The Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle is home to some of the most noteworthy machines ever created. But a new exhibit opening this week will showcase what one official at the Paul Allen-founded institution called “the most important computer in history.”
Lāth Carlson, executive director of Living Computers, added to that designation by saying the metal box with a keyboard is “also the most boring to look at.” But for fans of computing and Apple in particular, the Apple I that once sat in founder Steve Jobs’ office is exciting for a whole host of reasons.
The machine is the centerpiece of a new permanent Apple Computer Exhibit opening on Friday at the museum, in which visitors are invited to more closely examine the first two decades of Apple and the impact that the company’s people and products had on personal computing and the world as we know it today.
On the second floor of the museum in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, curator Aaron Alcorn and his team have carved out a significant amount of space to tell Apple’s story from 1976 to 1999. The Jobs machine will be displayed alongside another Apple I, billed as the only operable version of the company’s first-ever product that will also be available for use by the public. Additional machines include original Apple II, IIe, IIc, Apple III, Lisa, and Macintosh computers, as well as a Bondi Blue iMac.
“About 200 of these were made, around 70 are known to have survived, and around seven are operable,” Carlson told GeekWire while showing off the museum’s working 1976 Apple I. “We’re going to be running Steve Wozniak’s version of BASIC that he wrote on it.”
Carlson said the only other Apple I that’s been run recently, that the museum knows of, is a machine bought by The Henry Ford museum in Michigan for nearly $1 million. Carlson said it ran once. “We’ve set this up to run every day for about the next 10 years,” he said of the Living Computers machine, which was acquired about 11 years ago for an exhibition in Albuquerque, N.M., where Allen and Bill Gates originally started Microsoft.
As for what Allen paid, Carlson would only say that the billionaire “got a very good deal” because at the time the machines were not considered the collectors items that they are today.
The earliest details regarding Wozniak, Homebrew Computer Club in Palo Alto, Calif., Jobs, The Byte Shop, the $666.66 price point for the Apple I and much more are all part of the rich history on display in the new exhibit.
“Things just kind of came together,” Alcorn said of the 4 1/2-month process of building it all out. “It was one of those things where I sent a quick email off to one of our archivists, ‘I really want this magazine,’ and then two days later, ‘Oh, we just got this donation, this is what you were looking for.'”
It’s not a new concept for the museum — conceived of by the co-founder of Microsoft — to collect Apple items and put certain pieces on display. And the idea for the exhibit did actually come from Allen sometime last year.
“We’ve always actually had a fairly significant Apple collection, and we’ve always had Apples on display,” Carlson said. “I think people a lot of times come here and are a little surprised to see that. They associate us with Paul Allen, with Microsoft. And a lot of times people don’t realize Microsoft provided a lot of the early software and hardware for Apple, and continued to over the years. When Steve Jobs went back to Apple, there was a significant investment by Microsoft — $150 million — to keep the company basically going. And they agreed to keep providing Office for Macs.”
The museum made a point of making sure that the long history of the two companies working together is told more comprehensively in the exhibit.
“In the early days, there wasn’t this ‘I’m a Mac, I’m a PC’ thing going on,” Carlson said, referencing the 2006-era Apple ad campaign. “The two were so intertwined for the first 15 or 20 years.”
The opening of the exhibit coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first West Coast Computer Faire, in San Francisco, which is where the Apple II was released. In 1980, Allen initiated the creation of the Microsoft SoftCard, allowing more software to run on Apple II computers and helping to accelerate Apple’s growth.
The connection between the companies does eventually split in the exhibit, where IBM gets into the game and picks Microsoft’s operating system. Go one way and you’re into the rise of Windows 95, etc.; choose the other direction and you’re into Apple’s evolving story.
And the Apple story isn’t all rosy. The release — and recall and re-release — of the business-oriented Apple III, for instance, was a total misstep for the company. But it was a big one, and Jobs is eventually pushed out in 1985. He goes on to start NeXT and get involved with Pixar and so on.
Carlson said that Jobs was “never one to look back” which explains why Apple doesn’t seem to collect or showcase historical items like these on its own — and why Jobs would vacate his office and leave behind everything, including a piece of computing history.
After employees were invited to do so, an Apple engineer named Don Hutmacher walked into Jobs’s office and left with the Apple 1 and a pound of Starbucks coffee — another rarity in Silicon Valley 1985. Hutmacher was a huge fan of Apple, where he worked for about 20 years. After he passed away this past year, his family found the computer in his garage, where it had been sitting for about 30 years.
Carlson said the machine, housed in a prototype metal case, was one that Jobs and Apple’s first investor, Mike Markkula, would take on the road to demonstrate its capabilities to potential investors. It had even been modified by Bill Fernandez, the first employee that Apple ever hired. But Jobs wouldn’t have gone looking for it when he eventually came back to Apple.
“It didn’t have a value to him … he always was looking forward,” Carlson said.
Eight siblings in the Hutmacher family recognized the significance, and agreed it should go to Living Computers.