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6-Figure Price Tag Expected For Rare Apple-1 Computer At Auction

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 7:17 am

Before Apple was a trillion-dollar company, before its phones and laptops came to dominate the tech industry, it was just a California startup working out of a garage. Now, one of the first products the company ever made — the Apple-1 computer — is about to be the star of a live auction on Sept. 25 in Boston.

"The Apple-1 is so iconic of that era, of the garage era of Silicon Valley, that I think there is almost no other object that really encapsulates what it does culturally and technologically," says Dag Spicer, senior curator for the Computer History Museum, which has an Apple-1 in its collection. Spicer says it's one of their most popular pieces.

Looking at an Apple-1 is kind of like looking at the Rosetta Stone. You don't totally understand what you're seeing, but you sense its significance.

"The Apple-1 didn't come with a keyboard, didn't come with a monitor or anything like that," says Corey Cohen, an expert who restores Apple-1 computers. "It really was just the board, but the board itself was really the first you could only 'buy assembled' computer."

In front of Cohen on a desk is an original Apple-1 circuit board, one of 200 built in 1976 and sold for $666.66. Home computers back then weren't for the masses. With this technology, coders could do very little.

"Write small programs, play a couple of video games that were text based, interactive fiction. And that's pretty much it," says Cohen.

This particular Apple-1 is unique, according to Cohen, because it hasn't been modified, and the unit still works. He has it rigged up to a vintage keyboard and small black-and-white monitor.

"So this is your boot-up screen. Not much to it, kind of flashing all the empty characters," he says, typing in a few commands.

"So, we will clear the screen, we'll reset. It's like watching grass grow."

The live auction will likely be more exciting. Bobby Livingston, executive vice president for Amherst, N.H.-based RR Auction, says they can trace this Apple-1's origins.

"This particular board was purchased from the original owner for $300 in 1976," says Livingston. "I think the original guy only had it for about three months. He was a mainframe guy, he said he didn't want to mess with it, so he sold it to our client."

The seller is remaining anonymous, as he or she stands to make a lot of money off that purchase from 40 years ago. The estimated auction price tag is $300,000.

With that kind of cash, the winner is buying a piece of Apple history, and the Steve Wozniak legend.

"The summer that I built the Apple-1 computer, I was totally aware that a revolution was close to starting," Wozniak, who designed the Apple-1, told Bloomberg News in 2014.

"Steve Jobs came into town. He'd pop into town, see what I was up to, the latest thing I'd designed for fun, and then he'd somehow turn them into some money for both of us," he said.

Jobs and Wozniak would go on to make a lot of money, but not off the Apple-1. It was the Apple II, released a year later in 1977, that would forever change home computing.

Corey Cohen, the Apple-1 expert, says anyone willing to spend the kind of money expected in the auction is likely to keep the vintage computer behind glass.

"From a layout perspective, it is considered a piece of art," says Cohen. "Many people hang these on the wall."

Copyright 2018 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit New Hampshire Public Radio.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Apple has its biggest hardware event of the year later today. This is when they unveil all these new devices - always a whole lot of anticipation. Of course, before Apple was a trillion-dollar company, before its phones and laptops came to dominate the tech industry, it was just another California startup. And now one of the first products the company ever made is about to hit the auction block. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports on a very valuable Apple-1 computer.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Looking at an Apple-1 is kind of like looking at the Rosetta Stone. You don't totally understand what you're seeing, but you sense its significance.

COREY COHEN: The Apple-1 didn't come with a keyboard. It didn't come with a monitor or anything like that.

BOOKMAN: This is Corey Cohen. He's known nationally as the guy when it comes to Apple-1 restorations.

COHEN: It really was just the board, but the board itself was really the first you could only buy assembled computer.

BOOKMAN: In front of him is one of the 200 original Apple-1 circuit boards. It was built in 1976 and retailed for $666.66. Don't picture a normal computer. This is just the guts, the brain, a thin green rectangle with chips and capacitors and microprocessors soldered on in neat rows. With this powerful technology, you could, well...

COHEN: Write small programs, play a couple of video games that were kind of text-based, you know, interactive fiction. And that's pretty much it.

BOOKMAN: Home computers back then weren't for the masses. They were for hobbyists and folks who liked to tinker. This Apple-1 is unique because it hasn't been modified and the thing still actually works. Cohen Has it rigged up to a vintage keyboard and small black-and-white monitor.

COHEN: So this is your boot-up screen. There's not much to it. It's just kind of flashing all the empty characters. So we will clear the screen. We'll reset. It's like watching grass grow.

BOOKMAN: The auction on September 25 will likely be more exciting. Bobby Livingston, who helps run New Hampshire-based RR Auction, says they can trace this Apple-1's origins.

BOBBY LIVINGSTON: This particular board was purchased from the original owner for $300 in 1976. I think the original guy only had it for about three months. He was a mainframe guy, he said. He didn't really want to mess with it, so he sold it to our client, who's had it since 1976.

BOOKMAN: The seller is remaining anonymous. He or she stands to make a lot of money off that purchase from 40 years ago. The estimated auction price tag is $300,000. With that kind of cash, you are buying a piece of Apple history, a piece of the Steve Wozniak legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE WOZNIAK: The summer that I built the Apple-1 computer, I was totally aware that a revolution was close to a starting.

BOOKMAN: This is Wozniak, or Woz, who designed the Apple-1, speaking in an old Bloomberg News story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOZNIAK: Steve Jobs came into town. He'd pop into town, see what I was up to, the latest thing I designed for fun, and then he'd somehow turn them into some money for both of us.

BOOKMAN: These guys would make a lot of money but not off the Apple-1. It was the Apple II released a year later in 1977 that would forever change home computing. Dag Spicer is with the Computer History Museum, which has an Apple-1 in its collection. He says it's one of their most popular pieces.

DAG SPICER: The Apple-1 is so iconic of that era, of the garage era of Silicon Valley, that I think there's almost no other object that really encapsulates what it does culturally and technologically.

BOOKMAN: Corey Cohen, the Apple-1 expert, says anyone willing to spend this kind of money is likely to keep the computer behind glass.

COHEN: From a layout perspective, it's considered a piece of art. Many people hang these on the wall.

BOOKMAN: Even if you don't understand how it works, it's a fascinating thing to look at.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman.

(SOUNDBITE OF 7 MINUTES DEAD'S "THE PASSING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.