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Remembering the Original Apple Macintosh

A personal story of discovering and using the original Apple Macintosh computer, starting in the 1980s.

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Apple Macintosh 128K from 1984
Apple Macintosh 128K (Photo by Sailko licensed under CC BY 3.0)

Early Days

The original Apple Macintosh was released in 1984, but it wasn’t something I was really aware of until 1986, when I started work at a small printing company.

It just so happened that my first employer used Apple computers. There were quite a few machines from the Apple II series, and perhaps five of the original ‘all in one’ Macs. I think there was an upgraded 128K machine, a Mac Plus, and some 512K models. When I look back now, I feel lucky to have started work at such an unusual place.

Hardware

The Mac had a 68000 processor, which was clocked at nearly 8 MHz. It was quite a big change, to switch from using an 8-bit computer at home, to using a 16-bit machine at work.

Despite the built-in monochrome monitor being quite small, it did not seem like too much of a limitation. The resolution of 512 x 342 resolution was fairly high for a 9″ screen, and the image quality was good.

Unlike most computers, early Macs were more like appliances — they were not meant to be opened or upgraded. The first model had 128 KB of RAM, with later machines having 512 KB. Connectivity was also quite limited. Apart from mouse, keyboard and audio, there were just a couple of serial ports. The floppy drive was single-sided, with a 400 KB disk capacity. Sound was limited to a single channel, but it was generated from 8-bit samples. That meant it was relatively sophisticated, and not just limited to simple tones.

The later Mac Plus model came with 1 MB of RAM as standard, and supported up to 4 MB. It had an 800 KB double-sided floppy drive, and added a SCSI port, which was mainly used for adding external hard disks. The SE supported two internal floppy drives, or one hard disk and one floppy.

The Mini vMac Emulator, Showing Finder in Mac OS 6.0.8
The Mini vMac Emulator running System 6.0.8, showing the Finder, along with the Calculator desk accessory.

Discovering the GUI

The Mac was very different to all the computers that I’d used up until that point, and I’ll never forget learning to use a mouse and graphical user interface.

I remember using some sort of tutorial software, which demonstrated all the features, and enabled the user to practice with the mouse. It was like using a website, before the days of the world wide web.

It was clear that all the elements of the GUI had been designed to a high standard. The combination of hardware and software seemed to have an air of quality about them.

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Making Start-Up Disks

Although I spent much of my time at work with the older Apple II machines, I also got to use the Mac quite a lot, especially the Mac Plus. I remember creating start-up disks, and copying files from disk to disk. The Mac’s floppy drive was unusual, because it ran at different speeds depending on which track the head was located on.

Most of the Macs seemed to have been upgraded to 800 KB double-sided floppy drives by the time I was using them, with just one or two of the old 400 KB single-sided disk drives and disks still around. Two disk drives were almost essential when copying disks, otherwise a lot of disk swapping was required.

The original Mac could only run a single application at a time. Although I remember System 6 mostly, I will certainly have started with earlier versions. Small programs called desk accessories allowed things like the Calculator to be accessed from the Apple menu, without quitting the main application.

The Font/DA Mover was used to move fonts and desk accessories in or out of the system file. That was useful when trying to fit things onto an 800 KB 3.5″ floppy disk. ResEdit was a utility used to customise things like keyboard shortcuts.

Printing

My job was mostly about developing the electronics for a specialised printer. I also had to write code for its 6303 microcontroller, which received, stored and reproduced the image. To avoid the need to write a printer driver, our first printers used the same protocol as the Apple ImageWriter dot matrix printer, so we could print to it from any Mac application.

(A few years later, I remember using Adobe Type Manager (ATM) on System 6, to render PostScript fonts at high resolution. It was quite slow on low-end Macs, and the TrueType fonts supported by System 7 were much faster, despite that version feeling much slower in general compared to System 6.)


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Apple LaserWriter
Apple LaserWriter (Photo licensed under CC0 1.0)

LaserWriter

Compared to dot matrix printers — and the ZX Printer I’d used at home — the LaserWriter was incredible. It was fast, and produced crisp, clear 300 dpi images, which matched exactly what appeared on the Mac’s screen.

I saw colleagues using apps like QuarkXPress and Aldus PageMaker, to create magazines and leaflets.

Networking

Every Mac had a built-in network called AppleTalk, which allowed up to 32 devices to be connected together. At just 230.4 kbit/s, it wasn’t especially fast, but it was useful for sharing files. I seem to remember the speed being similar to that of floppy disks — but it was much more convenient.

AppleTalk was also used for sharing the LaserWriter. A desk accessory called ‘Chooser’ had to be used, to select the printer.

The Mini vMac emulator, running MacDraw 1.9.5
The Mini vMac emulator, running MacDraw 1.9.5

Drawing

I was quite young when I started work, and John (my boss) seemed to enjoy using the Mac. That meant that he wanted to do all the PCB layouts himself, using MacDraft or MacDraw II — although it was left to me to come up with the circuit designs!

