The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 2

Written by: Adam Christianson

Categories: Editorial

A Brief and Warped History of the Mac, part 2 (in which the Mac is born)

Welcome back to my column, where last week I left you all hanging in the story of the Mac. Appologies to anyone who felt cheated that we didn’t get as far as the Mac last time don’t worry, we’re getting straight there this time.

We left the story in 1981, when IBM introduced its PC and threatens the market share of the Apple II. The PC was open to many manufacturers to improve with an architecture that allowed the computer to get faster as new chips were produced. Apple needed to step up its game with a new machine that would offer more.

Apple was already on the case, proposing three new systems in 1979. Two of these systems would be a successor to the Apple II and a new high-end work machine.

The third new system was to be a games machine and was given to Jef Raskin for development. Raskin, however was far more ambitious and started developing ideas for a low-cost, general purpose home computer. Raskin’s favourite variety of Apple was a Macintosh.

It is worth noting that at this point in time, all computers – the IBM PC and the Apple II included used a command line interface. This obviously meant typing commands into the computer to get it to do things and less obviously meant learning these commands – which to many people has more difficult than learning a foreign language. This was largely due to the fact that while you can point at things and use sign language and shouting to convey concepts to a human being, whether you speak the same language or not you can generally put across at least some of your point, whereas computers at the time didn’t understand pointing. In fact, you had to know exactly what to tell them and how – something overlooked in numerous 1980’s movies where programmers were able to give computers complex instructions in plain English.
My first computer was a Toshiba HX-10 MSX, a machine that had to be programmed in BASIC language which was far from basic to learn and caused confusion for me in later life because while the computer uses the command color, the usual UK spelling of the word is colour. I found myself misspelling the word at school and later unable to get my programs to work.

10 CIRCLE (70,100),20,2
20 PAINT (70,100),2
30 LINE (110,90)-(150,140),5,BF
40 GOTO 40

This was about as far as I got – it draws a filled green circle and a light blue square and then locks itself into a loop so that you can actually see the circle and square rather than just ending. This code is illustrative, as my BASIC is somewhat rusty, please don’t deluge me with complaints if this code is wrong!

Raskin’s ideas for his Macintosh had probably already been coloured by work being done by Xerox. Founded in 1960, the company had built their empire with paper – literally. As computer technology developed, Xerox feared greatly for a future in which paper would be obsolete and all offices would be entirely electronic. Since all Xerox products were designed to print or copy onto paper this would spell disaster, unless Xerox themselves could be the innovators in the paperless office.
From these thoughts the legendary Xerox Paulo Alto Research Centre (PARC) was born. Many of the developers here had already been working with Douglas Engelbart, who as you remember invented the mouse and had been busying himself with theories on how to make the computer easier to use. Rather than typing instructions for the computer, the mouse allowed you to work with the computer graphically. Nothing like this had ever been seen before – the Graphical User Interface or GUI as it is rather unpleasant-soundingly abbreviated was revolutionary.
Early concepts had involved breaking the screen into sections and allowing items to be manipulated within these frames with the mouse or even dragged between the frames to perform tasks like copying and moving files. The vital inspiration came at Xerox PARC by allowing these frames to overlap, move and resize – in other words, a window. Other graphical technologies were invented here, such as pull down menus.
These elements were developed along with more technical innovations such as the Small Talk programming environment, Ethernet networking, WYSIWYG text editors (for anyone unfamiliar with the term What You See Is What You Get, this refers to an application that attempts to approximate how a printed document will look on screen, as opposed to what was frequently the case at the time where the printed document’s formatting was decided by the printer and bared no resemblance to the computer’s formatting) and amazingly, even a graphical page description language called Interpress that preceded PostScript and PDF technology.

Following a visit to Xerox PARC in 1979, the engineers at Apple were enthusiastic to bring these innovations to their products. With the Apple III in development, the Xerox technology was to be used in Apple’s high-end machine. Bill Atkinson was given the task of developing this machine, but wanted Steve Jobs to visit Xerox himself and see what was all the fuss about. Jobs was so impressed that he asked his engineers how long it would take to create a computer that would do these things – not realising that it was already in the works.
After that Jobs decided to take charge of the project and get some experienced managers in to take control of his company, but he ultimately proved to be a poor project manager. The machine that came out of this was called the Lisa, which stands for Local Integrated System Architecture, but is co-incidentally also the name of Steve Jobs’ eldest daughter.
The Lisa implemented much of what was learned from Xerox PARC, but had many problems that stopped it from becoming commercially viable – the $10,000 price tag probably being one of the greatest problems. On top of this, users were limited to the seven built-in applications and the 5MB external hard disk was optional. Still, the Lisa had massive power for the time, with a huge 1Mb RAM and a 5Mhz processor. It came with two 5” floppy drives and a built-in 12” monochrome screen. It was also the first commercially available machine to sell with a mouse, have a graphical user interface and introduced the concept of a Trash. Despite its lack of success, the Lisa made many refinements and innovations to the graphical interface technology.

