An interview with Kristen Gallerneaux, on the The Henry Ford Museum’s working Apple I

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apple I. It was’t a computer like the way we think of them now; it really was just a hand-built board with some accessories that users had to supply.

I recently got the chance to speak to Kristen Gallerneaux, the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford Museum. Kristen and her team acquired an Apple I, which can currently be seen in the museum.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, which you can hear on the latest episode of Connected.

Stephen: Kristen, who are you, and what do you do?

Kristen: My name is Kristen Gallerneaux, and I’m the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford Museum. I take care of things like computers, and also things like radios, televisions, things that have tubes and transistors. Definitely, those are all in my collection.

SH: The Henry Ford Meusem, best I can tell, is really built around American innovation and technology. Is that a fair way to sum your work up?

KG: Yeah, definitely fair. We’re very big on the ideas of innovation and ingenuity and resourcefulness. A lot of people think we’re just a car museum, and we do have a lot of really great cars. We’re obviously invested in automotive history because of our founder, but we have very large collections of technology and design in domestic life and public life, so it’s really a wide range of materials that we have here.

SH: As I was perusing the website looking at the collections, something that struck me (and I’m sort of a self-proclaimed Apple historian) is that I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much of what we have today as far in terms of technology got started on American soil.

KG: Yeah, definitely. One of my favorite moments on the museum floor is when — we have this large case, museum case, full of telephones. There are probably an array of about 50 different telephones in that case. Of course, a lot of them started out from American innovation and development. We have 19th century Bell telephones in there, and it leads all the way up to iPhones. Through those arrays of objects, it’s really interesting because you really get to see the way technology has sort of condensed back down upon itself.

SH: Yeah, I think when you see those big timelines of stuff, it’s sort of mind-blowing that we call what’s in my pocket a phone. It just seems so strange.

KG: It’s a television and it’s a radio —

SH: Exactly!

KG: We actually have a telephone in that same case that’s sitting pretty near the iPhone, and it’s really interesting because it’s a card dialer telephone. It’s an early speed dial telephone that worked off the same principles as something like a hard weaving loom. You know, those big — I know this is an Apple program, but let’s go IBM mainframe for a minute, you know, like an IBM 360 or something that takes punch card technology. There was a telephone that used that, too.

I always tell people we’ve reached the Kodak Brownie moment in computing, which is basically their motto of “You push the button; we do the rest.” Which is to say that a lot of the processes behind technology have really become invisible and mysterious to us, and I think I’m okay with that, actually but it’s interesting to think about once in a while.

SH: We’ve seen the same thing, right, in talking about computers, where we started out with big, mechanical objects. We actually call them machines now, but they were actual, physical machines. Then we moved though the time that I find really fascinating, the time of the high priest and the punch card, where you are removed from your computing experience. You come back and see your results, and that’s really kind of where Apple enters the scene, right?

What we’re getting to today is that you guys have one of the last remaining known Apple Is. Tell me a little but about that computer. What was the world like it when it showed up?

KG: Well, really, it’s interesting to kind of back track for a minute to about a year before it actually came into the world, (to) March 1975, which is the seeds of the beginning of the Homebrew Computer Club, which is where it really got its start in the garage in Menlo Park.

There’s a lot of writing out there on the Web debunking the myth of the garage and Silicon Valley, but Homebrew did actually start in a garage, for the first few meetings at least. Steve Wozniak had a technical problem he was trying to solve, and one of his friends he was working with at Hewlett Packard at the time told him he should really go this meeting. Apparently, he was a very shy guy, and with a bit of cajoling, he did eventually go. When he got there, he was just so inspired by the environment that was there.

I’ve read a lot about how competitive it was and read oral histories and things, and this seems to hold true, and it was out of going to that first meeting that the seeds for the Apple I — sorry, that’s kind of cheesy — were planted. He had developed computers before that, but this is really the beginning of the Apple I.

The Apple I that we have is one of the first 50 that were ever made. There are apparently 200 or so sold, and the locations today of about 46 of those 200 are known. What’s really special about ours is that is that’s one of the of the first 50 Apple Is that were ever sold, and out of that batch of the first 50, about nine of that batch are known to work. And ours works; it’s completely unmodified. It has all of its original chips; fully operational. I know this because I actually — this is a great perk of the job — I actually got to learn how to program BASIC on it.

