Machines that count: the Apple Macintosh

Computer historian John Pratt looks back at the Apple Macintosh

It’s old news: Apple started a revolution. The truth is that the original Macintosh was more than just a piece of software — it was an engineering masterpiece that has rarely been equalled for either ingenuity or precision.

Apple executives first saw Xerox’s Alto running in November 1979 and they knew then that the graphical user interface was the future of computing. And, once you’ve seen the future, nothing else will do, so Apple dedicated itself to creating a new standard in computing.

It would take a complete re-think to make a mass-market computing appliance out of Apple’s Lisa — actually, the first machine to feature a mouse and graphical interface — but that’s just what Apple did. Steve Jobs sequestered some of Apple’s brightest young renegades in a separate building, behind a service station, complete with their own Jolly Roger pennant flying over the roof. Inside, it was a bit like Xerox PARC, with bean bags and Kool Aid on tap — you name it, it was laid on for these children who would become the parents of the revolution.

Even at the time, it all sounded a little out of control and the antics of the Mac team divided Apple down the middle. But look at the jewel they created.

First, there was the digital board. It was actually designed by a 25-year-old Apple II repair technician called Burrell Smith, who had once admitted to his colleagues that he was in need of a challenge. Based on a Motorola 68000 processor, running at 8MHz, the board featured 64KB of ROM and another 64KB of RAM — and somehow that was almost enough.

The design of the Macintosh case was fixed early on in the process. It was designed from the outset to take up no more room on the physical desktop than a sheet of paper, and to create a convection current that would cool the machine silently without a fan.

The analogue board featured a clever switching power supply and the Mac’s video circuitry. The resolution of the display was just 384 x 256 pixels. There was no hard disk and just one 400KB Sony floppy disk drive.

It sounds tiny today, but Apple shipped every Macintosh with a disk that contained not just the operating system, but functional copies of MacWrite and MacPaint, too. The engineers behind the Macintosh operating system deserve as much credit for what they didn’t write as for what they did. It’s hard to imagine an operating system, complete with graphical user interface, that fits in less than half a megabyte of space, but that’s just what Apple created.

It’s hard to believe today, but the Mac was also shipped with an audio cassette that instructed users on how to manipulate the mouse. Click, drag and drop — this had never been heard of before.

The truth is that the Macintosh functioned well enough — until you created something that you wanted to save. Mac users learned to swap disks — power users could even do it single-handed — until their documents were finally saved.

Apple marketed a machine that looked something like the original Mac for almost 10 years, in which time it lost weight, cost less and gained memory, and some speed. By 1990, the Mac Classic supported 4MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive, all for less than $1,000.

This was the machine that set personal computers on the trajectory they have continued to follow ever since.

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