David Fradin was the product manager for the Apple /// in its final days and was the person tasked with winding down the project after the decision was made to kill the line. He has written an interesting guest post over at the Aha! blog that’s worth a read if you’re interested in the history of Apple’s first business computer. Check it out here.
The cover of “Apple Magazine” (Volume 2, Number 2) featured a wooden sculpture of an Apple ///, a photo with which most “Sarasaurs” are familiar. We managed to track down Arizona artist Tom Eckert, whom Apple commissioned to create the piece back in 1980, and while Eckert declined to come on the air with us, he was happy to provide some insight into his creative process. Below, you can read our interview, which includes some never before published photos of another Apple-commissioned piece. We are grateful for Eckert’s participation.
DTI: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your famous wooden Apple /// sculpture.
TE: The old Apple III was a grand computer for the day. The other computers ran DOS as the system software while the Apple III had SOS. This system proved to be way advanced for the time. I understand it was the computer that they sent to the moon.
DTI: How did you decide to do a sculpture of the Apple ///, as opposed to the more popular Apple II computer? Was this a commissioned piece or did you find something in the design of the machine that you wanted to express in this medium?
TE: It was a commission from Apple. Computers were just coming to life then so I was intrigued to take it on as a subject for a piece. The Apple III was brand new and I created the sculpture for the cover of “Apple Magazine”. I knew nothing about computers at this time, around 1980, but I found the design “Star Wars” -like, futuristic with mysterious implications. My son, who was around 12, had friends with computers and was aware of some of the games. It was through his excitement and the commission that I got interested in computers. I purchased a VIC-20 for my son and an Apple II for myself. I believe it was this early contact with computers that led to my son’s career. After pursuing a graduate degree in robotic engineering he is now a Bay-Area sculptor involved extensively with computing and creating kinetic sculpture. He currently has a solo exhibition up at the Museum for Craft and Design, San Francisco.
DTI: How long had you been working in wood sculptures at the time?
TE: Prior to the Apple commission, I had been with wood for just a few years. My undergraduate degree is in painting and drawing, and sometime during graduate school I evolved into a sculptor. My earlier sculpture was mixed media, but primarily plastic. I switched to wood as my media of choice after learning about some of the health concerns inherent with plastics – toxic dust and harmful vapors. When I discovered what I could do with wood I went a little crazy, pushing the material to extremes. Prior to the Apple commission I created “Tank Chair” and “Bomb Clock”. Both pieces illustrate my early compulsion with the material.
DTI: What influenced your decision to use sugar maple (a very hard wood), rather than a softer wood that perhaps would have been easier to shape?
TE: I chose maple mainly because it lacks figuring (found in many other hardwoods) and is somewhat anonymous. It also works well and holds fine detail.
DTI: When did you begin working on the sculpture?
TE: I think it was around 1980.
DTI: What tools and techniques did you choose for the piece? Were these decisions informed by the particular design of the computer or the type of wood you chose?
TE: This piece was constructed, not carved. Pre-formed parts were assembled to create the finished piece. The commission goes back to a period of my working time that I refer to as my “small parts period”. I would make individual parts and then assemble them together. The Apple III sculpture is formed of many parts that were pre-formed and then assembled. The equipment used was typical to woodworking – table saw, lathe, router. The techniques used were not informed by the design or the wood used, but were consistent with the work I was doing at the time.
DTI: Does that mean that the individual keys move like a real keyboard when you press them? What about the disk drive door – does it open? Do power switches or other external parts move like they do on the real machines?
TE: None of the parts on the III work mechanically. On the Lisa, however, the plugs do plug in.
DTI: How long did the /// take to finish?
TE: As near as I can remember, it took me several months to complete. Because of the cover shoot date, Apple had a rigid deadline and I ended up working around the clock for days. I recall spraying the piece in the early morning of the due date, under set-up lights because it was still dark. Thanks to FED-EX Overnight, it just made it.
DTI: How much did the finished piece weigh?
