Laine Nooney and Apple History

This entire web site is focused on preserving and telling the story of microcomputers, focused with insane depth on the Apple II. I’ve been telling it for 20 plus years, and have a book about it. So I know what I know quite well, and if any of you who have taken the time to either read the story on this web site or in the book also know what I know.

But I always enjoy learning more about the era of the Apple II and its competition and getting new information or new points of view. The Open Apple podcast, which focuses on news and interviews about the Apple II is often a source of stories that expand my knowledge, and episode #49 for July 2015 is a particularly fascinating listen. They have an extended conversation with Laine Nooney, a person who is way too young to have been involved with the Apple II when it was new and exciting. Her research for a dissertation brought her to look into Online Systems / Sierra Online, as well as with other software companies of the day, and the conversation they have drifts over into the impact of the computer on homes and families, and what she has learned about it.

When I think I know so much that there is not much more to learn, a gem like this interview comes along, and I realize levels of computer history that go beyond my extremely specific area of knowledge. It is well worth a listen.

Addendum: Here is a link to Nooney’s research on Sierra Online, as much as she has made publicly available at this time. Read it.

KFest 2015 is coming!

That annual Apple II conference is only a month away, and yes, I’ve got another music parody for it:

Come down and help me make it better with live action!


BASIC is Golden

One of the first things I did when I first had access to an Apple II Plus back in 1981 was to enter programs in Applesoft BASIC, typed from a listing in Nibble magazine. With time and the help of technical info I learned from All About Applesoft from Call-A.P.P.L.E. I learned how to play with this programming language on a deeper level. I was eventually able to redo a program for printing labels for IV meds at the hospital where I was training, and used that wonderful “&” extension to add assembly language routines to simplify parts of the program.

Though I had originally learned FORTRAN in college, I was able to extend this knowledge to BASIC, and had a lot of fun doing so. And it is all thanks to the original creation of this language fifty years ago (as of June of this year), I and all of the others who dove headlong into the microcomputer revolution had a way of creating programs.

When I heard of this golden anniversary, I was inspired to come up again with a parody song. Sorry that these songs are based on such an old pop tune, but hey, it was what I heard when I was in high school. Thanks Microsoft (for what became Applesoft), Apple (for selling the Apple II), and Steve Wozniak (for designing the Apple II, and incorporating his own BASIC into it)!

How many of these keywords did you use when you wrote programs in Applesoft??


Me and You and Our Apple II
by Steven Weyhrich

(parody of Lobo’s, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo“, from 1971)

I remember to this day
DIMensioning an array
And how it worked through the loop
Using FOR and NEXT
Dynamic RAM made that hardware go
The Woz design ensured that’s so
Oh how I wish I was
Back at the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

I managed variables and all
And created hi-res shapes
For a game that would win
That contract job, it gave me work
And then they paid me for what it was worth
Another box of disks and
Back at the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I’d love to replay that great game

I’ll never forget that day
I saw that Mac with its cute display
The clicks and its icons
Were fascinatin’ to my brain
And though its been thirty years or so
That old II’s bugging me to go
I’ve gotta boot it up and get
Back to the prompt again

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I’d love to replay that great game

Me and you and our Apple II
Me and you and our Apple II
How I wished I could find some FRE mem …

When The Apple II Was New

I’ve been so busy recovering from birthing my book (the stitches have come out, thank you) that I have not paid attention to anniversaries. I was reminded by the post on Cult of Mac yesterday (here) that it was on June 10, 1977 that the full Apple II system with case was first shipped.

Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV
Apple II, Panasonic RQ-2102 cassette, and TV – Photo credit: Carl Knoblock, Phil Pfeiffer

This computer was nearly twice as expensive as the competitors that would be available for purchase later in the year (the Commodore PET 2001 in August, and the TRS-80 Model I in November), but offered expandability right out of the box that neither of those competitors could provide without a retrofit or redesign.

