Remember those black Apple II computers?
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Remember those black Apple II computers?

Jun 06, 2023

I doubt many do.

So here's a bit of history.

Our first home computer was a black Apple II+ sold under the Bell & Howell brand. I believe we brought it home somewhere around 1979 or 1980.

Here's an excerpt from an online history of old computer models, which reports the common assumption that it was not available to retail purchasers.

Founded in the early 1900's, Bell & Howell has always been associated with audio-video equipment – cameras, projectors, and the like. In 1979, they had a computer system which they sold mainly to educational institutions – you couldn't buy one, it wasn't available in your local computer store.

The "Bell & Howell computer" is actually an Apple II Plus computer in disguise. The normally beige case is now black, and a Bell & Howell label was attached. But as you can see above, Apple is still given full credit.

But that was wrong in one respect.

We went shopping for a home computer to see for ourselves what all the excitment in magazines was about, and found an early store in Honolulu. I don't recall much about the store and the owner, who we just referred to as "Computer Bill." As I recall, it was a small store that may have competed with Computerland, the first large chain of computer stores, although my memory of this is rather hazy.

One day there was a stack of boxes in the store containing these black Apples, which had somehow been diverted from educational sales to this retail store. We asked no questions, and took one home.

The computer's memory was limited to 48k, as in kilobytes, later expandable with an additional memory card that brought it up to 64k. Compare that to today's entry level computers that are often delivered with 128 gigabytes of internal memory.

Start doing the math. A single megabyte is about 20 times larger than that original 48k, and a single gigabyte is 1,000 times more than a megabyte, so 128 gigabytes is…immense by comparison.

At first, there was no disk drive available. Software came on casettes, and you plugged a tape recorder into the computer and downloaded the software. Apple Writer was the first software we bought, and it immediately suggested to us that this technology was going to become extremely useful. I think we may have purchased a dot matrix printer at the same time, or very soon afterwards, and started writing. It was like magic.

It wasn't too long before Apple's first floppy disk drives became available. It could store over 100kb on a single 5" floppy disk. Huge. Later, when the first hard drive became available for the Apple II, it held a monstrous 5 megabytes. Compare that to today's drives that can pack terabytes into a tiny package (terabye=1,000 gigabytes; gigabyte=1,000 megabytes). Whew.

Anyway, we were hooked. We later bought several Apple II Plus computers as their capabilities increased and prices dropped. Graduated to a Mac Plus when they arrived at the beginning of 1986, and rode the Mac wave through until today.

Along the way, we bought an early Powerbook in the early 1990s, later supplanted by one of the colorful iBook laptops when they were introduced at the end of the decade. And the laptops were parallel to our continued upgrades through many generations of Mac desktops. Today Meda and I each rely on a 16" Mac laptop powered by Apple's M1 chips, accompanied by iPads (I’m writing now on a 9.7" iPad Pro, while Meda uses the latest generation iPad Mini). And, of course, the little computer we carry with us everywhere (packaged as an iPhone).

Having lived through the early years of this computer age, we fully appreciate how far we have come!