Image Credit:  Macworld Premier Issue, 1984

View all posts by: Kris Hookerman | View all posts in category: Macintosh History

Apple forever changed the computer industry and perhaps the course of human history by introducing the Macintosh in January 1984. That is bold statement that we can't fully back up, but many Mac fanatics would not find fault with us for our love of Apple history and our affinity for the first generation Macs. The first generation Macs included the original Macintosh, the Macintosh 512K, and the Macintosh 512Ke. This article will briefly discuss the differences in these Macs, why their production was short-lived, and what replaced them.

Original Macintosh (Macworld Premier Issue, 1984)

The original Macintosh was the machine that simultaneously convinced the world of two things: first, that the graphical operating system represented the future of the computer industry, and second, that such a system needed far more memory with faster, larger capacity drives. The original Macintosh had a relatively short production run because it was painfully obvious both by pundits and novices alike that 128K RAM was simply not up to the task of handling the Mac's RAM-hungry graphical operating system. In the early 1980s, other computers worked just fine with 128K RAM. Many computers, like the original 1981 IBM PC, shipped with only 64K RAM and people considered that to be a vast amount of RAM. The Mac's graphical user interface demanded more. Apple worked around the problem by creating system software routines that allowed programmers to segment applications, which divided programs into chunks that could be loaded into and out of memory as necessary. This allowed the first Mac to run some relatively sophisticated programs, but this resulted in substantial system degradation. Loading program segments involves disk access and this brings to light the Mac's other main weakness, its slow 400K disk drive.

The Mac's 400K internal disk drive was state of the art back in 1984, but it was still barely up to the task of handling the Mac's sophisticated graphical operating system. Even though 400K would have been considered a luxurious amount of storage space for most computer systems in 1984, the Mac's operating system took up a substantial amount of available disk space. It was apparent that the Mac's "optional" external 400K disk drive was really more of a necessity. All the first generation Macs suffer from this limitation. Simple applications like MacWrite or MacDraw could exist on a disk that was also being used as the primary system disk and sometimes it was necessary to swap disks if the user wanted to save a large file when not enough space on the current disk was available. However, powerful Mac applications coming out the first few years after the introduction of the Macintosh were simply too big to reside on the same disk as the operating system disk. The user would have to eject the operating system disk and insert the application disk to load the application, but it didn't stop there. In the process of loading the application, it was usually necessary to eject the application disk and insert the operating system disk to load a portion of the OS needed during the application boot process that was not currently loaded in RAM and not available in the ROM. Sometimes it took several disk swaps just to load one single application.

The Mac needed a floppy disk drive to run nothing but its operating system and another separate disk drive for everything else. Two external disk drives would have been even better, but the first generation Macs did not support daisy chaining external floppy disk drives. The maximum number of floppy disk drives was two, one internal and one external. Furthermore, the original Macintosh and all other first generation Macs did not have SCSI (Small Computer System Interface). SCSI was an emerging set of standards for physically connecting and transferring data between computers and peripheral devices.

The introduction of the fast SCSI bus in the next generation Macs solved the disk drive issue by allowing Macs to use high speed hard disk drives, but some brave hardware manufacturers, including Apple with its Hard Disk 20 (HD 20) drive, were able to introduce hard drives to the first generation Macs by utilizing the Mac's disk drive port, printer port, or modem port. Hard disks were faster than floppies and stored more, but had problems of their own. Because the original Macintosh wasn't designed with the hard disk in mind, it could not start directly from the hard disk - it had to "jump start" from a floppy and then switch to the hard disk. Another problem was the original Macintosh File System (MFS). MFS could only keep track of about 128 files on one disk and a hard disk could potentially hold thousands. Apple solved this problem with the introduction of the Hierarchical Filing System (HFS) but this didn't appear until the introduction of the Macintosh Plus. Most hard disk manufacturers worked around this problem by creating software that would allow the user to partition the hard disk into smaller chunks, each of which the Mac treated as a separate disk. All of the Mac's serial ports were comparatively very slow compared with SCSI, thus hard disks were saddled with performance-crippling bottlenecks in addition to all their other handicaps.

Macintosh 512K

Apple released the Macintosh 512K, affectionately called the Fat Mac, on September 10, 1984, about eight months after the introduction of the original Macintosh. Apple continued to sell the original Macintosh, re-branded "Macintosh 128K" until October 1, 1985. The 512K was available to the public in November 1984, a few months ahead of schedule, but not a moment too soon. The 512K offered four times the RAM of the original. This larger workspace meant that programs didn't have to rely so heavily on the Mac's segment loading features. More of an application could reside in memory at once, and as a result, the Mac ran faster. About the same time the 512K debuted, Andy Hertzfeld, a key member of the original Macintosh development team, finished development of a program called Switcher. Switcher allowed the user to run more than one application at a time and switch between them with a keystroke. A 512K running Switcher could run two or three applications at once if memory permitted. Apple would later replace Switcher with MultiFinder and then seamlessly integrate it within Mac OS beginning with System 7.

The Macintosh 512K was essentially the same as the original Macintosh with the only difference being the extra available memory. The 512K still suffered from the same storage issues of the original Macintosh: a slow 400K internal disk drive and lack of a high-speed bus to support a hard drive. However, the 512K's extra memory allowed it to take advantage of a storage trick. Using special software, the user could set aside some memory as a RAM disk. The software would trick the Mac into thinking that part of its memory was a disk that could hold files just like a real disk. Many users used RAM disks that could hold their System folder and one or more programs. Because the Mac accessed memory far faster than even a hard disk, a RAM disk dramatically boosted system performance. It also allowed users without a second external disk drive to avoid the dreaded disk swap.

