When Apple's computers were ugly

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The new MacBooks were unveiled this week at an Apple event in San Francisco. They were sleek, light, beautiful, and powerful—everything we've come to expect out of Cupertino.


But Apple computers weren't always so pretty. In fact, the first, the Apple 1, was kind of hideous. But as the adage goes, it was what was inside that really counted.


"It sounds like hype but [the Apple 1] was really quite an advance over anything else people were doing," Allen Baum, a friend of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, told me. "Technically, it was miles ahead…of anything else."

Unlike its gold-sheened, modern descendants, the Apple 1 wasn't born in secrecy. Wozniak would hand out his Apple 1 blueprints and help others build their own. Everything was open-source. He'd often prototype the machine at meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, a meet-up for computer nerds that laid the groundwork for the consumer tech explosion of the last two decades.

The Homebrew Computer Club got its start on a rainy night on March 5, 1975 (40 years and a week ago), when 32 people gathered in a garage in Menlo Park, California to unbox the Altair 8800, a new computer geared toward hobbyists, and to talk about other machines people were homebrewing in their spare time. That first meeting seeded the beginning of the personal-computer revolution.


"The club sprang out of the desire of people to have their own computers. That was not possible before. It really was a revolutionary change," said Len Shustek, who was at the very first gathering of the Club. "We were kindred spirits trying to plow new ground in uncharted territory."

Back then, computers were expensive contraptions used by businesses and academics, not tools to communicate with friends. The idea that you'd have a computer to call your own was completely foreign to most people. To start, how would you even interact with it? They didn't come with monitors or keyboards. Word processing, the way we know it today, wasn't yet a thing. The smartphone, selfies and Siri were decades away.


But scientists at universities and hobbyists were starting to think about how computers might one day bust into the mainstream. At Stanford, for instance, yesterday's futurists imagined a world in which human intelligence and interaction were augmented by computers. Compu-nerds who'd been involved in Berkeley's free-speech movement, like Lee Felsenstein, envisioned a networked future where communication was enabled by machines.


But all that hinged on the existence of computers regular people could afford, and companies weren't yet making those. So it was up to the dreamers, many of whom had been working solo on their creations already, to fast-track their evolution. To do that, though, they needed a place in which to bounce ideas off each other, to try out new concepts and discard things that hadn't worked for others. That's what Homebrew was and why it was so popular: it started with 32 people, but at its peak some 300 showed up.

"We were not a group of gods on top of Mount Olympus," said Felsenstein, who organized the biweekly meetings after founder Gordon French moved to the East Coast. "The people who attended…weren’t the people at the top of the tech pyramid. They were second and third stringers, and what they had was passion and desire and a set of tech skills they could bring to the party. We provided the party. That’s the best way I can put it."


Wozniak would come with prototypes of the now famous Apple 1, the computer that paved the way for the original Mac and its many descendants—like the new MacBook announced earlier this week.


Others figured out how to make low-tech cameras from little more than a computer chip. After meetings, they'd reconvene in a parking lot and set up a tech flea market of sorts, where they'd buy and trade parts from each other.

There were other groups like Homebrew, but what made it special was its sense of community. It wasn't hierarchical. Everyone was welcome to speak and contribute, a guiding principle people often attribute to its ties to the free speech movement in Berkeley.


The last meeting of the Club took place in December 1986, but its legacy lives on. The maker movement is its most obvious offshoot. With ResearchKit, a new software platform that makes it easier for scientists to build research-oriented apps, Apple has returned to open-source. Plus, in all, the Homebrew Computer Club sprouted more than 20 companies, Apple included. So next time you prop your smartphone into a selfie stick or wait in line for the newest Apple product, think back to that garage in Silicon Valley where some nerds dreamed up the future.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter