June 5, 1977: The first Apple II, the personal computer that puts Apple on the map, goes on sale.
Having previously been shown off to a few thousand rabid fans at the West Coast Computer Faire, the Apple II’s arrival means the masses can finally get their hands on the breakthrough machine. A base unit costs $1,298 — the equivalent of $5,237 in 2017 money.
Apple II: A machine ahead of its time
Although Apple previously made the Apple-1, the Apple II was the company’s first computer that mattered. The Apple-1 never sold widely, or in large quantities. It was always intended more as a fun demo for Steve Wozniak’s Homebrew Computer Club buddies than a serious money-spinner.
The Apple II proved different. Although users still needed to provide their own monitors, the computer boasted many hallmarks of Apple’s later machines. That started with an attractively machined case designed by Jerry Manock, who later went on to design the first Macintosh. (For people who couldn’t get out of the hacker mindset, a circuit board-only edition was also available.)
As a computer, the Apple II was ahead of its time. Most notably, this meant color graphics. It also boasted a whopping 1MHz MOS 6502 processor, integrated keyboard, built-in BASIC programming environment, expandable memory from 4K up to 48K, eight expansion slots, and a sound card.
Customers also got an audio cassette interface for loading programs and storing data. One year later, Apple debuted its enormously successful Disk II floppy disk drive, which let users replace their audio cassettes with much-faster floppy disks.
As Wozniak wrote in Byte magazine around the time of the Apple II’s debut: “To me, a personal computer should be small, reliable, convenient to use and inexpensive.”
A giant hit for Apple
The Apple II became a giant hit for Apple. The year it debuted, it brought in $770,000 in revenue. That figure increased to $7.9 million the following year, and a massive $49 million the year after that.
Despite efforts to replace it with machines like the ill-fated Apple III and (more successfully) the Macintosh, demand remained incredibly strong for the Apple II. In fact, Apple continued producing updated versions until November 1993.
The Apple II brought a number of important players into the world of high tech. Those included Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and John Carmack, the legendary coder behind smash hit games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake.
The computer also earned Apple its first “killer app,” in the form of the essential spreadsheet program VisiCalc.
As many amazing computers as Apple has released over the years, it is unlikely that any — with the possible exception of the original Macintosh — will ever show the same ability to reshape the computer industry as we know it.