John would print his layouts using the LaserWriter, and get me to check them — I was a sort of human design rule checker!

There was no colour of course, so double-sided PCB layouts were drawn initially using different patterns for the top and bottom layers, before later being changed to solid black, ready for the final artwork to be printed. I’d look at the maze of patterned lines on the print-out, and mark any mistakes using a highlighter pen, before returning them to John for him to correct. The cycle would then repeat. Often, the same mistakes would be present when I checked again… But it would be a few more years before I would take over the role of PCB layout.

Newer Machines

A few years later, I progressed from using the Mac Plus to the SE, which was slightly faster, presumably due to its 120 ns RAM, compared to the 150 ns RAM found in the Plus. The SE had a built in 20 MB hard drive, whereas we had eventually used external hard drives with the Plus.

At one point, we used to split open Mac Plus machines, and use the logic boards with our own choice of case and monitor, to form a custom controller for our printers.

Eventually, we got our hands on colour Macs, starting with the LC. After that came the IIsi, which had a faster 20 MHz 68030 processor and 5 MB of RAM.

McCad PCB ST on Mac IIsi, around 1992
A black and white photo of my colour Mac IIsi screen, from around 1992, running McCAD PCB ST. More

CAD for PCB Layout

Back in 1991, I spent a lot of time doing PCB layouts using McCAD software on the IIsi. With the most complex layout, it took 90 seconds to redraw the screen! The machine was significantly slower in 256-colour mode, so I tended to run it with 16 colours. The McCAD software crashed frequently, and sometimes corrupted files as it saved them! That made me get into the habit of doing a ‘Save As…’ with a different file name every 10 minutes or so, which soon filled up the 40 MB hard drive.


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Around 1994, my IIsi at work got upgraded to a Quadra 630, and the PCB which took 90 second to redraw only took 30 seconds — the Quadra’s 33 Mhz 68040 was much more powerful than the 68030 in the IIsi. However, some software crashed unless the processor’s cache was turned off — which also made it very much slower.

PowerPC

Starting in 1994, Apple moved from the 680×0 series of processors to the PowerPC. The initial machines used the 601 chip, and I had high hopes for an initial speed gain of around 3x. Although it performed well, most of my software was not ‘native’ for a long time. That meant the chip had to emulate the 680×0, which made it run at about half the speed of my 68040-based Mac.

Despite switching to a PC for PCB layout in 1997, throughout the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s, I would go on to use a range of newer Macs at work, based on the PowerPC, G3 and G4 processors — including the first iMac.

Symantec Think C
Symantec Think C

Programming

Although I worked mainly on the electronics and firmware, I got involved with writing test software on the Mac in the 80s, using Microsoft QuickBASIC. In the 90s and beyond, I used Think C/C++ and Metrowerks CodeWarrior, and started writing more of the Mac software.

Apple Developer CD "of mouse and men"
An amusingly named Apple Developer CD ‘of mouse and men’

Apple used amusing names for their developer CDs. I remember ‘Silence of the ROMs’, ‘Desperately Seeking Seven’ (around the time of System 7), and ‘of mouse and men’.

Mac at Home

In 1991, I bought a used Macintosh SE through work, and I used it at home for quite a few years for things such as Excel, MacDraw II and games. A memorable game on the SE was Shufflepuck Cafe.

Around the early 90s, I was also using the Amiga at home, mainly for Music-X, programming, painting and games. Each machine seemed to suit different purposes.

Eventually, I sold the SE and upgraded to a Performa 630, which seemed to get used for SimCity, Excel and ClarisDraw. I also did some programming at home on the Mac.

In the mid-90s, I ended up switching to Windows, and selling the Mac. The PC seemed to offer more performance, and Windows 95 made it much more usable.

Macintosh LC Internals with SCSI2SD
The insides of my Mac LC. I replaced the 40 MB SCSI drive with a ‘SCSI2SD’ device, which uses an SD card. More

Conclusion

Today, I use a mixture of modern Macs and Windows PCs. But there’s still a lot that I miss about the classic Mac days, and I’ve never found anything that beats the original Mac apps, such as MacDraw II, for sheer ease of use.

I still have a PowerPC G3 Mac, and quite a few floppy disks from the days of using older Macs. Several years ago, I bought a Mac LC and LC 475 on eBay, so I could go back and look at some of my old disks.

Do you have memories of using the original Apple Macintosh?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Related Articles

Memorable 1980s Home and Personal Computers

Remembering the Apple II Series
Remembering the Commodore Amiga

External Links

Macintosh 128K (Wikipedia)
Macintosh 512K (Wikipedia)
Macintosh 512Ke (Wikipedia)
Macintosh Plus (Wikipedia)
Macintosh SE (Wikipedia)
Macintosh IIsi (Low End Mac)
Macintosh Quadra/LC/Performa 630 (Wikipedia)
Adobe Type Manager (Wikipedia)


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