Bell & Howell: Not Just Black

Every so often, a new bit of Apple II trivia comes my way. I was recently sent a message asking about whether Bell & Howell had made a beige version of its computer. David Bohrman had pictures of this, and informed me so. I asked for some clarification, and he kindly sent me several pictures (which I have placed in the photo Museum here).

With further photos, Bohrman discovered that what he had was a product made by Bell & Howell for their black Apple II computer that made it more useful for schools, but one that had been made to match the color of a standard beige Apple II.

Beige Bell & Howell backpack: in place on an Apple IIe

This backpack was actually a great add-on to the Apple II, and would have been a good device for Apple to have included as an option to sell to customers. As uncommon as this item is, I suspect that Bell & Howell did not sell too many.

Beige Bell & Howell backpack: media plugins

This shows the media plugins on the left (as seen from the back).

Beige Bell & Howell backpack: power controls

And this is the power center on the right side.

See the entry in the Museum for a couple more pictures. Thanks to Mr. Bohrman for this interesting bit of history!

A Tale of the Disk II

Disk IILast year was noteworthy as the 35th anniversary of the release of the original Apple II. This year, 2013, has its own significant anniversary to commemorate. It was 35 years ago this coming July that the Disk II floppy drive was made available for the Apple II. As much as the Apple II was itself groundbreaking, the release of the Disk II was a similar watershed event in the history of Apple as a company and specifically for the Apple II. It is noteworthy that the keynote speaker at KansasFest for 2013 is Randy Wigginton, an important figure in the foundation of the Disk II and Apple DOS.

As with most such events, there is back story that often does not get repeated. And though tech news usually does not pay attention to history, the Disk II was recently a topic of blog posts. CNET News posted a story about the origins of Apple’s first disk operating system, specifically the original DOS for the Apple II. The story came to light because of a donation made to the DigiBarn Computer Museum in Boulder Creek, California. Though Randy Wigginton created the core RWTS (read/write/track/sector) routines that interfaced with the disk drive, it was Paul Laughton who was the primary author of Apple DOS. Laughton recently donated some of his original papers about the project to DigiBarn. Specifically, he gave them copies of the letters between Apple and Shepardson Microsystems, for whom he worked, and also source code listings for the original versions of DOS that were delivered to Apple in June 1978.

IBM logoAccording to the story Laughton tells on his web site, he had a background working at IBM for a number of years, where he worked on all aspects of the operating system on the IBM 360 computer. This gave him a deep understanding of a how a computer should interact with various devices (telecommunications, disks, printers, and more).

One of the first jobs Laughton did for Shepardson was to work on writing a BASIC interpreter for a computer that Apple was designing in early 1978, code named “Annie”. Though this project was eventually canceled, it did bring Laughton into contact with Steve Wozniak.

The system on which Laughton did his work was a minicomputer that used punched cards for input of source code. This was compiled on a 6502 cross assembler, which produced 6502 object code that could be output to punched tape. What Laughton needed from Wozniak was a way to connect a paper tape reader to an Apple II, in order to get the code for his BASIC interpreter into an Apple II for testing.

Disk II controller card prototype - Photo courtesy of Lonnie Mimms
Disk II controller card prototype – Photo courtesy of Lonnie Mimms

When Laughton and Wozniak got together to work on the paper tape reader, he noticed that Woz seemed discouraged. Laughton asked him about it, and Woz told him of the disk controller and floppy drive project he had completed during his Christmas vacation in 1977 and had demonstrated at the Computer Electronics Show the following month. Now he had what he felt was an impossible to meet deadline for getting a fully functional disk operating system written and ready to go, in addition to the need for finishing up work on some aspects of the hardware design.

Hearing this, Laughton told him that he could create a disk operating system for Apple in a relatively short period of time. Woz was happy to hear this, and arranged for a meeting to make it happen.

(I recently asked Laughton about this by email, as it seemed to me that creating a disk operating system would be a very large task. He told me that his background in working with IBM systems made the whole process very clear in his mind. He said, “When looking at the task of writing the DOS, I knew the structure of the sub components needed and the magnitude of each of the sub components. I had, if you will, the Blueprint, in my head from day one. Actually, Apple DOS was not a major project when compared to some of the other tasks I had been assigned at IBM. It was a very simple system.”)

Section of Shepardson contract with Apple
Section of Shepardson contract with Apple

Apple and Shepardson negotiated a contract, which is summarized in the letter of April 10, 1978 donated to DigiBarn. Laughton would write and deliver to Apple a file manager, an interface with BASIC (both Integer and the Applesoft BASIC that was in development), utilities to backup and copy a disk, and “disk recovery” (the details about what that meant are not explained. The agreed upon price for this work was $13,000 ($5,200 immediately, and $7,800 on delivery). The promised delivery date was May 15, just thirty-five days later.

