Co.Design

Buy Your Own Rare, Unreleased Apple Computer Model

Slated for auction June 4, this foam model of a prototype has a vertical screen that predates the iPad's portrait orientation by some 20 years.

If you're interested in Apple history marginalia, we have an auction for you. A rare foam model of a never-released Apple Macintosh prototype will appear at auction June 4.

"There are plenty of prototypes in the design phase, but rarely do they make it to market," says Apple historian and author of the book Apple Confidential Owen Linzmayer. "Usually Apple holds onto them or destroys them." That's why it's so unusual to see this one: a foam model of a prototype with a vertical screen that was created in 1989, as part of the design process for the Apple Macintosh LC.

The Macintosh LC (it stands for "low-cost color") was the first affordable color-screen Macintosh computer. "Affordable" doesn't mean quite what affordable means today; selling for $3,000 in 1990, with inflation, that'd cost more than $5,400 in today's dollars. It was criticized for being too expensive, but was still an important step forward for Apple in a few key ways: it was the first effort for Apple to create an affordable computer, instead of relying on the high-priced, high-profit-margin machines they'd been making before.

This particular prototype doesn't look much like a Macintosh LC. The most striking part is that vertical screen; no Macintosh has ever been made with a vertically oriented screen, and in fact the closest product to that that Apple has ever produced is the iPad, which is often held in portrait mode. Linzmayer notes that Apple once sold a portrait-orientated monitor, called the Apple Portrait Display, but that was a specialized accessory, not a built-in element of a computer.

So why would anyone even want such a screen? "The vertical screen would have been ideal for seeing a full page of text in its natural orientation, so good for word processing or desktop publishing," says Linzmayer. And in fact there's been a small move back to a more portrait-oriented type of screen: the iPad is one example, but so is the 4:3 ratio of some forward-thinking computers like the Google Chromebook Pixel and the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

The foam prototype will sell for an estimated $1,200 to $1,800, much cheaper than the original Macintosh LC but, well, it's made of foam. It's part of an auction collection called "The Story of the 20th Century," which will premiere at Bonhams on June 4.

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  • I'm fascinated by the amount of computing history that is being discarded rather than saved. In 100 years, people are going to have a hard time not only finding foam models but working models of mass-produced systems from the 20th century. People have been treating them as ephemera.