TE: The piece is hollow and weighs less than ten pounds.
DTI: Do you still have it? If not, do you remember where it ended up?
TE: No, the last I heard it was housed in a Plexiglas vitrine at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA.
DTI: If it’s not inappropriate to ask, how much did Apple pay for the ///?
TE: I can’t remember how much the commission paid but a new Apple III was part of my payment. I think there was also a check but I am not sure of the amount.
DTI: We’re fascinated by your current work, especially the realist pieces. Did the challenges in creating the Apple /// sculpture in any way influence your style on future works?
TE: Thank you. My latest work has to do with illusions (the impossible, magic). I am so challenged to make these pieces. I am getting more and more interested in painting. Funny, I seem to be going full-circle. Yes, I think the Apple commissions were a prelude to some of my current work. In addition to the Apple III, Apple also commissioned me to create my version of the Lisa, as I understand the first personal computer to use mouse technology. It was intended to be a going away gift for John Couch (I think) who was the mouse developer for Apple. As it turned out the piece took me longer to make than expected and he never received it. For my commission I received a Lisa valued at around $10,000 back then. I never even opened the box and quickly sold to a businessman who used it to run his shop.
DTI: Did you ever find out where the Lisa ended up? The photos you sent are the first I’ve heard or seen of that piece.
TE: I have no idea what happened to the Lisa after I shipped.
DTI: Was the Lisa made of the same materials and small-parts techniques as you employed with the Apple ///?
TE: The Lisa was made in a similar way as the Apple III. The curly cord that attaches the keyboard was the biggest challenge. It was produced by wrapping several thin strips (veneer thickness) of maple around a cardboard tube with glue between each layer – the tube served as the form. The tube was then crushed and I had a spring form. This wooden “spring” was then shaped by hand.
DTI: Do you remember who within Apple commissioned the pieces?
TE: My contact within Apple was Phil Raymond. I believe he was Apple’s design director at the time.
DTI: Did Apple send you sample machines to reference while you worked, or were you restricted to pictures/plans, etc?
TE: Yes, I was given both an Apple III and a Lisa (Phil said it was a low production number).
DTI: Did you take any pictures of the pieces as you were working on them?
TE: I have a vague memory of some working images but not sure if they still exist. These commissions happened before digital photography, making progress shots of work much less convenient.
About Tom Eckert
Tom Eckert received his M.F.A. degree from Arizona State University, with advanced study at California State University at Northridge. He uses a wide variety of woodworking techniques in his sculptural pieces, including laminating, bending, carving, turning and painting. Exhibited in over 150 national and international exhibitions since 1966, his work is shown throughout the United States and the Netherlands, and was part of the Craft in America traveling exhibition. Solo exhibitions include Scottsdale Center for the Arts (AZ), Tempe Center for the Arts (AZ), Mesa Center for the Arts (AZ), Lois Lambert Gallery (CA), Mobilia Gallery (MA), Himovitz Miller Gallery (CA), West Valley Art Museum (AZ) and Gallery Materia/The Hand and the Spirit Gallery (AZ).
Numerous publications include Scientific American – Mind, Studio Furniture, American Craft, Art Space, and Fine Woodworking. His many commissions include McDonald’s Corporation, OSI Industries, Arizona Governor’s Award, and Apple Computer Inc. His work is included in many private and public collections including Los Angeles County Art Museum (CA), Racine Art Museum (WI), Museum of Fine Arts (MA), Museum of Arts & Design (New York), Albuquerque Museum (NM), Tweed Museum of Art (MN), Sheldon Museum of Art (NE), El Paso Museum of Art (TX), Tucson Museum of Art (AZ), Coconino Center for the Arts (AZ), Yuma Fine Arts Center (AZ). He received a Visual Arts Fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts twice and was awarded WESTAF/NEA grants in 1993 and 1989.
Visit Tom Eckert on the web here.
tl;dr: We’re doing an Apple /// podcast. Yes, really.
