Get out your checkbooks, Silicon Valley geeks and Apple fan folk! You’ve got a chance to view — and even buy — one of the very first Apple computers, hand-soldered by legendary Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
A leading expert and the auction house say the device — a broken circuit board apparently crammed in a drawer for years — is a rare Wozniak-built computer that Steve Jobs, Apple’s other co-founder, used to woo a pioneering retailer at a Mountain View computer shop in a seminal tech-industry moment in 1976. But the claim touched off a lively debate among veterans of the era contacted by the Bay Area News Group, with the retailer and even Woz himself saying they’re not at all sure it’s that computer.
“My hunch,” Wozniak said in an email Thursday after being sent photos of the device, “is that it’s one of the first but not that we hand-soldered.”
In any case, all involved agree — it is an early version of Apple’s first retail home computer and extremely valuable.
The Apple-1 will be displayed this weekend at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Once considered “lost,” the device has a circuit board with solders indicating work by Wozniak and represents “the holy grail of Steve Jobs and Apple memorabilia,” according to the auction house expecting to sell it for at least $500,000. As of Friday morning, bidding stood at $407,029, with the auction live until Aug. 18.
While revolutionary at the time, the device had 256 bytes of memory. Today, a modern Mac computer has four to eight million times more than that.
Mike Graff, spokesman for Boston-based RR Auction, said Jobs gave the Apple-1 to its current owner, who wants to remain anonymous, around 1990. The device had languished for years in a drawer “with things on top of it and below it” in the famed “Apple Garage” where Jobs and Wozniak did their early work in Jobs’ childhood home in Los Altos, said Corey Cohen, a board member of the Vintage Computer Federation and a prominent Apple-1 expert.
Cohen and the auction house say Jobs used this prototype to demonstrate the Apple-1 to Paul Terrell, owner of the Byte Shop in Mountain View, one of the world’s first personal computer stores.
Now 78, Terrell remembers watching Jobs and Wozniak — “kids with long hair and sandals trying to start a company” — touting their new computer in 1976 at a monthly meeting of the now-legendary Homebrew Computer Club. As the owner of 13 Byte Shop computer stores, Terrell regularly attended the gatherings, he said.
Terrell remembers Wozniak telling club members in the auditorium of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park that if they wanted to see the device in action, they should stop by the exit on the way out for a demonstration.
“When I went outside the door and saw what was going on there I said, ‘Oh my God — I’d love to have that in my Byte Shop to sell,’” Terrell said.
He invited Jobs to come by his shop in Mountain View the next day. “I told him I wanted a fully assembled and tested computer that I could sell to people like programmers and so forth,” Terrell said. “And I would give him $500 each.”
Here’s where things get a little murky: Terrell believes Polaroid photos he took in 1976, which the auction house and Cohen say show that the device at auction is the one Wozniak and Jobs showed off at the computer club, actually show one of “the first delivery” of 50 computers he received to sell at his shops.
Despite his disputing what’s shown in the photos, however, Terrell believes “The circuit board shown and being auctioned off is certainly a prototype and could have been the one I saw demonstrated at Home Brew Computer Club.”
Achim Baqué, of Germany, curator of the “Apple-1 Registry” that tracks the computers, agreed that the device up for auction “is 100% a prototype (circuit) board, nothing you would sell.” But Baqué thinks the computer was the factory-made “one and only production prototype” representing a final design before mass production — not hand built by Wozniak but featuring some modifications he made by hand. “I have no doubts it is the prototype (Jobs) presented to (Terrell),” he said.
Cohen believes the device was not factory produced but hand-soldered, bearing tell-tale signs of Wozniak’s work, Cohen said.
“The wires run in a very tight way, and the shape of the solder is unique to how the soldering technique is done,” Cohen said. Wozniak is “famous for doing this. He puts the soldering iron in one hand, puts the wire in the other hand, and he puts the lead solder in his mouth. Very few people do this. They use tape to hold things in place. Because he’s doing it with his mouth, there’s a little less precision. It’s literally an up-and-down motion from his head.”
The device is made of a composite board far too fragile for mass production, and retail devices had fiberglass circuit boards that looked much different than the one up for auction, Cohen said.
Auction house spokesman Bobby Livingston called Cohen a “world-renowned expert on Apple 1s” and said the auction house is confident the piece “is properly described. We guarantee it.”
Cohen and Terrell agree Polaroids of the device were taken by Terrell in 1976, but Cohen insists Terrell is “definitely misremembering” by asserting the photos show one of the first 50 devices he received to sell. “People’s memories are faulty, but you can’t argue with the facts. We have the evidence,” Cohen said.
What’s Woz think? He could not say which iteration of the Apple-1 computer the device represents because the photos provided “no real clues” and showed the standard parts he used.
Woz admits he’s stumped: “I can’t tell you what exact generation this board is.”
This story has been updated to clarify comments by Paul Terrell and Achim Baqué.
WHERE YOU CAN SEE IT
Get a glimpse at the Apple-1 along with other notable relics of computing during the Vintage Computer Festival West 2022 at the Computer History Museum this weekend from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.