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Telling Apple's untold history

Telling Apple's untold history
By Harry McCracken • Issue #3 • View online
Hello! I promise that this newsletter won’t typically be overwhelmed with tech nostalgia and/or links to my own work. For this issue, however, I’m going to look at some of the articles I’ve written over the years about the history of the company I still think of as Apple Computer, Inc.
There’s a lot of Apple history out there, good, bad, and indifferent. In my pieces, I’ve tried to avoid rehashing oft-told tales in favor of uncovering items which even Apple devotees haven’t seen before. Mostly, I wrote these stories because I’d come across an artifact and been transfixed by it–and figured other people would be, too. 

I’m not sure when I first wrote something entirely devoted to the history of Apple. But here’s an early example: In 2009, I did a Technologizer series about Apple rumors and included a story which looked at scuttlebutt published in ancient issues of InfoWorld–then newly available on Google Books–about allegedly upcoming Cupertino computers such as the Apple IV and Apple V.

								  Apple Rumors: The Early Years
You know how news publications prep for the passing of famous people so they can rush something into print when the time comes? When I wrote for TIME, the famed newsweekly did do that in certain instances. For example, there was a famous ailing person whom the publication took so seriously that for weeks, we stood ready to publish issues with or without a tribute section. Alternatively, if death occurred out of sync with the normal publication schedule, there would have been a standalone commemorative issue. (Naturally, the person in question didn’t leave us until considerably later.)
In the case of Steve Jobs, however, TIME did not have a plan in place. Jobs died on the afternoon of October 5, 2011; that happened to be a Wednesday, and Wednesday afternoons happened to be when TIME sent each issue off to the printer. Miraculously, we were able to pull back the just-completed magazine and come up with an all-Jobs issue which we could assemble in three hours. It included a fabulous portfolio of vintage photos by Diana Walker; an appreciation by Walter Isaacson (a reworked chunk of his then-upcoming biography); and a version of the Jobs obituary/assessment I’d written for which my colleague Lev Grossman rapidly (and skillfully) polished up to give it a more magazine-y feel.
Here, from TIME’s 2011 Tumblr, is a photo–is it really a Polaroid?–documenting the staff hatching the issue at the Time & Life Building. 
And here’s my online story (the one Lev had a hand in remains paywalled):
Remembering Steve Jobs, Apple Founder and Tech Innovator - TIME
I say that “we” put together TIME’s Jobs issue, but I happened to be in Tokyo at the time and was a freelance contributor at that point, not a staffer, so I didn’t have anything to do with this emergency project beyond my writing being repurposed. The fact that TIME used my online piece came as a surprise; everybody was so busy putting together the issue that they didn’t have a chance to tell me until the next morning.
Still, once I learned that I’d played a part in making this issue possible, it became one of the more memorable moments of my career. By the time I arrived back in the U.S., two days after Jobs’ passing, TIME had printed and distributed more than three million copies of the magazine.
(Side note: While I was still in Tokyo, I’d canceled my sightseeing plans, hunkered down in my hotel room, and popped out a second Jobs retrospective which was more focused on Apple’s products; as far as I know, it’s only available in a book which TIME insta-published just a few days after the magazine issue.)
By its nature, the Jobs obituary tended to emphasize well-known facts over arcana. But his death also prompted my friend Tom Hughes, who’d worked on the Macintosh project, to tell me about a video saved and digitized by Craig Elliott, another Apple veteran. It was made by Apple employees to mark Jobs’ 30th birthday in 1985, and consisted of a montage of imagery–much of it unfamiliar and wonderfully human–set to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages.”
I shared the video on YouTube, where it quickly racked up almost 250,000 views. And then Sony, which owns “My Back Pages,” issued a takedown notice. (Sorry, Sony.) Here it is, sans soundtrack, followed by a link to my Technologizer post.
To Steven Jobs on His Thirtieth Birthday - YouTube
To Steven Jobs on His Thirtieth Birthday - YouTube