Macintosh Plus (Byte, June 1986)

Apple introduced the Macintosh Plus on January 16, 1986. The Plus signaled the end of the line for the first generation Macs, but not without one last gasp. When Apple introduced the Plus, it also introduced a lesser-known Mac that walked the line between the first generation Macs and the Plus: the Macintosh 512Ke (e for Enhanced). This Mac retained the 512K's memory configuration, offering 512K built-in RAM with none of the expansion flexibility of the SIMMs used by the Macintosh Plus. But unlike the 512K, the 512Ke contained the same 128K ROMs as the Plus, giving it the same performance benefits and the new HFS disk-management software. Even more important, the 512Ke included an 800K floppy disk drive like the Plus, offering twice the storage capacity as the 512K's 400K floppy disk drive. But unlike the Plus, the 512Ke lacked a SCSI port, prohibiting it from exploiting the new generation of fast, large SCSI hard drives and other SCSI add-ons. Several third party companies quickly introduced SCSI kits that allowed users to add a SCSI port. Some kits required the removal of the battery compartment, using the open hole to mount the SCSI port. Apple positioned the 512Ke as a stepping-stone to the Plus that could be upgraded to a Plus later for $799. Apple also sold a kit to "enhance" an older 512K for $299 that could also later be upgraded to a Plus.

The Plus was very similar to the original Mac, but had superior connectivity options (A+, March 1986)

The Macintosh Plus could be considered a transitional model much like the 512Ke. Although the Plus was far more capable and potentially more long-lived when introduced in 1986 than the first generation Macs, it shared characteristics of the first generation Macs and the next generation of Macs, which would go on to define the Macintosh platform until Steve Jobs turned the company on its heels beginning in 1997. The Macintosh Plus did not have an internal hard disk drive like the first generation Macs, but it had a SCSI bus that would become the mainstay of the Mac world for years to come. The Plus used the same DB-9 mouse as the first generation Macs and lacked the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) that all Macs would use for connecting the mouse and game controllers for over ten years before the iMac introduced USB. The Plus did not have an internal fan like the first generation Macs, which made it impossible to install an internal hard drive without significant modification. The next iteration of compact Macs, beginning with the Macintosh SE, all had an internal fan and supported an internal hard drive.

Macintosh SE (Apple Inc.)

By 1989, many industry exports recommended that consumers should not invest in a discontinued first generation Macintosh. Apple had flooded the market with impressive low-end alternatives such as the Macintosh Plus and Macintosh SE that were far superior and not much more expensive than the second hand market of first generation Macs. Considered in a vacuum with no other influencing factors, the first generation Macs were remarkable creations. They helped Apple move the industry toward the creation of the Macintosh platform standard, that would eventually make the Macintosh arguably one of the longest continuous industry standards in the history of the home computer industry. However, the first generation Macs lacked the magical combination of utility; industry supported fast bus expandability, RAM expandability, and compatibility with long-lived later Apple standards such as ADB and mini-DIN serial ports, that made the next generation of Macs beginning with the Macintosh Plus and refined in the Macintosh SE and Macintosh II so successful even up to the late 1990s unlike the first generation Macs, which by 1990 were considered hopelessly antiquated.

Macintosh II (Apple Inc.)

Ultimately, the new Macs being released beginning in 1986 finally brought forth both the promise of the first generation Macs and the clear direction Apple had set for both itself and the future of the computer industry. These new Macs included the Macintosh II, the first modular Mac, the Macintosh SE, and the low end Macintosh Plus. These Macs finally lived up to the promise of the first generation: a computer for the rest of us. Finally Apple had sanded down the rough edges, confusion, and quirkiness of its revolutionary Macintosh, offering consumers a polished computer system that no one in the world could match.

These new Macs were designed to work with fast hard drives. Disk swapping and hacking floppies or RAM disks became a thing of the past, as was the necessity to purchase an expensive external floppy disk drive. Expandability was also a welcomed change. The Macintosh II introduced NuBus expansion slots that were years ahead of the rest of the industry and the Macintosh SE, a refined compact black and white Mac, offered expandability through its Processor Direct Slot. Users began adding video cards, network cards, and accelerator cards to their Macs that were offered by a growing third party Macintosh industry that finally realized the Mac was here to stay. Plug and play peripherals like CD-ROM disk drives, tape drives, and scanners using the Mac's powerful external SCSI port gave the Mac an early lead in multimedia and desktop publishing. All this would never have been possible with the first generation Macs, which could barely manage an external floppy disk drive and a single printer.

Macintosh SE and Macintosh II 1987 family photo (Apple Inc.)

The Macs released to replace the first generation Macs set the pace and the benchmark for Apple and the entire computer industry for years to come. Before the introduction of the iMac (between the years 1986 and 1997), Apple's primary advances could be said to be primarily incremental. The behavior of the Mac and its relationship to the user and to its peripherals (scanners, modems, printers) was steadily improved with faster processors, more refined versions of Mac OS, and more available hard disk storage and RAM. It wasn't until Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997 that Apple began to radically redefine itself and the Macintosh platform. All this incremental progress and the relatively stable period of growth from 1986 to 1997 was only possible because the generation of Macs replacing the first generation Macs got it right in such a big way. The first generation Macs have their place in Apple lore. They whispered a promise not quite attainable by their capabilities and hampered by their shortcomings, but they provided the inspiration Apple made real after they were discontinued.

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