This day in tech history: The first Apple II ships

Via Wikipedia, CC-licensed, thanks Rama

Via Wikipedia, CC-licensed, thanks Rama

On June 10, 1977,  Apple Computer Inc. shipped its first Apple II computer.

A hulking beige mammoth with 4KB of RAM (upgradeable to a whopping 48KB), the Apple II was the computer that defined Apple for a generation of fans. Retailing at $1,298, it cost the equivalent of two MacBook Pros today  — even though it seemed a total bargain at the time.

Unlike its Apple I predecessor, the Apple II was polished and mass market — featuring a keyboard, BASIC compatibility and, most notable of all, color graphics.

Despite being the company’s second computer, the Apple II was responsible for a number of firsts at Apple. It was the machine which turned Apple into a million-dollar company (yes, million — not billion). The year the Apple II debuted, Apple turned over $770,000 in revenue. The year after that, its success brought in $7.9 million, and the year after that $49 million.

That’s not all.

VisiCalc, the world's first "killer app," in all its glory.

VisiCalc, the world’s first “killer app,” in all its glory.

It was also the computer that created Apple’s (and arguably personal computing’s) first “killer app” in the form of VisiCalc, the world’s inaugural spreadsheet, which turned personal computers from cool-to-have toy into must-have business accessory. (And they say it’s only now that Apple’s getting into the enterprise market.)

It was the first computer of many influential people in tech. Among them was Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the first chair of the Mozilla Foundation. Speaking about the Apple II in the kind of reverent tones a person only uses for their first love, Kapor told me for my book The Apple Revolution about selling his stereo for cash and driving to New Hampshire, where there was no sales tax, to buy his version of the machine.

It was additionally the computer responsible for Apple’s focus on industrial design, with designer Jerry Manock recalling to me that he was hired to create “a nice balance between manufacturability and human factors.” While Manock would later go onto design the first Mac, the Apple II is in many ways an equally iconic machine, which paved the way for the look and feel of later Apple creations.

Finally, the Apple II was the machine on which Apple cut its marketing teeth. To sell it, Steve Jobs sought out advertisers who hadn’t previously worked on computer campaigns as a way of doing something different. “It was interesting to watch, but it wasn’t really clear to us what we were seeing,” says Bill Kelley, the copywriter behind the first Apple II adverts, recalling his first demo of the machine.

When the initial ads which ran showed a sexist scenario in which a woman slaved in the kitchen while her husband typed on the Apple II, Steve Jobs received a furious letter from a woman in Oregon, complaining about it. Future commercials for the machine reversed the equation, and started a trend for Apple ads which subvert viewer expectations.

"Within just a few weeks, Steve [Jobs] received a letter from a woman in Oregon, complaining that the ad was sexist -- which it very clearly was," says original copywriter Bill Kelley.

“Within just a few weeks, Steve [Jobs] received a letter from a woman in Oregon, complaining that the ad was sexist — which it very clearly was,” says original copywriter Bill Kelley.

Ultimately, the Apple II was a superb machine, and a triumph of collaboration between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who would never work so well together again. It had great peripherals like the Disk II 51/4-inch floppy drive, superb software ranging from games to productivity tools, and it changed the face of computing years before the Mac, iPhone or iPad were gleams in the eye of anyone at Apple.

First sold in 1977, the product line continued on until 1993, selling somewhere between 5-6 million computers in the process.

Happy birthday, Apple II!

Do you have fond (or not so fond) memories of the Apple II? Share them with us in the comments!

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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