Thanks to my high school computer studies class in the 1980s, the Apple II was the first computer that I ever used — and that makes it a very significant machine for me.
My high school year was the first one at the school to do computer studies. Initially, the class was not very well-equipped, and we had to make do with something like three Apple II machines. I had nothing to compare it with, and it shaped my ideas about 8-bit microcomputers. Eventually, the class would get several BBC Micro computers as well.
In the early days, I remember playing Asteroids in an after-school activity, and having to share the Apple II computer with a classmate. During lessons, we used them to learn BASIC programming.
Too Expensive for Home
Although the Apple II actually dates back to 1977, it remained popular in the 80s. However, the idea of owning one didn’t even seem like a vague possibility to me, because it was so much more expensive than other 80s home computers.
Floppy disk drives were virtually standard right from the start. In all my time using the machine, I never stored Apple II programs on audio cassette. Perhaps the use of disks helped make it feel like a fairy serious up-market machine, despite its age.
After using the Apple II for a number of months at school, I got a Sinclair ZX Spectrum at home. That was a very small computer, and used audio cassettes instead of disks — so it was a very different experience. It would be a few more years before I finally owned a disk-based computer — the Commodore Amiga 500, in 1987.
Becoming familiar with the Apple II at school was good preparation for the future. When I later attended college, even though my course didn’t really make use of them, I remember one particular break time when I walked into a room full of Apple II computers. The lecturer was trying to get something set up, before the next lesson started. It was clear that he was not very familiar with the basic operation of the machine, or the keyboard shortcuts.
The computer was just sitting there, with the disk drive spinning, and refusing to load anything. I’d seen that many times before, and instinctively hit a magic key combination to make it reboot. It was the sort of thing I’d done countless times in the past, when I was at school. So when it worked, I wasn’t quite ready for his reaction — he was amazed, and seemed to think that I was some sort of genius! I quickly left the room, before he asked me to do anything more complicated…
Little did I know that my first employer would also happen to have a few Apple II (and Macintosh) computers. Not long after I started work, I saw John (my new boss) trying to interface an Apple II to a dot matrix print head. He was attempting to write timing-critical code using compiled BASIC. But it was far too slow to have any chance of working.
Most models in the Apple II series used the 6502 processor, clocked at about 1 MHz. (For more details, see A Brief Overview of the Apple II Series.)
Luckily, I had a Commodore 64 at home at the time, and I’d learned 6502 assembly language. So I brought in my Commodore 64 Programmer’s Reference Manual (for the 6502 opcodes), and hand-assembled some code to output the data to the print head. When it worked, it effectively secured my role at the company.
My job involved designing and building interfaces for things such as barcode scanners, printers and label applicators. I also wrote the code needed to make it all work. We even worked on an experimental self-scoring dartboard system at one point!
After writing 6502 code on the Apple II, I switched to hand-assembling 6303 code, to run on single-chip microcontrollers, which I’d used in various circuits. The chips were UV-erasable, and programmed using an EPROM programmer, fitted in an Apple II card slot.
Sound was never required in the software I wrote. For fun, I sometimes played around making siren effects on the Apple II, using 6502 assembly language.
Over the years, I spent a lot of time at work using Apple II, IIe, IIc and IIGS computers. The IIc was small, with a built-in disk drive. And the IIGS (which stood for graphics and sound) had a faster processor, which gave a very welcome boost to productivity (more details). Sadly, I only really used the IIGS as a faster and better IIe. I didn’t spend much time exploring its unique and powerful graphics and sound facilities.
One minor thing that I especially liked about the older models was the repeat key (labelled ‘REPT’), which you could hold down with another key, to make it repeat. Later machines worked like modern keyboards, where you press and hold a key, then wait for an initial delay, before the auto-repeat kicks in. Back then, I didn’t like to wait. But after years of using modern keyboards, I suspect I wouldn’t like to go back to using the REPT key again.
Apart from playing a few games at school in the beginning, I almost always used text mode, rather than graphics. And despite the Apple II having colour capabilities, all of the ones that I used only had monochrome monitors, with either green, amber or white phosphor.
Looking back, it’s strange to think of how many hours I spent using various Apple II machines — but yet I’ve never owned one.
The Apple II has certainly had a big impact on my life, all the way from my early teenage years at high school, right through to my mid-20s at work.
Do you have memories of using the Apple II series?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.