Having been removed from the Lisa project by the people he had appointed to run the company, Jobs looked around for another project to work on and settled on Raskin’s Macintosh. This time he was determined to create a product to outclass the Lisa. The development of the Mac would make a very good column and maybe if Andy Hertzfeld is a MacCast listener we could offer some of his anecdotes from the original Mac development team (see
But as these aren’t my stories to tell, I’m just going to cover the story of the first Mac briefly. When Raskin originally conceived the Mac, he wrote a guide that covered everything from technical specifications to marketing strategies. Bill Atkinson of the Lisa team introduced him to Burrell Smith, who was appointed to built Raskin’s Macintosh. The machine that was initially produced was nothing that we’d recognise today. Gradually Raskin’s ideas were eroded and he left Apple in 1982. Bud Tribble was a programmer on the Mac who suggested upgrading it’s processor to the same as the Lisa. Smith managed to develop a motherboard that used fewer parts than the Lisa and was cheaper to produce, despite having the same MC68000 processor and even upping the processor speed to 8Mhz. By the time Steve Jobs arrived on the scene to put his stamp on the machine, it already had a 384×256 black and white screen, the first 3.5″ floppy drive developed by Sony, and Andy Hertzfeld was starting to port over the graphical aspects of the Lisa’s operating system.
Jobs enlisted pixel artist Susan Kare to the team to develop the Mac’s fonts and icons and asked Jerry Mannock back to design the case. He also got involved in micromanaging various aspects of the Mac. From reading the stories on Andy Herzfeld’s site, my impression is that Steve would just pop his head into the Mac development offices, look over programmer’s shoulders, and then tell them what to change and picking at items seemingly at random. Jobs is famed for motivating his team with what has been named the Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. As he was in charge, a lot of his personal thoughts on the GUI made it into the Mac – including his design for the Mac OS calculator.
The Mac was not just the sum of its parts but also shaped by all the people who worked on it.

The machine was hyped by an enigmatic advert, directed by Ridley Scott. It was shown during the advert break for the 1984 Super Bowl for maximum coverage. It showed a future world where a Mac T-shirt wearing hammer-thrower freed people from the tyranny of a faceless and sinister ‘Big Brother’ style leader. Most people were confused. Looking back many people think that it was having a pop at IBM and the dominant PC. At the time, Apple implied that it was really taking a stand against the hard-to-use command line operating systems of the time. Personally, I think it went over the top with George Orwell’s 1984 references. Whatever the advert was about, it created a media storm in the computer world and when the Mac was unveiled on January 24th 1984, people could see what an amazing machine it was.

Its graphical interface and WYSIWIG support suddenly allowed it to be used for things that computers had never done before. Easy to use and powerful, it was not surprising that the Mac was the first computer to move into the design and publishing industry. This was largely due to the introduction of Aldus Page Maker software and Adobe Postscript that allowed Mac users to create documents and print them. Phrases like Desktop Publishing started to be banded around and everyone was very impressed.
The Mac spawned a family, starting with the Fat Mac – a Mac with 512Kb RAM rather than the measly 128Kb that had been supplied in the original model. In fact early Mac demos had been made with prototype Mac 512 machine because the 128Kb version couldn’t cope with a long demo. The Mac Plus followed this as well as the Mac II – which borrowed the separate case and monitor configuration favoured by IBM PCs. Apple then started tacking letters on to the name in a rather confusing way to produce a huge variety of Macs – the most powerful of which was the Mac IIfx. Apple even sold some machines called the Mac XL, which were actually Lisa machines, adapted to work with the Mac’s operating system.

Jobs recognised the power of a strong product design ethos even then. Working with Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design, Apple developed the ‘Snow White’ look for its products. These products were beige, but had an elegant simple style and featured grooved lines running over part of the item. This look was used on every part of the machine from the computer case to the monitor, mouse and even the power plug.

But behind the scenes, things were all going somewhat Pete Tong. Woz had left the company in 1981 after being injured in a plane crash and Steve Jobs was finding it difficult working with the man he had invited to become Apple CEO. John Sculley had been in charge of Pepsi, but Jobs convinced him that he could change the world if he joined Apple, which must be better than selling fizzy water to kids. But the two men clashed. While Sculley was keen to build on what Apple already had, Jobs was determined to innovate further. Sculley believed that Jobs was a liability to the company while Jobs believed that Sculley didn’t know anything about the computer industry. Jobs was sent into a kind of isolation and it all climaxed in a head on confrontation in which Jobs was essentially sent packing when the board sided unanimously with Sculley.

Read this column next week with caution, because what happened next wasn’t pretty…

Please address all comments to
This column is written by Richard Tanner for the MacCast and may have many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. The MacCast is not responsible for any opinions and information expressed in this column.
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written by the late Douglas Adams who was an avid Mac fan and owned the first Mac to be sold in Europe on which many of his works were written.

There are 5 comments on The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Macintosh: Part 2:

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  1. GF | Jun 15 2005 - 02:59

    Citing babe, bit long for gf to read all of it though! See you sonn xxxxx

  2. Tilly | Jun 16 2005 - 02:26

    Enjoyed reading that – thanks!

  3. Carl | Jun 16 2005 - 07:09

    very interesting!!

  4. Ryan Gray | Sep 11 2005 - 02:14

    You did point out that the work on the Lisa at Apple improved upon the ideas created at Xerox PARC. One of those was the pull-down menu. I believe that at Xerox PARC they were using the popup menu, sort of like a right-click menu today. This was powerful, but harder for beginners since it doesn’t have immediate visibility. The pull down menus were more accessible because the top level is always visible as the menu bar. The Mac used the single menu bar style (as opposed to Windows, which has a menu bar in each window) to save space on the very small early screens. This also neatly took advantage of Fitt’s Law as well as the menu always being in the same place.