor on a motherboard with an S100 bus. Long gone firms like Processor Technology, Ohio Scientific, Cromemco and more were vying for hobbyist dollars.

But then the early consumer computers came out, the TRS 80, the Commodore Pet, the Exidy Sorcerer and the Apple II. At first I stuck to Z80 computers and decided to buy the Exidy – but failed when it wasn't in stock at the local Byte shop. Lucky me!

It was the next day that I realized the processor didn't matter, that applications ruled. The TRS 80 looked like a kludge, the Commodore Pet was had a weird keyboard and the Apple II seem to have all the fun stuff – color graphics, games, expansion slots and built-in BASIC – along with applications and a vibrant community.

I blew my first bonus on a 16k Apple II - at a price of over $4500 in today's dollars. I couldn't afford the $600 floppy so I got a Panasonic cassette for mass storage. Nor could I afford the expensive 12 inch color monitors so I re-purposed a 12 inch B&W TV. The 40 column text was ugly and the graphics were pathetic, but bringing it home was one of the most exciting days of my life.

I was the only person I knew with a computer. I wrote some BASIC and 6502 assembler to play Life, making a digital fireplace flickering in the corner.

Alas, I could not keep the Apple II. VisiCalc was not in common use and grad school required a TI 59 calculator instead - also advertised in that issue of Scientific American. I was ahead of my time.

The Storage Bits take
Friends were invariably disappointed when I popped the top off and there was nothing but a little PC board in the bottom of the case. But I loved my first computer.

Later on, as I played with TOPS-10, VAX/VMS, Windows 3.1 and Mac OS I realized how primitive the Apple II was. But at the time I felt as if I was exploring the edges of a vast new continent.

The flashes of the computer's bright future that I glimpsed have stayed with me. While computers have advanced far beyond what I could have imagined in 1977, nothing has matched the wonder I felt with my first personal computer.

Comments welcome, of course. Do today's slickly packaged phones, tablets and PCs give the same sense of wonder?

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Storage

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  • My first computer

    Was an Acorn 32, the poor sibling to the BBC 64.
    It was pretty bad, loading thing by tape every time you wanted to do anything.
    What's nice is the company that made that (rather bad) PC is still in existence today, just under a new name;
    ARM Holdings.
    • Lol! Funny how things turn out...

      I last remember acorn in the 90's i think?

      My first was the other way round; a type writer company branching into computers.

      It was an Olivetti m24 (i think they sold as at&t's and xerox machines outside the EU.

      I distinctly remember the sales guy telling my father ut was twice as fast as an ibm... A look on wikipedia shows him to be almost correct (im terms of clock speed) 4.7 mhz 8088 vs 8mhz 8086.

      It came with two floppy drives - the older big ones. I remember doing a lot of work on it with my father - internal expansion, changing one of the bigger floppy drives to the smaller, latter 3.5 drives... We also at some point put a hdd in there as i remember it having the two mis matched floppy slots but only one had a drive behind.

      Me father eventually got an se/30 for hiw work and the m24 was basically from then on for me and my brothers to play games and tinker with. To be honest it probably out lasted every other computer we ever had. It would have been around 96 before it was finally put in the attic, being seen more of as a toy for my younger brothers by this point.

      They may still have it, i know when they moved house in 2007 we found it in the loft.
  • Mine

    I started w/ the ][+ and then moved to the //e.

    I still miss the 'repeat' key. :(

    Ahhhh, good times!
  • I was on the ground floor when PC's began

    It was 1981. I just exited the USAF and was looking for a job. I had skills in electronics, HVAC, Pnumatics and Electrical. I took a job in a computer store that was selling Franklin Ace 1000's, 1100's, 1200's and 2100's. Also selling Corona PC's (IBM PC clones). That was more than 32 years ago. I remember learning DOS 1.0 and then 2.11. How about the Apple II, II+ software, audio synthesis card, and so on. The 6502 processors reigned the day until the 8080's, 8086's and then V20's and then the Mac's came out and the 80286's rolled in. Windows 286, 386 and Novell OS, then Windows 3.0 with the IBM PC2's. Windows 3.1, 3.11, Windows NT 3.51 ... then came 80386's and 80486's. Windows NT 4, Windows 95, 98, 98se.

    The joys of learning. Computer store Chains like CompUSA, Nynex, Entre, Computerland ruled the day. They bought 30k in product then got factory training on setup and repair. There were no "certifications" back then from Microsoft. You got certified by the Factory Training people.

    Then Microsoft introduced "Certifications" in order to try to compete with college degree's, trying to enhance technical abilities in the same way. Many from my generation did not participate in the "Certifications" programs because, and even to this very day, people still believe you and teach a monkey to press a button an get a banana. Just because you do so, doesn't mean he understands what he is doing. "Certifications" were done much in that way. Just a logo to add by your name. It did not mean that you had the necessary training and hands on skills to do the job, when job is so much more than book work and tests.
    • Certifications? LOL

      I laughed out when I read what you say about certifications. It is very much true. I do see lots of "certified" developers who do not know how to handle a text or binary file or create an application without an UI. Yes, there are plenty of instances when intermediate files need to be created or read and deciphered, and these are usually binary or text. The experienced ones (with or without a certificate) know how to do all this quite well.
  • Just like THavoc, my first computer was a ][+ with all the trimmings.

