You probably weren’t paying attention when a tiny company called Apple Computer introduced its second product, the Apple II microcomputer, at the West Coast Computer Faire on April 16 and 17, 1977. (I wasn’t.) You may never have owned an Apple II. (I didn’t.) But it’s still easy to get fascinated by the machine and its legacy. (I sure am.) And there are many ways to explore its world — many of which you can do without getting out of the chair you’re sitting in right now, thanks to the Web.
1. Read an epic account of its life and times
Steven Weyhrich’s Apple II History is an exhaustive, excellent look at the II and its offspring. Weyhrich has been working on this masterwork for two decades, and is currently preparing a book version.
2. Watch a so-so TV movie’s depiction of its launch
Pirates of Silicon Valley, the 1999 made-for-tv flick starring Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates, features a recreation of the West Coast Computer Faire at which the Apple II debuted. (Joey Slotnick plays Woz; Josh Hopkins is Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.) The scene takes its liberties. Apple’s booth was neither that small nor the only thing at the show that attracted crowds. And the part about Gates and Allen being chagrined to find the booth of their partner, microcomputer pioneer MITS, empty while Apple’s was mobbed? Forget it: MITS didn’t even exhibit at the show. (Maybe the planned Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher will do better by the Faire.)
3. Read a great first-hand report of the introduction
David Ahl, publisher of the legendary Creative Computing magazine, was an attendee and exhibitor at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire. He published a lengthy account of the show that’s a more dependable record of what went on there than the Pirates movie — including an interview with Apple’s Mike Markkula, who ambitiously boasts that Apple wants to be “the computer company.” Markkula also says that the 4KB of RAM in a base Apple II is “more than adequate.” (The new iPad has 250,000 times as much memory.)
4. Visit Apple’s first office
Silicon Valley is bursting at the seams with nondescript office parks, but the complex at 20863 Stevens Creek Blvd. in Cupertino is at least mildly historic: it’s where Apple moved after it got too big to fit into the garage at Steve Jobs’ parents’ house. The company maintained space here even after relocating its headquarters to a nearby building on Bandley Drive in January 1978. Its current home base, 1 Infinite Loop, is not far away. So is the land where it plans to build its wildly ambitious new “spaceship” headquarters.
5. Watch a very early ad for the Apple II
“Introducing Apple II.” I’m not sure what year this local ad for an Oklahoma City computer store aired — 1979 at the very latest, I suspect — but it assumed nothing about viewers’ knowledge of PCs. So it explained that Apple’s machine could do everything from balancing your checkbook to letting “the family…invent their own pong games.” The bloop-bloopy soundtrack, presumably generated by an Apple II, would have been impressive at the time.
6. Watch some later Apple II ads
Here’s Dick Cavett declaring the II to be “the appliance of the eighties,” which sounded cutting-edge back then:
1984’s Apple IIc was promoted as a portable computer, although it still assumed that you were going to hook it up to a bulky CRT TV:
Before Alan Greenspan became a legendary chairman of the federal reserve, he endorsed the IIc:
The Apple IIgs tried to catapult the 8-bit Apple II platform into the 16-bit era of personal computing, and for a few years, it succeeded:
7. Buy your very own Apple II
Apple stopped selling the Apple IIe in late 1993, giving the Apple II line an amazing 16-year run. But there’s still an active collectors’ market for used machines. eBay is an obvious place to shop for them; prices vary widely depending on exact model, condition and included accessories, but you can pick working examples up for a few hundred dollars. Not bad considering that the original Apple II sold for $1298 in 1977 — or nearly $5000 in current dollars.
8. Seek Apple II support from Apple
Can the tech-support experts at the Apple Store’s Genius Bar help you troubleshoot a balky Apple II? Probably not — but if you ever lug yours in for repair, let me know how it goes. Meanwhile, here’s an actual piece of Apple II support which Apple.com offers, for reasons I can’t explain: instructions for modifying an Apple II so you can easily type both upper- and lower-case letters.
9. Play some Apple II games, on whatever computer you’ve got
If you can’t lay your hands on an actual Apple II, fear not — a number of emulators let you turn modern-day machines into a virtual Apple II. The simplest one to try is Virtual Apple II, which does the job in your web browser, with no software installation required beyond a browser plug-in. It includes a vast repository of vintage games, which will leave you either deeply nostalgic or profoundly grateful for how far we’ve come — or maybe a little bit of both.
10. Watch a movie or TV show guest-starring the Apple II
By the 1980s, the Apple II was a cultural icon, and it appeared in scads of movies and TV episodes, as documented at the amazing site Starring the Computer. Film appearances include Creepshow, Spies Like Us, Take This Job and Shove It, The Thing and Where the Buffalo Roam; on the tube, the computer showed up on The Facts of Life, Miami Vice, T.J. Hooker and other programs. And here’s a bit from National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) with Chevy Chase and — 16 years before he became Bill Gates — Anthony Michael Hall.
11. Visit the Apple II Day Spa in Arvada, Colorado
As far as I know this “address for relaxation and rejuvenation” has nothing to do with the computer whose name it shares. But it’s been around since 1985, the middle of the Apple II era.
12. Watch a 1988 TV show about the aging Apple II line
When Stewart Cheifet’s venerable Computer Chronicles public-TV show aired this episode, the Apple II was 11 years old and no longer glamorous, and it wasn’t entirely clear that it had much of a future. (Apple CEO John Sculley does his best to fake enthusiasm.) The program includes walkthroughs of the Apple IIc Plus and IIgs, two later variants.
13. Attend an Apple II conference
It’s no surprise that the Apple II inspired entire conferences back in the day, such as Boston’s Applefest. But one Apple II conference is still with us. It’s called KansasFest, and the next one will be held in July in Kansas City, MO.
14. Read classic Apple II coverage at TIME.com
- In 1979, “Shiny Apple” took note of the fact that the Apple II was being used by everyone from belly dancers to politicians, and sounded impressed by Apple’s expectation that it would sell 100,000 machines that year.
- 1982’s “The Seeds of Success” was part of our first cover story on Apple and Steve Jobs.
- Also in 1982, “The Real Apple of His Eye” wondered if the Apple II and other microcomputers were as addictive as tobacco.
- “The Updated Book of Jobs,” which we published in the famous 1983 issue which named the computer as “Machine of the Year,” profiled Steve Jobs in an era when the Apple II was still his most famous creation.