Sarasaurs, ///’ers – call us what you will. Apple /// users are a diverse and loyal lot. We’re also greatly outnumbered by our II-loving pals (heck, there are even some /// users who secretly enjoy an Apple II now and then), but this should come as no surprise. The ///, in all its various forms, wasn’t on the market long, at least not in comparison to the II line – and Apple did little to support it even during that brief time in the sun.
Management’s inability to decide what they wanted their new business computer to be left it without a real place in the market. Software was late to be released – if it ever appeared at all – and when it did, it was bloated and buggy. Development tools and technical information in the form of reference manuals, blueprints, program listings – the sweet river of life that enabled the Apple II ecology to blossom into a lush paradise for user and developer alike – were in short supply for the Apple /// market.
“Business users don’t need that stuff!” the logic went.
This left would-be hackers on their own to explore and learn what skills they would need to build useful products they could sell. Companies wanting to get in on the ground floor of an industry that was exploding seemingly overnight into a multi-billion dollar business felt they couldn’t waste their time butting up against Apple’s reticence, especially when it was so easy – and lucrative – to design products in Woz’s open-design sandbox that begged engineers to come play with it.
As a result, partners who agreed to have product ready for the /// when it came to market – Quark, PFS and a few others – quickly scaled back their expectations, or discontinued their efforts entirely. Smaller companies, who bet the farm on Apple’s new business computer and couldn’t afford to cut their losses and move on, did their best to soldier on, releasing products in limited runs in the face of shrinking demand. One- and two-man garage operations, for the most part, never became more than that and the Apple /// user group newsletters are filled with ads for software products you’ve never heard of, where you would send your check not to a business address but to the house where the developer lived.
Those middle-ground users – the bulk of the Apple II market to that point – who hungered for something more than running an advanced version of VisiCalc, but didn’t have the patience or interest to try to wheedle arcane documents out of Cupertino, or didn’t want to to become full-time developers, found themselves in an uneasy middle ground, a digital purgatory where everything was too easy or far too difficult.
Business users, on the other hand – that pinstriped group with expense accounts and purchase orders Apple hoped would be the /// market’s bread, butter and income – struggled to learn the complexities of SOS and to understand why they should have to. The new “Sophisticated Operating System”, a retroactively-fashioned acronym that originally stood for “Sara’s Operating System” was powerful… and confusing, a frustrating combination for the accountant just wanting to load VisiCalc on his new ProFile hard drive and get back to crunching numbers. Apple went out of their way to always pronounce the acronym as “sauce” – get it? Apple sauce? Because it’s delicious, or something. Irritated end users reacted by adopting their own pronunciation, deliberately spelling it out as “S.O.S.”, the universal distress signal for ships at sea in need of rescue – an apt metaphor no doubt, for users struggling against Apple’s intransigence, as well as the understanding of the new concepts required by SOS.
And the Apple /// was expensive, priced well beyond the means of most home users looking for something to help them with their taxes, and their kids do their homework. Apple expected these to be used in a business environment, and a well-appointed prepackaged system could approach a five-figure sales tab in 1981.
Don’t get me wrong – that $10,000 or $12,000 bought you a lot of power. The Apple /// easily outperformed IBM’s similarly-priced offerings, but when further crippled by a technical bug and a raft of manufacturing issues that cropped up when production ramped up, and endless delays getting usable software and reliable hardware into the waiting hands of customers; first the tech press, then consumers and finally Apple itself, turned on the ///, sealing its fate as Apple’s first lemon.
And that’s usually the story you get in those C|NET, PCWorld and Tom’s Hardware “Worst of Apple” lists that pop up every time the Cupertino company fails to fail at everything the blogosphere thinks it should. But of course, there’s more to the story than that. Much more.
