Who Invented the Computer? A Byte at the Apple

Who Invented the Computer? This is the forty-third installment in our ongoing series.

The Apple II was America's first home computer.

When it comes to personal computing, one machine is recognized as "The Computer" that started it all. The Apple II is widely considered the most important computer model ever manufactured. The original Apple II and later iterations had a successful and highly profitable 17-year run, with more than 6 million copies sold from 1977 to 1993. It paved the way for the design and function of almost every personal computer since.

The brainchild of Steve"Woz" Wozniak of the Apple Corporation, the Apple II was vastly different from other personal computers. Unlike previous machines that were sold in kit form, the Apple II came completely assembled. It was an 8-bit home computer with circuitry, permanent memory for the BASIC language, a keyboard, and a power source all comfortably encased in a foam-molded hard plastic shell. The display was an attached television. All users had to do was plug it in and turn it on.

A Star is Born

A prototype of the Apple II caused an excited stir among trade show attendees in December of 1976 and, when the commercial model officially hit the market on June 19, 1977, technology fans gobbled it up. Apple II's immediate popularity pushed the Apple Corporation to the pinnacle of the home computer market.

With an MOS 6502 chip for the CPU and 4 KB of RAM (that could be expanded to 48 KB), the Apple II sold for a reasonable price of $1,298. The external storage was originally on a cassette tape that would soon be replaced by a more convenient external floppy disk drive.

For a personal computer at that time, the Apple II was impressively powerful. Making it even more powerful was a heretofore unimagined feature that would become essential on future personal computers: eight extension slots on the motherboard and accompanying ports on the back of the machine.

The extra slots and external ports were Woz's idea. Although others — including Apple cofounder Steve Jobs — at first disagreed with the idea, calling it a waste of space and an added expense, the slots/ports proved integral to the machine's popularity. Woz's visionary feature enabled the immediate connection of both existing and not-yet-invented peripherals, such as floppy and hard drives, printers, modems, RAM upgrades, gaming controllers, and the supremely important mouse.

Attaching gaming controllers especially helped spread the word among gamers as the Apple II proved to be a popular game development platform. The Apple II, along with two other then-popular home computers, Tandy Corporation's TRS-80 and the Commodore PET, laid the foundation for today's massive personal computer industry.

A New Paradigm

The Apple II was America's first home computer.

Although the Apple II continued selling, by 1979 Apple itself was facing increasing pressure from competitors to come out with something new. The traditional model of computer manufacturing was to make a new machine, sell it for a few years, then replace it with another new machine that was more powerful.

This presented two problems: the expense of designing, manufacturing and marketing a new computer; and overcoming user reluctance to purchase a new machine. Users typically liked their old computers and disliked not being able to use existing programs and games on new machines.

Jobs, however, preferred this planned obsolescence of continually churning out newer and better products, and argued for the company to continue operating along that line. Jobs wanted to quickly phase out the Apple II, in favor of creating a new and more powerful machine.

Woz disagreed and successfully convinced management that upgrading the Apple II and making it backward compatible with existing programs would be less expensive and ultimately more satisfying to consumers. Contented Apple II owners would not have to give up their old programs and games and buy new ones.

The company introduced the Apple II Plus in 1979 for the slightly lower price of $1,195. While it was backward compatible and came with improved graphics and a full 48K of memory already installed, it was essentially the same as its predecessor. Still, the II Plus was comfortable for existing customers and sales remained high.

Going from Plus to E

The next model, the Apple IIe was unveiled in 1983. A more powerful computer, the IIe came with 64KB of RAM and enabled users to type in both upper and lower cases. This newer model would go on to become the most popular of all Apple computers, remaining in production for a full decade.

The "e" in the name stood for enhanced, and the IIe was just that: It included a full ASCII character set and keyboard, four-way cursor control, and an auto-repeat ability that enabled users to repeat keystrokes by simply holding down the key rather than pushing it each time.

The computer sold well, but really took off later that year when Apple launched their "Kids Can't Wait" program donating one Apple IIe apiece to 9,000 elementary and secondary schools in California. Along with the free computers, schools received coupons for free and discounted educational software, including the famous "Oregon Trail" game. School teachers even received free training on how to operate the computers.

The new program followed the rapidly emerging McDonald's sales model of "Catch them while their young." Students pestered parents to get them an Apple IIe computer and, learning that the machines were part of school classrooms, many moms and dads willingly forked over the money, believing the machines would help kids with their homework.

The Apple II would continue being upgraded and improved while always maintaining backward compatibility. Future iterations included the Apple IIGS in 1986, and the Apple IIc Plus in 1988. While the new models continued to sell, none ever reached the widespread popularity of the IIe.


The Apple II was America's first home computer.

The Apple II defined an entire era of personal computing and its extra slots and external ports opened the door to an independent industry of hardware products. Even today its design features continue on most personal computers. (Ironically, today's Apple computers forego the slots/ports functionality prototyped by Woz and prized by many a computer user.)

An Apple II-model computer was the first real computer many people ever saw, and its simple and inviting appearance helped users feel comfortable working with it.

Perhaps the Apple II series' most lasting contribution is in the world of gaming. At last count, 573 different games had been made for the various versions. The list of titles playable on Apple IIs reads like a pantheon of formative game titles. Among them are: "Wolfenstein," "John Madden Football," "Centipede," "Pac-Man," "Ms. Pac-Man," "Tetris," and my personal all-time favorite, "Galaxian."

And Yet ...

If there is one giant unanswered question about the Apple II it is, "Why did it not conquer the workplace?" As a low-end business machine, it was less expensive and more user friendly than the IBM PC. It was the clear winner of the home computing market throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but never pushed hard for a foothold in the business realm.

Why did Apple cede the battle for workplace computing to IBM? Maybe businesses thought of IBM and Hewlett-Packard machines as serious machines appropriate to an office atmosphere. No one knows for sure, but many people blame Steve Jobs for the Apple II's failure to conquer the business world.

Instead of a continuous improvement of the Apple II (as Woz wanted), Jobs pushed for the creation of entirely different computers. While Woz took a temporary leave from Apple following a 1981 plane crash, Jobs pulled out an unfinished machine that had languished in storage since 1979, the Macintosh.

Jobs bet the company on the Macintosh, and he won. Released on Jan. 24, 1984, the Macintosh was a complete success, selling more than 800,000 units (I bought one) in its first year. It quickly became a cult favorite, even converting a great many PC users.

Regardless of the Macintosh's success, the Apple II lays indisputable claim to being the trailblazer that cemented the fortunes of the Apple Corporation. Even in 2023, there is still something charming and relaxing about watching an Apple II in operation.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.