At an auction in Germany this weekend, electrical engineer Fred Hatfield’s Apple-1 computer sold for $671,400, thirty seven years after he first purchased it. It was one the technology giant Apple’s first working desktop computer. Hatfield, the previous owner of the machine is now in his eighties, and he was interviewed about the rare piece. “I’ve always been interested in digital machinery. As a kid I used to go to different junk stores and so on, to buy a pinball machine, to rewire it and make it do things like tic-tac-toe.”
Though this vigour led Hatfield to purchasing the piece – making him one of the first to purchase an Apple-1 – he didn’t like anything about the Apple. “It was capable of doing some calculations and so on, but it was kind of short on necessary things that you needed to actually use it well.”
This original Apple-1 computer was introduced in March 1976 and released in July 1976.
“It didn’t work out too well,” he said. As a result, he soon joined a users group with the aim to improve the machine and get some work done on it, however, in 1978 he went straight to the source.
“I called Steve Jobs, and discussed his machine with him. I complained to him about it. We had a long discussion. It was an interesting conversation,” Hatfield says. “I didn’t get anywhere.” Jobs then personally wrote Hatfield with the prospect of a solution; however, in the form of a deal. If Hatfield sent the Apple-1 back with $400, Jobs would gladly deliver Hatfield a new Apple-2. Jobs said Hatfield could keep the memory chips. Though it wasn’t a bad offer, Hatfield declined. “I kept the Apple-1. I continued to use it, to decode radio signals.”
Soon after, the computer was left in a box. “I had packed it away, and just carried it with me from place to place for many years,” Hatfield says. “It was just an old piece of electronics.”
Jobs and Wozniak had only recently officially formed the “Apple Computer Company” – the name charmingly taken from the fact that Jobs used to work in an apple orchard – and they were selling exclusively in a local computer store, The Byte Shop, who were the only ones they approached to see if they would be interested in selling their Apple 1 computer. Of course, they said “Sure, we’ll take fifty fully assembled units” and sold them all.
Do you wonder why they’re still so rare? Well, scarcity dictates that, and only about 200 Apple 1 computers were made in total.
The buyer repaired the machine and made it run again, then made a predicted profit of around $555,000 at the German auction this weekend.After the success of Apple began to soar, other owners of Apple-1s began entering them into auctions and their value was escalating, so much so that a friend of Hatfield’s started an online registry of vintage Apple computer owners. Hatfield registered on that site two or three years ago, posting a photo of his old Apple-1, with the letter Steve Jobs sent him and thus creating a very appealing package. It was irresistible, but only around about two months back did a buyer contact him. Hatfield then sold the Apple-1, with the letter, for $40,000. “It sounded like a good deal to me,” Hatfield says. “I figured that was a pretty reasonable offer.”
Though the German auctioneers, Team Breker predicted it would for a figure in between $260,000 and $400,000, they were very wrong – and on the Saturday it went for $668,000.
“The ‘Apple I’ was the 1st PC in the world with monitor and keyboard access! – The peripheral items are authentic and correspond to the motherboard as recommended by ‘Apple’. – Only 200 examples of the ‘Apple 1’ were ever made,” said the sales blurb from the auction house. “The ‘Apple I’ is already a legendary milestone from the dynamic dawn of the personal computer age … and a legendary symbol of the ‘American Dream’ too!”
Is Hatfield bitter? Absolutely not. In fact, all of the buzz around his old computer is making him sentimental. “It’s bringing back a lot of the romance of the old technology, when we were just learning,” he says. “Sort of like being back in kindergarten, you know?” He has no regrets, and is completely busy with keeping up with new technology to worry about things like that. “I’m still playing with computers. I’ve got a new Raspberry Pi, the $35 computer,” he says. “I’m going to write a program that will operate an Etch A Sketch. The interest goes on, there’s just new technology now. I’d rather be working with current things.”
Where did that $40,000 go, you ask? “I deposited it, and I’m using it to live on right now. I might get myself a new amateur ham radio, hopefully.”
So, take good care of your bits and fragments in the garage and don’t get throwing anything away…