I discovered Ed Tracy’s fun and informative series of articles titled “Apple and the History of Personal Computer Design” this afternoon as I was looking for something to do that I could pretend was work, should the boss’s shadowy form suddenly find itself looming in my cube entry. It ties in with his series on computer design and is a good read. This paragraph caught my eye:
“Though thought impressive on its introduction, the plastic of the initial Apple II case was quite crudely constructed. To fit a tiny budget and tight deadline – Jerry Manock was hired only nine weeks before the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1977 where the Apple II was introduced – reaction-injection molding was used. This process is fast and inexpensive to set up, but leaves surface irregularities. Many case parts had to be sanded to fit together properly. Moreover, the light brown paint chosen did not adhere well to the polyurethane, so that surviving cases from early production inevitably have flakes revealing the lighter colour of the plastic below. By December 1977, tooling was completed for cases made out of the more durable and smooth ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic which did not require painting or finishing and could be produced in larger volume (Kunkel, 15).”
The bit about the irregular cases was particularly arresting, as I’d heard before of the unique personalities of each early Apple II and how they were so physically different, a lid from one case couldn’t be used in another because it wouldn’t fit. I could feel my post-lunch carb crash hiding in ambush in the shrubbery just up the sidewalk, wearing a 70’s era hockey goalie mask… waiting… and I decided to stave it off for a bit by researching more on this. Nothing like reading to help you stay awake, right?
Anyway, Jerry Manock’s own web page discusses this a bit more. In the first paragraph under the “Manufacturing Process” section of his Apple II page (found here), Manock states:
The initial units used the Reaction Injection Molding process from wooden tooling due to the very short three month design and development schedule. The lids were hand finished, then painted, and were non-interchangible. (sic)
There’s that non-interchangeable lid thing again. He also mentions wooden tooling, a thing I find particularly fascinating, as I have next to no knowledge of industrial design and case manufacturing. I’ll admit that I didn’t even know wooden tools could be used in what sounds to me like a physically punishing environment. Stuff gets all hot and melty, and there’s chemical gooeyness usually happening. Stuff that you don’t normally associate with getting chopped up and punched full of holes, gets chopped up and punched full of holes, that sort of thing.
Were they really using wooden tools to make those Apple IIs? Why on earth would they do that? (Spoiler alert). Money, that’s why. (Shocking revelation, I know.) It didn’t take Google long to lead me to the March 8, 1982 issue of InfoWorld, in the search giant’s own collection of digitally available issues. On page 12 begins an interview of one “Steven P. Jobs”, then just 26, deigning to gift the eager tech news journal readers with some of Apple’s unique philosophies and even some company history. The piece was part of the issue’s “Special Section: Apple Computer”, which I’m sure Jobs insisted upon as a condition for allowing himself to be interviewed. Therein, he reveals the answer to my piny mystery.
To the InfoWorld interviewers’ question, “What sort of problems did you have at the beginning?“, Jobs – his penchant for bombast and hyperbole already well-developed and on full display, even at that young age – replies,
We didn’t know much about plastics back then. We went with the Apple II case with a molding process. We didn’t have much money to make molds. So we hired an outfit in Mountain View. The company said it would make the molds for $10,000. The problem was, you got wooden molds for $10,000. Well, we introduced the Apple II and all of a sudden the orders started coming in like crazy. The wood came off the molds and a third of the cases would stick in the mold. We almost went broke because we couldn’t get cases. It got so bad at one point that we decided the outfit wasn’t interested in supporting us, so we went down there and some of us kept the guy busy while the rest grabbed our mold real quick.
So there you have it. Steve and his wild and crazy team, pulling of one caper after the next! A totally minor bit of Apple trivia there, but a fun afternoon spent researching Apple II case manufacturing was enough to keep me awake for a fe…d.g.hkllkhndg;lhn…
… While visions of Reaction Injection Molding Process manufacturing danced in his head…