Apple initiated a huge – and extremely successful – recall to fix the lone technical problem, replacing 14,000 Apple ///’s for free and rapidly correcting the manufacturing glitches. Reliable machines finally reached users and while it never approached the Apple II in terms of sheer numbers of units shipped, Apple /// was by all accounts, selling well. When the end came, just months after the ///+ was announced, its massive per-unit profit margin meant the /// was making Apple more money than the Apple II, even though the II was outselling the /// by a wide margin.
Apple managed to woo new partners to develop software and hardware, even convincing Microsoft to make a version of its popular Z-80 CPU based SoftCard specifically to take advantage of the ///’s extended capabilities, and opening up the huge library of pre-existing CP/M business software to users. MicroPro and other developers, already established as big players in the PC software market, were quick to promise ///-compatible versions of popular business packages, redesigned to take advantage of all the benefits of the machine’s superior hardware features.
Apple put together a new marketing team and their PR efforts were working, and working well – David Fradin, the Apple ///’s final product manager and the man who was tasked with pulling the trigger that finally killed the ///, reports that the ///+ sales were increasing at a brisk pace by the time Del Yocam signed the order of execution. You see, by 1984, Steve Jobs had already decided the Macintosh represented the future of Apple. The Lisa wasn’t much more expensive than the /// and management hoped its fancy new graphics-driven interface would entice businesses into dropping the $10,000 Apple was asking. When the ///+ was released in December of 1983, no money or effort were spent promoting it for fear of the impact it might have on the unveiling of Job’s vaunted Macintosh less than a month later.
The Apple II meanwhile, had defied everyone’s predictions by continuing to be a huge hit with home users. Its open, expandable nature meant users had a nearly endless selection of hardware and software upgrades and add-ons, and customers were happy to reconfigure their machines as they needed.
To complement Lisa, Apple introduced the fancy new Apple IIe which not only incorporated many of the ///’s best features at a more attractive price but more importantly, wasn’t saddled with the stigma that seemed to still hang over the ///. In fact, Apple was about to reaffirm their faith in the II line, releasing a new, portable version called the Apple IIc to much fanfare and rave reviews on March 24th, 1984, the same day the /// line was quietly euthanized and swept under the nearest carpet.
Apple would continue to sell off its /// inventory until well into 1985, when it quietly removed the line from its price lists and handed off the remaining units to discount reseller Sun Remarketing, Inc. and to ON THREE.
And that should have been the end of the story – an interesting and perhaps somewhat melancholy diversion down a dead-end back alley in Apple’s history.
“Hey, what’s this Apple /// thing they’re talking about in this old Softalk magazine I found?”
“Hmm… I think I heard of it once. Never saw one in person, though. I hear the Smithsonian has one, but no one knows how to use it. Seems Apple never released any technical documents on the thing, so they can’t fix it. Not like they could use it if they could…”
“What little software that was written for it has mostly disappeared.”
Except it wasn’t the end. Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated “first generation” users to save the ///s future by preserving its past, those of us who today are discovering (or rediscovering in many cases) this fascinating, but little-known cul-de-sac in Apple’s history and the incredible machine that lies at the end of it, are benefiting from their far-sighted work.
The story of the ///, at Apple and beyond, is rich and diverse and much of it now lies forgotten or obscured, buried under the trash of misinformation and repeated, distorted exaggerations in the press and we think that’s a shame. Drop /// Inches was started as a resource for /// fans and users to learn and share and enjoy their beloved machines with other ///’ers but an interesting thing happened.
As we began to put this all together and started airing shows, a secondary goal became clear to us: we found ourselves in a unique position to shed some light on the truth of the development of the Apple /// and the stories of the people behind it: the hardware and software developers who worked long hours and poured their hearts and souls into making a new, powerful computer, only to see it sink in the marketplace, mishandled by a management team that didn’t understand what to do with it, and a charismatic co-founder who couldn’t care less. It is little wonder then that Apple’s first (and possibly best) business computer was unable to find its place in the product line.
Think you know everything about the Apple ///? You might be surprised. We’re having a terrific time making these shows and we hope you’ll join us in our adventure and listen along.