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The Apple-1, the computer that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built in 1976, at the Computer History Museum.

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Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum with an Apple-1. It was just a circuit board — you had to supply the rest yourself.

JASON HENRY • New York Times,

Demand is soaring for Appleā€™s first product

  • Article by: STEVE LOHR
  • New York Times
  • May 23, 2013 - 8:19 PM

 

More than a decade ago, at a vintage computer fair in Silicon Valley, Dag Spicer had an opportunity to buy an original Apple-1 for $2,000. He passed. Any regrets? Not really, he said.

“Of course,” Spicer added, “I could have paid off my mortgage now with what it would be worth.”

Perhaps so. Last November, an Apple-1 sold for $640,000 at an auction in Germany. That sale surpassed the previous record of $374,500 set only five months earlier at Sotheby’s in New York.

The astronomical run-up in the price of the original Apple-1 machines — made in 1976 and priced at $666.66 (about $2,700 in current dollars) — is a story of the economics of scarcity and techno-fetishism, magnified by the mystique surrounding Apple and its founders, as the company has become one of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world.

The next test of the Apple-1 market comes Saturday, at the same auction house in Cologne, Germany, where the record sale took place last November.

Even the auctioneer, Uwe Breker, expressed some surprise at the price reached last fall. For this week’s auction, the reserve price — the minimum sale price — is $116,000, and Breker conservatively estimated the likely range from $260,000 to $400,000. “But we will see,” he said.

The auction market for the vintage machines, experts say, is thin and uncertain. For example, a nonworking Apple-1 failed to attract its reserve price of just over $75,000 at an auction last year in London. The record-setting auctions last year were of working originals, as is the Apple-1 going under the gavel Saturday.

The sky-high prices suggest irrational exuberance. But technology historians say there is a rational appeal to possessing an Apple-1. “It is Apple’s creation story, the physical artifact that traces this incredible success to its origins,” said Spicer, a senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

The Apple-1, Spicer added, was instrumental in the early transition in personal computing from its hobbyist roots to becoming a huge commercial business. Others were there too, notably the MITS Altair, which was introduced before the Apple-1, and was the first personal computer that Microsoft’s founders, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, wrote software for.

But Apple proved to be the enduring computer maker. And its founders embodied the hobbyist-commercial shift. Steve Wozniak was the hardware-hacking engineer and Steve Jobs, who died in 2011 after a battle with cancer, was the business visionary.

Apple-1’s are scarce. An estimated 175 to 200 were produced in the Jobs family garage in Los Altos, Calif. Mike Willegal, who maintains an online registry of Apple-1’s, has verified the existence of 46 of them.

A computer motherboard with clusters of chips was all that the bare-bones Apple-1 offered. Users had to supply their own keyboards, monitors and power supplies. It had 4 kilobytes of memory; a basic MacBook Air has more than a million times that. It could be used to run primitive computer games and write simple programs.

The Apple-1 was a reputation-building entry, but it was the Apple II, introduced a year later in 1977, that would sell in the millions and establish the company’s business.

© 2014 Star Tribune