Laughton stated that his task was helped by Wigginton’s contributions to the project. Not only did he create the RWTS code, but Wigginton came up with the method used in allowing either BASIC to interact with DOS (specifically, watching printed output from a BASIC program for a Ctrl-D following a Ctrl-M; code after that would be a command for DOS). Using this trick made it unnecessary to create a new ROM version of BASIC that included custom disk commands; BASIC required no changes at all!

As far as the CNET story was concerned, that was the end of the story of the creation of Apple DOS, and the author of that story went on to discuss the impact of the Disk II to Apple. However, on reading the rest of the letters that were donated, there were necessary adjustments to the DOS specifications that required Apple to come back to Shepardson and negotiate further work to be done:

  • May 10, 1978 – $4,000 to include a utility disk control program, written in Integer BASIC, to relocate DOS to the highest available location in memory (recall that many early Apple II systems were only 16K or less due to the high cost of RAM; although 16K would be the smallest RAM size that would run DOS, they had to allow for variable sizes from 16K through the full 48K). Also needed a FORMAT command that would put DOS on the disk. Delivery was promised by May 26.
  • June 16, 1978 – $3,500 for additional changes to DOS, not specified in the donated letters.
  • due by June 20, 1978 – $1,500 for adding changes to switch from Applesoft to Integer (FP and INT commands), remove listing of free sectors on CATALOG (an unfortunate choice), and changes to how the Volumes parameter were to be used
  • due by June 23, 1978 – (no cost specified) allow hex parameters on BRUN, BLOAD, and BSAVE commands, added the BRUN command, add a write protection error message, and using the APPLESOFT program on the disk to run RAM APPLESOFT, with proper startup done by using the FP command.
  • June 26, 1978 – $500 contract for additional changes (probably those listed on the notes for June 23).
  • October 5, 1978 – contract for bug fixes, cost not addressed.

This would bring the apparent full costs to Apple for DOS to $22,500, not the $13,000 number that CNET reported.

DOS 3.1When one considers the few updates that were applied to DOS, from its original DOS 3.1 release, to DOS 3.2, 3.2.1, and through to 3.3, it is indeed impressive how well designed it was from the very beginning. It was not a perfect system; it transferred buffers around three times during certain disk operations (which was the foundation of later disk enhancement packages sold, including Diversi-DOSDavid DOS, and Pronto-DOS). But like Wozniak’s Integer BASIC, it did an amazing amount of work in its small 10K footprint, with a small number of eventually identified bugs.

I would agree with CNET that Laughton’s work was immensely beneficial to Apple. It took the Apple II, which actually struggled in its sales compared to the other two members of the 1977 Trinity (the Commodore PET and Radio Shack TRS-80), and made it a more attractive option. According to sales numbers compiled by Jeremy Reimer in his December 2005 post on Ars Technica, during 1977 (the year in which each of those computers was released, Radio Shack sold one hundred sixty times as many units as did Apple, and Commodore sold six times as many as Apple. Clearly, the high entry fee of the Apple II ($1,298 for a 4K machine, compared to $495 for a PET and $599 for the TRS-80) was a damper on its first year of sales. Even in 1978, the sales of Apple’s competitors were significantly higher.

When one looks at the sales numbers in 1979, however, it is a different story. The increasing availability of the Disk II, falling RAM prices (making 16K and even 48K systems more affordable), and the introduction of the Apple II Plus raised Apple’s sales by 360% compared to 1978. Even though both competitors came out with their own floppy disk solutions (August 1978 for the TRS-80, and spring 1978 for the PET) at a similar price point as the Disk II, Apple’s disk drive was faster and more reliable. Though still ahead in terms of volume, the TRS-80 units sold in 1979 increased by only 30%, and the PET by 50% over the same time period. And sales of the Apple II continued to grow over the next several years, peaking in 1984.

Without a doubt, the reason we have iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers today is because Apple became a highly successful and profitable company starting in 1979, due to the success of the Apple II in those early years. And the Apple II owes its success in a large part to thirty-five-plus days of work by a former IBM employee. Bravo, Paul Laughton; we salute you!


A Cover Up

We have a penultimate (possibly ultimate) cover for the book. I think this is looking pretty nice!

Sophistication & Simplicity cover

Polishing Apples

I haven’t said much about the upcoming book for a while, primarily because I’ve been busily at work making corrections, revisions, and in some cases additions to the material. The editor going over the material is not an Apple II person, which is actually a Really Good Thing. He has questions about things that were obvious to me (and to my generation of Apple II users), things which are less obvious to a potential present-day audience.

It is likely that the revisions and polishing are going to push back the potential release date from April 1st to a later date (and no, that date was not selected as an anniversary of the founding of Apple). But the final product will actually be better than what I had originally envisioned, so hang in there!