								  To Steven Jobs on His Thirtieth Birthday
Craig Elliott, who’d saved the Jobs video, also shared a nifty photo which was fodder for another Technnologizer story. It showed Jobs presenting him with the Porsche Elliott had won in a sales contest.
By the time the Apple II turned 35 in April 2012, I was on staff at TIME and published an appreciation there. Part of my research involved figuring out exactly when that anniversary was: An awful lot of reference works state that the machine debuted on April 17, 1977. After delving into the details of that year’s West Coast Computer Faire, I realized that those sources were off by a day.
Apple II Forever: a 35th-Anniversary Tribute to Apple’s First Iconic Product |
A couple of months later, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of an Apple product Steve Jobs had nothing to do with: John Sculley’s ill-fated Newton PDA, also known as the MessagePad. That’s not an especially exotic idea for a story, but I decided to tackle it by actually using an original Newton to do real work such as taking notes in meetings. Not having been a Newton owner in the first place, I learned a lot. (I paid a medium-sized fortune for a minty example of the MessagePad 100 on eBay–not knowing that my sister-in-law still had her Newton and would have been happy to turn it over.)
Apple's Newton MessagePad PDA at Twenty |
Also in 2012, I wrote a short piece which was mostly an excuse to share some astounding, long-unseen 1976 Polaroids by my friend Paul Terrell, the guy who told Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak that they should be selling fully-assembled computers rather than solder-them-yourself kits. Taken at his Byte Shop store, Paul’s snapshots showed an uncased Apple-1 hooked up to a monitor and running BASIC; they’re as much a piece of history as the Apple-1 itself.
Behold, Some of the First Apple Computer Photos Ever |
Back in the early days of personal computing, I was a loyal member of the Boston Computer Society, which served as the entire computer industry’s east-coast launchpad for new computers. A few decades later, I randomly asked BCS founder Jonathan Rotenberg if the organization had videotaped any of its meetings. It turned out that it had, and my query led to some of them being digitized and preserved by the Computer History Museum.
The first such video to be released was the most significant one: Steve Jobs showing BCS members the Macintosh just days after the computer’s debut in January 1984. I managed not to attend that meeting, so it was a joy to finally see it. And it was even more fun to talk to Jonathan and others about the event, which Jobs nearly canceled after the Cupertino version of his presentation was a logistical disaster.
Steve Jobs Unveils Mac at Boston Computer Society, Unseen Since 1984 | Time
In 2014, not long after I joined Fast Company, my friend Julie Karbo kindly invited me to a reunion of her former employer, Regis McKenna, Inc. Its founder and namesake is a Silicon Valley icon who did as much as anyone to invent the art and science of marketing computers as consumer products, and did a lot of that work at Apple in its earliest years. Among the McKenna memorabilia tacked to the wall at the reunion was a 1976 memo which left me more than slightly agog:
Regis McKenna, it turned out, was both an obsessive note-taker and a bit of a packrat. In a remarkable act of generosity, he let me publish the impressions he’d jotted in 1976 as he met with Steve Jobs and began to think about how to tell the world about a garage startup called Apple Computer.
Regis McKenna’s 1976 Notebook And The Invention Of Apple Computer, Inc
Last January, I wrote about another one of the Boston Computer Society’s digitized meeting videos. This one was held a year before the Mac gala and featured two new machines: the Apple IIe and Lisa. Unlike the Mac meeting, this was one I did attend, which made watching the video particularly Proustian. But since there was a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten over the past 35 years, I also solicited memories from Jonathan, my friend David Needle, and Dave Larson, who presided over the Apple IIe portion of the event.
This 1983 Demo Says So Much About Apple’s Past, Present, And Future
At the moment, I’m not working on any articles about technology history, Cupertino-inspired or otherwise. But I’m looking forward to writing lots more of them, and expect most to concern matters that I don’t yet know anything about. To paraphrase John Hodgman–himself an artifact of Apple history–the great thing about the past is that there’s always more of it.
Comments or questions? Drop me a line: See you next week.
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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