    But unlike Robin, I didn't realize any sense of "shock and awe" using my ][+ system. Perhaps if I can remember that far back accurately enough, I believe my overpowering emotion was a subtle, quiet sense of pride in owning the perceived state of the art home PC at that time. It was fun showing off my PC to a young beautiful friend of mine but alas, it didn't have quite the same effect on her that my new hatchback car had at a local outdoor drive in theater with another friend a few years later. Very Big Grin.

    However, I actually did experience a sense of "Robin Harris" wonder and excitement over a tech gadget decades later when I purchased (on day 1) that first magical iPad with 3G capability. Now that moment in time, when that first generation iPad was new, was special indeed.
    • Disk Drives

      Did you have two of those brick drives? I think those things were damn near indestructible!
      • Yes, I had two disk drives.

        I sold my ][+ system 18 months after I purchased it. But I did keep a few accessories to it (which I still have). Why I kept them, I haven't the foggiest reason. Grin.

        One such accessory was an external case cooling fan box add-on. It was a small fan box that attached to the side of the ][+ case. It was (and still is) a heavy little sucker.

        Another accessory is an external hand held joy stick cursor control box required to play a few games at a more "enjoyable" level.
        • Accessories

          Yup, I know those all too well!

          Good times indeed...
        • Your Cooling Fan

          I still have my Apple II (serial # 8196), and a "cooling fan" which sat on the side of the unit. Although often referred to as a cooling fan, I recall its primary function was to provide a means to turn the Apple II on & off - the Apple II early models suffered from a problematic On/Off button on the power supply. Once the button failed (and mine did), you had to replace the entire power supply. The Kensington cooling fan provided a nice work-a-round to address that problem.

          By the way, my Apple II still works without any issues.
  • Fun times

    My first was the //c with the 9" monochrome on the stand above it. It was such a jazz to see it being used (in a very fictitious way) in 2010: Space Odyssey out on the beach.

    In closing, I STILL HAVE my final Apple product I ever owned: the Apple //gs WOZ signature edition. It was my pride and joy.
  • My Pc.

    If you can call it a PC, LOL. I remember those days! I had a Sinclair, tape storage sucked! Put your tape in the freezer if it stretched...The Commodore 64, slowly we're getting somewhere. My school got Apple II E's. I was in 6th grade taking my first PC class! The early internet, Netscape Navigator. LOL I feel old all of a sudden! Yikes. Rarely do modern advances bring me a sense of wonder like that anymore. I do think they're incredible but those early days were quite remarkable.
    • The ZX81 was a clever little machine

      I really liked the basic commands on the keyboard - made programming much faster. I got the 16k memory expansion but if you jiggled the machine all was lost.

      Programming the TI-59 was basically like assembler, but the 1-button operations made it simpler - as did the limited 960 step memory. The TI-59 plus printer cost over $1900 in today's dollars.

      R Harris
  • I started with an .......

    Atari 1200XL. Tape drive and an old black and white TV. I got started on the Apple II at the post library at Ft. Wainwright, AK after signing up for a class in BASIC at the high school. After getting distracted for a semester playing Castle Wolfenstein, I finally taught myself BASIC 2 weeks before the class started and handed in my final project 4 days after the class started. As far as I am concerned the II series was the last decent thing that Apple produced. I tried a Mac in 86 and was totally unimpressed.
    Test Subject
  • My first home computer

    My first home computer was the IBM Aptiva, state of the art, had a 100MB hard drive and a floppy disk drive. I paid about $2500 for it with a printer. I can still remember worrying about spending that much money on something, afraid I wouldn't use it enough to make it worthwhile. I was so wrong.
  • my first one

    a TRS80 with 144k of memory was the first computer I had, my watch probably has more memory now..
    • The TRS-80 . . .

      . . . model 1 cam with 16k of user ram, upgradable to 64k.
    • Trs80....

      I believe 48 k was max for mem.
      My first was 48 k, had two disk drives, and printer. It had more power than the mainframe at
      Equitable life, and I worked up to a 300 baud modem. Was on the net and thrilled with emails to a friend in California hotel....from Waterloo Canada.
      Cost over $3000 in Early 1980s.
      I remember first talking game....Robot Attack.
      An exact copy of my TRS80 sits in Smithsonian.
  • How about your first printer?

    Not only being able to run a program, but actually being able to output HARDCOPY that you could use or even send to someone else!

    And LETTER-QUALITY printers were a FORTUNE!
    • Ah, my first inkjet printer

      Laser printers were absurdly expensive until the last 10 years or so. I'll never forget the first page I printed off my Apple StyleWriter and my brand new Mac LCIII.


      R Harris