This essay is going to be a bit uneven and scattershot and doesn’t contain any “hard tech” stuff – just some stream-of-consciousness flotsam that I wanted to get down somewhere as it was floating through my mind. Feel free to stop reading now. I won’t be offended. Promise.
There’s just something about the Apple II case, isn’t there? The way the perfectly angled plastic top pops open with that satisfying “thump”, to reveal a veritable wonderland of design and engineering genius and innovation inside. I’ve opened a thousand of those things, and yet whenever I see an Apple II in person, I feel a powerful urge to reach over the lid, pop those little plastic tabs up and explore the mysteries within. I get this little adrenaline surge of anticipation and I just can’t wait to see what’s in there. Nearly every model of the Apple II – the IIc’s portable shape being the one exception – had this easy-access system. Even the industrial designers who shaped the IIGS did a great job replicating the experience with those two little tabs that hold the lid in place. Just push in and lift!
This may seem weird, but maybe you can identify — if you read this blog, I’m betting you can. That simple, solid bump at my fingertips as the tabs give to the pressure. It’s one of the reasons I will occasionally still buy a “sight-unseen” II from eBay, especially if the price is decently low and there aren’t a lot of pictures. Mostly, you get an empty unit, dead and battered, or one with the standard Disk II drive card, 80-column card – the usual. But even when that dusty treasure isn’t stuffed with a pirates’ booty of rarities, I still find it interesting to explore. As I document the machine’s pedigree — board model, serial, manufacture date, etc (I keep an extensive FileMaker Pro database where I catalog everything I can about each model in my collection), I find myself wondering about its particular history. I imagine the fingers that tapped the keys, the programs run (and written?) on it. What did this computer do during its “useful” life? Did it host a BBS I used to call in the 1980s? Was a favorite game of mine given life through code in these very circuits? Were letters to grandma carefully composed in AppleWorks and printed out in glorious, chattering 9-pin dot matrix font on perforated, tractor fed paper? I often spend more than a few minutes Googling around for the machine’s serial number, hoping for even the smallest tidbit of information.
Though usually suffering more abuse at the hands of uncaring and carless children, sometimes machines rescued from school lots are easier to research. Many models still bear the Dremel scars, carved into them by computer lab managers in the 80s as asset tracking tools: “#13, Trails West Elementary, Bldg 3A, Rm 16″ – like some weird prisoner tattoo, forever etched into the yellowing beige plastic. Metal asset tags, permanent ink markings and peeling stickers slowly drowning in emulsifying adhesive are often common. In those cases, I can usually at least find a website for the school and have a look at where the Apple II spent a portion of its life before it was retired and eventually made its way to me.
The path is long and winding but in every case, if you’ll pardon the pun, the whole story is rarely available and the machine’s history is largely lost to the ages and fading memory, disappearing forever as original owners age and pass from this world.
Heck, even Apples advertised on Craigslist as broken/for-parts or visibly damaged and missing things like key caps, find a level of “desirable-ness” (I don’t think that’s a word) for me. They give me a chance to practice my electronics repair and hardware refurbishment skills and at the very least, can live out their remaining days as donor patients, slowly giving up parts of themselves to keep other Apple IIs alive into the future. Just like opening a present on Christmas day, only I can do this any time I want - and this is all before I even turn the machine on for the first time after acquisition.
This all started because of a chance thrift store purchase back in the late 90s, when I picked up an Apple IIGS – a machine I didn’t have the chance to own when it was new and still in production – at thrift store for $15. On my arrival home, I discovered it contained a TransWarp GS accelerator, an 8 MB Sirius RAM card and a 320 MB Focus Drive. I was ecstatic, and this was well before the days of multi hundred-dollar accelerator frenzies on eBay. The days of thrift store odysseys of discovery are long over, at least in my area – most local establishments don’t sell computer equipment any more, preferring to cash in on the local government’s tax incentives for recycling and sending the machines directly to the smashers and smelters. That particular thrill of discovery is mostly thing of my past now, and there is something to be said about the convenience of eBay’s one-click never-leave-your-house shopping experience, but I do miss the old days sometimes: combing the deserted back aisles, sifting through piles of dead, throwaway junk to find that one needle in the haystack. And, considering the volume of machines and the often-ridiculous pricing for vintage computers that move through the electronic eBay bazaar on any given day in 2013, it can be fun hunting around for that odd deal that some seller mislabeled, or that mystery card in a fuzzy, poorly-lit picture taken at a bad angle, that just begs for a chance purchase. Largely, it’s the only reason I still shop there – most sellers who have been at it for any length of time know exactly the value of what they’re offering and you’re not going to get something for a good deal. The choice machines – low serial numbers, early production models, totally complete offerings and computers purchased and then left unopened in an attic for 30 years – get bid up to astronomical levels, before disappearing into a collection somewhere, never to be heard from again. My eBay targets these days trend more to the associated ephemera – manuals, documentation, logo’d coffee mugs, etc – than the machines themselves.
But every now and then, late at night, when no one else is around and I’m sure no one is looking, I’ll make that mystery machine purchase, longing again for the “cherry high” of popping open for the first time an Apple II I’ve never seen before and delving into the treasures, and more importantly, the history inside.