Is this rare Apple computer up for auction a Woz-built original? We asked Woz himself

Get out your checkbooks, Silicon Valley geeks and Apple fanfolk! You’ve got a chance to view — and even buy — a rare Apple computer, hand-soldered by legendary Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Well, maybe.

A leading expert and the auction house say the device — a broken circuit board apparently crammed in a drawer for years — is a Wozniak-built computer that Steve Jobs, Apple’s other co-founder, used to woo a pioneering retailer at a Mountain View computer shop in 1976. But others, including Wozniak, aren’t so sure.

“I can’t tell you what exact generation this board is,” the man known as “Woz” said Thursday in an email to the Bay Area News Group after being sent photos of the device.

In any case, all involved agree, it is an early version of Apple’s first retail home computer, and extremely rare and valuable.

The Apple-1 will be displayed this weekend at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Once considered “lost,” the device has a circuit board with solders indicating work by Wozniak, and represents “the holy grail of Steve Jobs and Apple memorabilia,” according to the auction house expecting to sell it for at least $500,000. As of Friday morning, bidding stood at $407,029, with the auction live until Aug. 18.

An extremely rare “Apple-1” computer, Apple’s first product, launched by company co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976. Up for auction until Aug. 18, 2022 and on display at the Computer History Museum on July 6-7, 2022, the device is said by the auction company and a vintage computer association to be a prototype hand-wired by legendary Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and used by The other co-founder Steve Jobs to woo Apple’s first retail vendor, but its role in Apple’s history is disputed. (Courtesy of RR Auction)

While revolutionary at the time, the device had 256 bytes of memory. Today, a modern Mac computer has four to eight million times more than that.

Mike Graff, spokesman for Boston-based RR Auction, said Jobs gave the Apple-1 to its current owner, who wants to remain anonymous, around 1990. The circuit board had languished for years in a drawer “with things on top of it and Below it” in the famed “Apple Garage” where Jobs and Wozniak did their early work in Jobs’ childhood home in Los Altos, said Corey Cohen, a board member of the Vintage Computer Federation and a prominent Apple-1 expert.

Cohen and the auction house say in 1976 Jobs used this prototype to demonstrate the Apple-1 to Paul Terrell, owner of the Byte Shop in Mountain View, one of the world’s first personal computer stores.

However, Terrell told the Bay Area News Group this week that he isn’t convinced it’s the same device.

Now 78, Terrell remembers watching Jobs and Wozniak — “kids with long hair and sandals trying to start a company” — touting their new computer in 1976 at a monthly meeting of the now-legendary Homebrew Computer Club. As the owner of 13 Byte Shop computer stores, Terrell regularly attended the gatherings, he said.

Terrell remembers Wozniak telling club members in the auditorium of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park that if they wanted to see the device in action, they should stop by the exit on the way out for a demonstration.

“When I went outside the door and saw what was going on there I said, ‘Oh my God — I’d love to have that in my Byte Shop to sell,'” Terrell said.

He invited Jobs to come by his shop in Mountain View the next day. “I told him I wanted a fully assembled and tested computer that I could sell to people like programmers and so forth,” Terrell said. “And I would give him $500 each.”

Here’s where things get murky: Terrell believes the Apple-1 up for auction is a production model from “the first delivery” of 50 computers he received to sell, and not the prototype Wozniak and Jobs brought to the club meeting.

Achim Baqué of Germany, curator of the “Apple-1 Registry” that tracks the computers, Terrell’s belief that the computer up for auction is not the unit from the Homebrew meeting. He also doesn’t think it is one sent to Terrell’s shop for retail sale. Instead, Baqué said he thinks it was the factory-made “one and only production prototype,” representing a final design before mass production, not hand built by Wozniak but featuring some modifications he made by hand. Still, because it’s a one-of-a-kind Apple-1 and represents a key moment in computer history, Baqué expects it to sell at auction for well over $1 million.

Cohen begs to differ. To start, the device up for auction is hand-soldered, bearing tell-tale signs of Wozniak’s work, Cohen said.

“The wires run in a very tight way and the shape of the solder is unique to how the soldering technique is done,” Cohen said. Wozniak is “famous for doing this. He puts the soldering iron in one hand, puts the wire in the other hand, and he puts the lead solder in his mouth. Very few people do this. They use tape to hold things in place. Because he’s doing it with his mouth, there’s a little less precision. It’s literally an up-and-down motion from his head.”

Another auction house spokesman, Bobby Livingston, called Cohen a “world-renowned expert auction on Apple 1s” and “the definitive historians that houses use for Apple-1s.” Cohen, unlike Terrell and Baqué, inspected the computer up for auction for weeks, Livingston said. “We are confident … that it is properly described,” he said. “We guarantee it.”

Cohen and Terrell agree Polaroids of the device up for auction were taken by Terrell in 1976, but Cohen insists Terrell is “definitely misremembering” by asserting the photos showing one of the first 50 devices he received to sell and not the prototype shown off by Jobs and Wozniak. “This is also 40 to 50 years ago,” Cohen said. “People’s memories are faulty but you can’t argue with the facts. We have the evidence.”

A Polaroid photo taken by pioneering Byte Shop computer store owner Paul Terrell, of a rare early Apple-1 computer.  Which generation of the Apple-1 the photo shows is disputed.(Photo courtesy of RR Auction)
A Polaroid photo taken by pioneering Byte Shop computer store owner Paul Terrell, of a rare early Apple-1 computer. Which generation of the Apple-1 the photo shows is disputed.(Photo courtesy of RR Auction)

Beyond the purported Wozniak-signature soldering, the device is made of a composite board far too fragile for mass production via “wave soldering” or retail sale, but commonly used at the time for prototypes, Cohen said. The retail devices had fiberglass circuit boards, he said, that looked much different than the one up for auction.

What’s Woz think? He could not say which iteration of the Apple-1 computer the device represents because the photos provided “no real clues” and showed the standard parts he used.

“My hunch,” Wozniak said, “is that it’s one of the first but not that we hand-soldered.”


WHERE YOU CAN SEE IT

Get a glimpse at the Apple-1 along with other notable relics of computing during the Vintage Computer Festival West 2022 at the Computer History Museum this weekend from 10 am to 6 pm Saturday and 9 am to 5 pm Sunday.

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