Apple 1: Apple’s First and Rarest Computer

Apple has a very impressive track record. It is the only personal computer company to have survived from the early days of 8-bit computing while once mighty Commodore, Radio Shack, and Atari no longer exist or long ago stopped making personal computers.

Apple got its start with the Apple 1,* which was a kit computer. Steve Jobs sold his Volkswagen Microbus and Steve Wozniak sold his HP-65 calculator to finance its creation.

The story of the Apple 1 begins with Wozniak attending the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto, California, on March 5, 1975. He was so inspired by the meeting that he immediately set to work designing the computer that became Apple’s first product, although his initial design was based on the Motorola 6800 CPU.

Unlike most kit computers of the era, the Apple 1 circuit board came fully assembled. You did need to add a power supply, case, keyboard, and display. An optional board let you save your programs to and load them from cassette tape.

MOS 6502 CPUThe Apple 1 used the same MOS 6502 CPU that would make its way into the Apple II family, as well as Commodore and Atari personal computers. (It would also be used in early Atari and Nintendo gaming consoles.) Not only was the 6502 the least expensive CPU on the market in 1975, it also required a lot fewer support chips to make it work, further reducing costs.

In fact, that was the whole idea behind the 6502 CPU. Eight one-time Motorola engineers teamed up to produce a less costly chip to replace the Motorola 6800 CPU. The 6502 initially sold for $25, while the 6800 was selling for $175! The presence of the 6502 helped drive down prices of competing CPUs.

Apple 1 logic boardWozniak was able to tweak his system board design to accommodate the 6502, and he had also been busy porting the BASIC programming language to the 6502 CPU.

In addition to cost, other advantages of the Apple 1 over competing computer kits was its use of a keyboard instead of front panel switches and a video terminal instead of Teletype for output.

The Apple 1 was first previewed during a May 1976 meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club.

System specs included a 1 MHz 6502 CPU, 4 KB of RAM (expandable to 8 KB), and BASIC on cassette tape.

The system board sold for $666.66 with 4 KB of RAM. 200 were produced, and all but 25 sold during its 10 months on the market. A $75 cassette interface made it possible to save and load programs, saving end users from having to rekey everything each time they turned on the computer.

Apple 1 in Smithsonian collectionEnd users designed and built their own cases, along with choosing a power supply and keyboard. The Apple 1 shown to the right is one example from the Smithsonian collection.

The Apple 1 was on the market for just 10 months before it was replaced by the Apple II. It was introduced in April 1976 and remained on Apple’s price list until October 1977, at which point it was officially discontinued.

Because Steve Wozniak was the only Apple employee who could provide technical support for the Apple 1, Apple encouraged users to trade them in toward Apple II computers. The Apple 1 logic boards were then destroyed, a big factor in their being so rare today with just 63 known to be in existence in 2013.

The remaining Apple 1 computers are quite valuable, often selling for US$300,000 or more. A few museums have Apple I computers, including the Smithsonian, the American Computer & Robotics Museum in Bozeman, MT, and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the Apple II and Apple II Plus – along with the first licensed Apple clone.

* Apple refers to the computer as the Apple I in its price sheet and the Apple-1 in its documentation. In this article, we use Apple 1 as a compromise between the two official names.

Further Reading

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