The Living Computers: Museum + Labs recently opened a permanent exhibition dedicated to the first two decades of Apple, I caught up with the Museum’s executive director Lath Carlson to find out more.
Steve, meet Paul
The show opened in early April 2017 with a VIP preview night, to which the museum invited some of the amazing people who first created the personal computer, shaping the early days of the industry.
This was quite a remarkable party, not least that it saw Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen (who also founded the museum) and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, meet for the very first time.
Got to tell Paul Allen how what he did was a part of starting Apple. That's what doing things first is about. pic.twitter.com/A2Fws6mcai— Steve Wozniak (@stevewoz) April 13, 2017
In the world of microcomputers, Apple products, and specifically those designed by Woz, really stand out.
“The circuit board layouts and efficient use of chips that Woz designed are beautiful pieces of engineering,” said Carlson. “The Apple II remains one of the best designed personal computers ever.”
Getting the crew back together
“I was rounding up the early Apple employees for a photo around our operational Apple 1,” Carlson told me. “Only when they were all lined up did they realize that the whole crew from Steve Jobs’ parents’ garage was there, except Steve himself," he said.
"Woz, Bill Fernandez, Chris Espinosa, Randy Wigginton and Daniel Kottke, they had not all been together since the garage days.”
(The original Apple I was built by these men in Steve Jobs’ parent’s garage).
The founder of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, Gordon French, and moderator Lee Felsenstein, founders S-100 computer companies like Cromemco and IMSAI and the family of Apple engineer Don Hutmacher also turned up for the VIP event.
What you’ll find
The Apple exhibit includes three Apple I machines with one being the only operable machine in the world. These machines – the first-ever Apple product -- were all handmade by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and their small team.
Of the approximately 200 Apple I computers produced, fewer than 70 remain.
“By using the Apple 1, you experience first-hand how much more user friendly a keyboard and display screen is to use, when the machines that came before relied on switches and lights,” said Carlson.
“Visitors will also get a sense for how limited many of the early personal computers were. They had poor resolution screens, very little memory (the Apple I came with 4K of RAM), and in many cases (like the original Macintosh) not much software.”
“For me, seeing Steve Wozniak demonstrate the Apple I for his wife Janet at our event is not something I will ever forget,” said Carlson.
There are other computers in the collection, including the Sanyo MBC-550, Amstrad PC1512, Microsoft “Green-Eyed” Mouse, Apple III, Powermac G4, Microsoft SoftCard and the 1990 NeXTcube.
The NeXTcube is also a highly important historical artefact. You could even argue that the reason you are reading this article now is because of that system.
Because Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world’s first Web browser and first Web server on a NeXTcube in 1990.
Putting the personal in PC
It’s easy to forget that the early days of computing were enabled by very personal triumphs and shared efforts.
“In the early days of personal computers, everyone was working together. Microsoft was supplying up to 50 companies with software in the beginning, with much of it for Apple.
"People would start projects in their garages, form companies, then fail and join other companies. In 1975-1978, it was a tremendously, dynamic industry, and one of the few times in the development of computers that single individuals could have such impact.”
Carlson came across lots of evidence of the personal empowerment writ deep inside the tech industry during the opening night.
“Many times, one of the guests would recognize a computer, or component they had a hand in designing, which made the event that much more memorable. The guests were so busy talking and reconnecting that very little of the food was eaten!”
Hello Apple I
Carlson had a great story about showing Kottke the Apple I that was once in Steve Jobs’ office.
“I was talking to long-time friend of Steve Jobs, and sometimes Apple employee, Daniel Kottke. We were looking at the Apple I that had come from Jobs’ office when Daniel remarked that the hand-drawn return arrow on the keyboard had been drawn by him,” said Carlson.
“He then went on to reminisce about the time Jobs asked him to modify an Apple 1 with an EPROM so it could run BASIC without the need to load it from a cassette tape.
"At that moment, I had the privilege of letting him know that the machine we were looking at was that same Apple 1, the only known machine to undergo that modification.”
That moment when Daniel Kottke realized he's looking at the Apple 1 that Steve Jobs asked him to modify with an EPROM with BASIC on it. pic.twitter.com/c96Nl1b4J9— Lath carlson (@LathCarlson) April 13, 2017
Just imagine how you might feel if you were Kottke coming across that.
We invent tomorrow
It is interesting to think about the significance of the technologies and individuals represented through this show.
It is particularly significant as we look to a future in which computers become so much a part of life they almost disappear. As technology heads into AI, IoT, wearables, mobile and more, tomorrow’s tech future will look very different from today’s – and vastly different from then moments captured by the museum.
“Moore’s Law is at its apex,” Carlson explains. “Basic physics dictates that there is a limit to how small components can get, whether it is the width of a photon of light, or the size of an atom. Also, most of us now have more computing power than we really need.
"What we will see is a continued decrease in the cost of processors, to the point where they are almost free. We are also seeing some really interesting advances in memory.”
The interface is also transforming.
“In the future, I expect brain interfaces to continue to improve, and as computers get smaller and mostly cheaper, an increase in IoT-type devices and more ubiquitous computation,” he said.
(Here’s one idea of how that might work).
Knowledge is power
Why did the Museum decide to launch this exhibition? To educate, entertain, and inspire, Carlson seemed to say. Most people won’t be able to visit the museum, but even at a distance the founders wanted to stress their message:
“The computers of today are the direct descendants of the machines built by a bunch of people just like them in their garages and bedrooms, said Carlson. “Their collaboration, sharing and open standards enabled this world-changing technology to take off.”
Ultimately the museum staff hope to infect people with a sense of personal empowerment and inspiration.
“We want visitors to walk away from this exhibition inspired by the stories of the people that created these computers. Inspired to use technology, to solve their own problems, or even to create new technologies.”
You can help
The museum is looking for interesting computers, software, documentation and memorabilia to add to its collection. “One thing we are collecting right now is computer industry swag from historic conferences and fairs,” said Carlson. If you have something you’d like to submit to the museum you should contact them using this form.
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