Retrocomputing Mania!

The year 2013 is shaping up to be one in which there will be a bumper crop of retrocomputing goodness happening. The event I am most familiar with is KansasFest 2013, the 25th annual such event. Our keynote speaker will be Randy Wigginton, one of Apple’s early employees and significant in the early improvements to the Apple II. The committee has released the logo for the event, and will hopefully be open for registration soon.


But wait! There’s more!

If you live in the southeastern part of the United States (or even if you don’t and you don’t mind a bit of travel), the Vintage Computer Festival Southeast 1.0 (VCFSE) will be held in the Atlanta area on April 20 and 21, 2013. This event is hosted by the Atlanta Historical Computing Society and the Computer Museum of America. One of the featured speakers is Robert Tinney, who created the cover illustrations for many issues of BYTE magazine. Also at the VCFSE will be the Apple Popup Museum, an exhibit tracing the history of Apple Computer and its products, from the days of the Apple-1 to the present.

If you can make it, this event will be well worth it!

VCFSE 1.0 small

The Final Year of Resource Central

Looking through my archives of material, I found some items that I’ve never seen online anywhere else. The text of Open-Apple and A2-Central is available in a couple of places, but no one has posted PDFs of the newsletter Ahs that was released during 1994 as the organization tried to transition itself into the failing Apple II world.

AhsOn this page in my Files (downloads) section, there are five PDF files from this year. There is a single issue of the ICON Beacon from January 1994, introducing the organization; there are three issues of Ahs, for Spring, Summer, and Autumn 1994, and finally there is the Spring 1994 issue of the Resource Central catalog, which was advertising the new ICON organization.


In a separate section in the Files section I have also included a scan of the January 1989 issue of the GEnie Livewire magazine. This can be found here.

GEnie Livewire

Sophistication & Simplicity

Just over twenty years ago, the final part of the Apple II History was uploaded to the A2 Roundtable on GEnie. From a series of newsletter articles explaining the various models of Apple II computers released by Apple, it had evolved into a much longer work, that also delved into the Disk II drive, DOS, ProDOS, software, peripherals and other hardware, and many other topics. These articles were written to be available to reprint in newsletters for Apple II user groups around the country (and eventually around the world), and in general was well received.

In all the years since the release of the original version of the History it has become a much more polished document, and one that better tells the story of how the Apple came about, evolved, and affected the company which produced it. I have also learned more of the story of what happened after 1995, when a combination of a hard drive crash on my IIGS and lack of functioning backup discouraged my further participation in the Apple II community for several years.

As I’ve made revisions and corrections to the chapters over the years, I have had many who have wanted a print version of the History. For a while I resisted these suggestions; my thought was that since it had been online for so long and continued to be available on web pages, why would anyone want to buy a book? Regardless, the requests continued to appear at times.

So, for the past year, I have been working on revisions and updates to the history, and a re-ordering of the information to be able to offer it as a book. The result is the best version of the History than I’ve ever had, and with the rising interest in retrocomputing in general, the time is opportune to produce a print book.

I am pleased to announce that I have a publisher. Variant Press of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has agreed to print the Apple II History as a book. Entitled Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life & Times of the Apple II Computer, the book is scheduled to be available in April 2013, running over 500 pages. It will have the text of the Apple II History as found on this web site, including some revisions not posted here, many of the pictures that appear here in the various chapters (as well as a few not found on the web site), and include a never-before-released chapter dealing specifically with KansasFest and the Apple II story in the years after Apple abandoned the platform.

Variant Press has previously published the story of Commodore, in Brian Bagnall’s book, Commodore: A Company On The Edge, and plans to continue that story with Commodore: The Amiga Years (to be released in the summer of 2013). Variant has also published books on Lego Mindstorms programming.

The cover has not yet been finalized, but when there is more information I will post it. It will be available through Amazon and other book retailers. We are also looking into creating a digital book version as well.

Randy Wigginton At KansasFest 2013

This year will be the 25th KansasFest, the annual meeting of Apple II enthusiasts held in Kanas City, MO. It will also be the 35th anniversary of the release of two important parts of the classic Apple II experience: The Disk II drive, and Applesoft BASIC. It was these two innovations that played a major role in propelling the Apple II ahead of its contemporaries.

It is fitting that for this KansasFest, the keynote address will be given by Apple employee #6, Randy Wigginton. Wigginton helped Steve Wozniak with the software used to control the Disk II drive, and when Woz was too busy to write his own floating point BASIC, it was Wigginton who took the source code from Microsoft and adapted it to the Apple II, creating Applesoft BASIC.

To hear more about Wigginton, his time at Apple and afterwards, plan to be in KC this July, from the 23rd to the 28th! Check out their web site here.