SH: Very cool. For people who aren’t familiar with it, this is not really a computer in the sense that we think about one now, right? This is really just a board.

KG: Exactly. When you bought at Apple I computer, really what you were buying was the motherboard. You had to buy a monitor, you had to buy a keyboard, you even had to buy a power supply for the thing.

The first few Apple Is that were sold were actually didn’t even come with a tape drive interface. The benefit of this tape drive interface was that you didn’t have to type in the BASIC program from scratch. You could load it in from memory off this tape, because you couldn’t just flick this thing on and just interact with or play a video game or whatever. It was a very barebones thing.

There’s a funny story about Paul Terrell, who was the owner of The Byte Shop, where these computers were first sold. He was really disappointed when Steve Jobs showed up with this cardboard box full of Apple I motherboards, and was like, “I paid you guys to sell me computers. What are these?” Really, they were kind of a naked object in their own way — they didn’t even have a case, but there’s something really kind of special in that.

That’s one of the reasons why we really love our Apple I and why we went to bat for getting this thing here. You can see its working. Its exposed; it’s not hidden in a case.

Apple I

SH: Right. I saw one in Atlanta a few years ago, and I was really struck by that: there’s nothing else there. Everything else has been … not really stripped away, because it hasn’t existed yet, compared to something like the Apple II, which of course, there are stories about Steve Jobs running around yelling about the creases in the plastic. (They) put it in a case and had a keyboard built in.

I’ve got an Apple II here on my desk, and even though it is an antique in every way, it still sort of looks like a computer. It’s approachable, and I think that’s one of the things that made Apple in particular so fascinating. They moved very quickly from this Apple I into something that was more consumer-friendly, and of course, the rest is history. What do you think the legacy of the Apple I is today?

KG: It’s really hard as a museum curator to really put your fist down on a table really hard to get back to saying something like “No, this is the first and this is really the beginning of something,” (but) this is the beginning of a company that defines most — I don’t know what the percentages are of people who own smartphones, but a large percentage of those people are Apple users.

A colleague of mine (I’ll use his words here, because he may say it better than me) talked the other day about how really creeps into our lives. When the iPad was released, for example, we thought, “What are we going to do with this? What is the use of a tablet?” But now, you go and pick up your morning coffee and you’re signing with your finger on a Square-enabled tablet and it’s quite often an iPad. It’s just everywhere, and as a company, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, in tandem, worked together to really innovate and be this excellent duo.

In terms of history, we talk about the Myth of the Lone Genius. People hunched over their workshop tables, poking around all night. Certainly, Wozniak did that with getting BASIC to work on the Apple I; certainly Steve Jobs probably stayed up at night about those creases in the plastic on the Apple II. Really, it’s through the coalescence of people and collaboration, and that’s evident through the history of Apple.

Jobs and Woz

SH: I think that’s exactly how I view it as well. It’s maybe not so much about this one particular computer — as fascinating as it is — but it’s the story that it kicks off. The idea that I think is very much at the heart of Apple: that technology can be approachable by anyone, and to do so, it has to be well designed.

KG: It’s very much a collective experience. It’s kind of funny; the original logo for Apple, if you’ve ever looked at it, you can search this on the Internet. It’s this very old-school sort of pen and ink drawing of Newton sitting under an apple tree. The quote that sort of runs around the image is:

A mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought … alone.

… which is a Wordsworth quote. It’s interesting because we think of using the Internet they way use the Internet or the technology is sort of cutting us off from the world, but it also has this very connected sort of approach. It sounds very simplistic, but the power of this, and the Apple I is very much rooted in that history.

Apple's original logo

SH: Absolutely. What are the plans for y’alls Apple I?

KG: It’s going to be out temporarily on view from April 11th to the end of the month, so that’s April 30th. After that time, it will go away for a while. We really wanted to get it out to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apple I, which is April 11.

Over the next few years, we’re building out a large Communications and Information Technology exhibit that will open sometime around 2019. So, it’s a ways off, but there are other ways to learn about the Apple I even though it’s not on the museum floor. We do a lot of things with our television show and I’m always writing blogs when it’s appropriate and posting videos and things like this. But it will be on the floor permanently, eventually.

SH: Very cool. I know just in preparing for this and talking today, I’ve learned a lot about it. We’ll have all those links for people to go check out. Thanks so much for your time today!

KG: No problem.