Okay, if you’ve read this blog in the past, you know of my opinion about the significance of this computer, but let me reiterate: It established Apple as a company, and turned on a fire-hose of cash that funded the next several years of stumbles with other products (the Apple III, Lisa, and original 128K Macintosh). It was such a significant player that the company had to intentionally hobble it in its later years, so it would not pull customers away from the Mac.

The Apple II also set the stage for the appearance of computers on desktops for years to come. The popularity of the beige color was copied endlessly by other competing products that were released, well into the 1990s, when the term “boring beige box” came into its own. Yes, the Apple II was indeed beige — but it was the first to be beige.

Wozniak’s design was also unique in being the ideal hacker’s platform. Here I do not mean “hacker” in the sense of one who maliciously breaks into other computer systems with the intent of stealing or vandalizing. Rather, this refers to “hacker” in its original sense, that of one who could create new things, be it software or hardware, that brought functionality to the Apple II that went beyond what Woz originally envisioned. The eight slots allowed hardware expandability that other platforms did not as easily offer, and many of those add-ons were accessible by amateur programmers through its built-in BASIC and powerful 6502 assembly language.

All said, the release of this computer was a significant event in computing history. Happy 37th birthday, Apple II !


Ten years ago, I received an email from a gentleman named Moses Weitzman. He wanted to know if I was interested in some old Apple II manuals and other materials that he had, but wanted to get rid of. He preferred to not just throw them away, and wanted to pass them on to someone who would appreciate them. I replied that sure, I’d be glad to take them off his hands. He shipped out a box that was not very big, but had some nice items in it, including a copy of the Red Book reference manual, and also the Blue Book Applesoft Reference Manual from August 1978.
I kept this box safely on a shelf and then later in my basement, and other than being happy in my ownership of the Red Book and Blue Book, had not really paid detailed attention to the other materials in the box.
And then, during the past few months I found myself making additional edits to my History in preparation for publication (real soon now!) I went digging on the Asimov FTP site, and found a number of old manuals and other documents that had been uploaded in the past. One of them, called Apple The Personal Computer Magazine & Catalog, Volume 1, Number 2, from 1979, made mention of the Apple II Euromod and Apple II Europlus, which took me on an investigative tour of Apple’s early years in selling the Apple II outside of the United States. And I thought to myself, “I wonder what was in Volume 1, Number 1 of that magazine that Apple published back in 1979?”
In a recent email from Andreas Siegenthaler of Switzerland, he told me that Apple DOS 3.0 actually was released to the public, bugs and all, though it was promptly replaced by DOS 3.1. He mentioned to me that he had a copy of the preliminary manual that was released, as well as the printed one for DOS 3.1 that eventually came out. I replied that I thought I had one of the printed manuals in that box in the basement sent to me years ago by Mr. Weitzman. In the interim since I received his box of materials in 2003 I have learned a bit more about scanning and how to create a PDF (thanks to Preview in Mac OS X). It occurred to me that I should get my DOS manual scanned and posted.
And then, upon opening up that box again, I found that there was not a DOS 3.1 manual. Instead, it included the photocopied pages of the DOS 3 manual that shipped with the Disk II when it came out in June 1978, plus some tech notes about the Disk II and DOS that were released a month later.
Plus, there was all of this other great stuff (which can be found here):
  • Appalogue, Volume 1, June/July 1982 – a catalog of Apple II software and hardware, apparently part of a planned magazine that I do not believe went beyond that single issue. It looks like this catalog was created in anticipation of Applefest ’82, and was probably distributed at that event.
  • Apple II Plus registration materials – You just bought a new Apple II Plus? Here is your registration card and other miscellaneous papers.
  • Apple Orchard introductory brochure, 1982 – a trifold introducing Apple Orchard to potential subscribers.
  • Apple The Personal Computer Magazine & Catalog, Volume 1, Number 1, 1979 – Yes, here is that issue #1 that was not on the Asimov FTP site. This issue focused on Apples in education. It was released before the II Plus came out in mid 1979, as there is no mention of it in the list of products available from Apple. It makes mention of PAL/SECAM versions of the Apple II for the European market, essentially the Apple II Euromod before it was called a Euromod. Also featured is the Apple Graphics Tablet without its familiar color grid (the same as the original Bit Pad from Summagraphics, which Apple adapted and sold for its own use), and the Modem IIA bundle (an Apple Communications Card and a Novation CAT acoustic modem).
  • Apple The Personal Computer Magazine & Catalog, Volume 1, Number 2, 1979 – This is the same magazine that can be found on the Asimov FTP site, but I think my scan has better colors than the one found there. This issue focused on business use of the Apple II (yes, Apple actually did promote the Apple II for business once upon a time). In the catalog section the Apple II Plus is mentioned, as well as the Apple II Euromod and Apple II Europlus. The Modem IIA package was now renamed as Modem IIB, but seems to be the same product (no explanation as to what is the difference). One of the accessories offered was a clock/calendar card, although I do not recall Apple ever selling its own such product for the Apple II series.
  • Disk II Application Note, July 30, 1978 – As mentioned above, this is basically a list of bug fixes for the recently released Disk II and DOS 3.0/3.1.
  • DOS 3 Manual (preliminary), June 1978 – The very first “manual” for Apple DOS.
  • Parallel Printer Interface Card manual, 1978 – It was this manual that I had, not the book one for DOS. Includes source code for the firmware on the card.
  • Special Delivery Software catalog, Fall 1980 – Catalog of software written by third-party developers and offered via national distribution through Apple’s own software arm. Something like the Mac App store, but 33 years ago, and without downloadable automatic updates.
  • Special Delivery Software, Spring 1981 – An update to the previous catalog. Interestingly, it mentioned Apple III software also, but I don’t think I found anything in the catalog that was for the Apple III.
  • Super Disk Copy III manual – This was not a product from Apple, but rather from Sensible Software. Written by Charles Hartley, it was primarily a more robust set of disk utilities than those offered by Apple’s FID program, even to the point of being able to recover some information from damaged disks.
  • What Is Apple Pascal? brochure, 1979 – An introductory trifold brochure about Pascal and its benefits.