Home Stretch

I am closer to getting this book thing a done deal. However, I could use help from the Apple II History audience regarding a couple of pictures.

When I first collected pictures to spice up the text-only Apple II History years ago, I was focused on low-bandwidth (it took too long to load large pictures at 33.6K or 56K modem speeds), and so had small pictures that were not necessarily high quality. For the book, however, I need pictures that are higher quality.

Take a look at the page for the Apple IIe here:

just down to where the photo of the lower left keyboard is. If anyone has a better picture of the lower left keyboard for a non-enhanced Apple IIe, I would love to be able to use it. (The original source is offline, so I can’t contact that person for a better picture.)

I also would love to see a better picture of the Mac LC running the Apple IIe emulator card, like the picture seen here:

A picture like this one, with a screen shot of an Apple II program, would be ideal, if anyone has the setup that would allow a photo.

Views of the Apple IIc, like those in chapter 8, and the Apple IIe to IIGS conversion as seen in chapter 9, would also be wonderful.

From that point on, most of the pictures I have are good quality for a print version.

Any takers?

The Apple II Guide and Mark Twain

Back in the late 1980s, Apple II developers and users were dissatisfied with the amount of attention that Apple as a company was devoting to the Apple II. Despite its position as the real breadwinner for the company (the Macintosh was still struggling to support itself), the Apple II was not getting much corporate love or resources. Attendees to the first KansasFest (Apple II Developer’s Conference) in 1989 made a point of letting Apple know of this disparity. And Apple promised to make things better.

It happened to some extent, but not to the extent that the Apple II community wanted. One of the things that did appear in the year after KansasFest 1989 was a publication from Apple (yes, they were $19.95, but many were given away for free) that specifically told anyone interested in the Apple II what that computer could do. The Apple II Guide first appeared in the fall of 1990, and provided information about the Apple II for users new and old. It had a historical timeline, explained the basics of the currently selling models (Apple IIe, Apple IIc Plus, and Apple IIGS), discussed productivity tools such as AppleWorks, hypermedia (featuring HyperCard IIGS), and the Video Overlay Card. It further discussed Apple II and Macintosh data exchange, troubleshooting, customer support, dealers (with a nation-wide listing of authorized Apple dealers in every state in the U.S.), talked about ProDOS and GS/OS 5.0, listed user groups and popular software, and even featured popular books, periodicals, and online services that could be used as Apple II resources. It also included capsule stories about how people who had Apple II computers were using them for business, education, and home use.

Apple II Guide 1990

Notice on the cover photo the various bits of Apple II paraphernalia and history that is displayed. We have a Woz-signature Apple IIGS, a photo of an Apple-1, a photo of kids using an Apple II (again, the focus on education that Apple had in their corporate mindset at the time), a copy of a button from the Apple II Forever event that launched the Apple IIc back in 1984, and a button from Apple’s “Kids Can’t Wait” program, in which they donated computers to schools.

And Apple did not stop at this. They created an updated volume of The Apple II Guide for 1992. It contained similar information with appropriate updates (it mentioned some of the features of GS/OS System 6.0, for example). Take a look at the cover of the 1992 edition:

Apple II Guide 1992

Again, a symbolic grouping of various Apple II items. Crayons and coffee for school and home use of the Apple II; a picture of the Apple IIe Emulator card for the Macintosh LC (pictured at the top of the photo), a window with a flower (not sure of the significance of that item), a Platinum Apple IIe, and paperclips and calendar pages (possibly a business reference, but rather weak). And on the right upper side, a model of the Roman numeral “II”, next to a book with the name “Mark Twain” on it, with an old-style school desk on top of that. And most of the world would look at that as just another scholastic reference.

Those in the know, however, were aware of the reference. It was at the September 1991 Apple User Group satellite conference that plans had originally been in place to announce an upgrade for the Apple IIGS, a model that, like the Macintosh, would come with a built-in 3.5 inch floppy drive, as well as a built-in SCSI hard disk (since System 6 ran best from a large capacity drive). Code-named Mark Twain (from his famous quote, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”), this product was pulled from the satellite meeting at the last minute, based on an executive decision. It was not until prototypes of the Mark Twain began to show up in 1996 that the details of this project were better understood (since Apple “does not comment on unreleased products”).

What is also interesting, with regard to The Apple II Guide, is a photograph that Mike Westerfield and Jim Pittman came across in 1996 when they got to look at the prototype and associated materials that had been included with it. The photo is almost identical to the one that appeared on the cover of the 1992 edition, with the exception of the upper right:

Apple II Guide 1990 original picture
Photo credit: Mike Westerfield (his scan of the original photo)

So, had the Apple IIGS Plus (my guess at its product name) been released, this photo would have been used for the cover of the 1992 edition of The Apple II Guide. How would have the Apple II History turned out differently?