The origin story of the Apple computer is, by now, the stuff of design-geek legend: In 1976, from the Los Altos, California, garage belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Jobs, the young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the Apple-1. They built 200 models, which sold for $666.66 a piece. The majority of Apple users today wouldn’t know what to do with the original; it was just a green motherboard that had no monitor and no keyboard. Wozniak built the actual thing, and Jobs had the good marketing sense to sell it to hobbyists at the Homebrew Computer Club (an early seedling of Silicon Valley tech culture), with the power supply, display, and keyboard sold separately.
The garage, the price tag, and even the near-cartoonish look of the circuit board form a humble creation story. And now, not even 40 years later, it fetched $387,750 in a Christie’s online art auction. "First Bytes: Iconic Technology From the Twentieth Century" closed today and featured a round up of vintage tech products, including relics like the Translucent Mac SE from 1987 and the 20th Anniversary Macintosh Computer from 1997. Amazingly enough, the artifacts are all functioning products.
"The working condition of the pieces was of the utmost importance," Christie’s specialist James Hyslop tells Co.Design. The material up for auction spans both history and commercial success, and Hyslop says the eclecticism was by design: "We were especially keen to have a range of early Apple products, to tell a fuller story of the early history of the company’s production, and to have a wider range of estimates, to make accessible to a range of collectors."
All 10 items up for auction came from private collections. The Apple-1—including a manual and a signed photograph of Jobs and Wozniak—was expected to go for around $500,000 (based in part off another Apple-1 that sold in May for $546,000 at the Auction Team Breker in Germany), but the catalog also listed old-school software floppy disks that were estimated at $200.
"First Bytes" is especially timely, given the much-ballyhooed upcoming Steve Jobs biopic. In that light, the items up for auction might just represent yet another way that we fetishize the tech giant’s history. But the auction also illuminates the evolution of Apple design, offering a historical backdrop to the very recent, much-dissected revamping of iOS 7 (to name but one example). Every single design or flat icon is an offshoot of what were once some very fundamental design principles.
"The sleekness of design that still persists with the company is evident in each of these computers," Hyslop says. "Even the architecture of the Apple-1 is wonderful. Not only was it the first to come pre-assembled—a marketing innovation that would change the way we bought computers—but the motherboard with the capacitors and processors exposed is such an iconic image in computing history."