So, this past weekend I went nuts with the scanner, and got all of these scanned in (other than the Red Book and Blue Book, which had already been done in the past).  I have packaged them together into the Weiztman Collection, available in the Files section of this web site at this link. The “heaviest” files are the two magazines, each 100-120 MB in size, and the “lightest” is the Disk II Application Notes, at 3.7 MB.

(I’m open to suggestions on how to fix page one of the Parallel Printer Card manual; I had a version with the sticker that says “Mo” removed (digitally), but when I tried to put it back into the PDF with the tools I have to use (Preview on my Mac) it is a different size than all of the other pages.)

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!


One Apple II Owner’s Story

Ray Thompson of Dallas, Texas, was involved with the formation of one of the earliest Apple User Groups. He has made a video telling his personal story, clips from historical interviews with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and the formation and development of the club. He has a unique point of view, having purchased one of the earliest 4K Apple II computers that Apple sold, and so his personal knowledge extends back to the very beginning of the Apple Era. He also gives the classic example of people who had experience with using mainframe computers, and who, when first viewing the Apple II at a store, assumed that it was simply a terminal connected to a “real” computer in the back room.

“My Personal History of the Apple Corps of Dallas, Recalling the Early Days of Personal Computing” from Ray Thompson on Vimeo.

Bonjour, Apple II !

François Michaud has an extensive collection of Apple hardware and software, having acquired them for a number of years. You can see his online photos on his web site. Well worth a visit !

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DOS 3.2 and 3.3 Video

I’ve recorded and uploaded to YouTube several movies of classic Apple II programs from the old DOS 3.2 and 3.3 disks. You can view of movie of THE INFINITE NO. OF MONKEYS, APPLE-VISION, and COLOR DEMO in Chapter 14 (about DOS), and a movie of BRIAN’S THEME in Chapter 6 (about the Apple II Plus). Here is the movie of APPLE-VISION: