The Accident That Birthed Apple: Part I
a.k.a. Death of Commodore
I like Jazz. But I like it best when it’s Ragtime. I like Reggae too, but only classic Reggae, sometimes known as Skinhead Reggae. And when I listen to Rock ‘N Roll, I prefer it in the form of Rockabilly; because that’s where Rock ‘N Roll started. Apparently, it’s the original version of a thing that interests me, not what it evolves into with the passage of time. So although I enjoy Coca-Cola, I enjoy it best when it’s served in a bottle, like God intended. And though I drive a car, the one I drive doesn’t have power steering, power windows, air conditioning, a heater or even a tape deck. But maybe I could use a tape deck if only to play one song: Trash by the New York Dolls. Because I have a small soft spot for Punk Rock; but as you can imagine I only appreciate the sounds Punk made during its youth. You really can’t trust the genre past the early 80’s. Although today’s modern Punk aficionado has probably never heard of the title Trash or the band the New York Dolls, I promise you that a musical movement that began in embryo in Detroit in 1969 was finally born in New York City in 1971 with Trash. Yet today when most people discuss the origins of Punk Rock they name The Ramones or the Sex Pistols as the founders. The only way anyone ever learns about the New York Dolls is either by accident or because they’re hunting for punk’s origin story. History has passed that band over. The Dolls have been forgotten.
Why does that happen? Why did The Ramones reach the Hall of Fame while the New York Dolls disappeared? For that matter, why does any good thing cease to exist? Where the Dolls are concerned, the short answer is drug abuse and personality conflicts. Although short answers are sometimes useful, especially when you’re in a rush; I’d like to take the long route, and answer the more general question, because I’m not in a rush. To do that we’ll leave the music scene behind altogether. But we won’t leave the decade because the 70’s is the perfect era from which to launch our investigation.
The world that the Dolls woke up to the day they recorded Trash was much more manual than the one we experience today. By manual, I mean that before they recorded a note the sound engineer had to manually place the Dolby FM magnetic tape into the recording equipment. If the sound didn’t make it onto that magnetic strip, then it died at the strum of the last note. But let’s say that it did record and you wanted to distribute it; well, you had to drive that same strip of tape to a record manufacturer. The manufacturer would then copy the song onto a record and only once that record had been delivered to a radio station — you know, actually placed in the D.J.’s hand, could you at last beam the sound to the outside world. A lot of things were that way back in 1971, you had to be there in person to take care of the issue or you’d miss the whole thing entirely. Take a simple occurrence like a phone call for example; if you weren’t there to answer that call then whatever message was trying to get to you would never arrive. Although the first answering machines were brought to market in 1971, they cost $20, or about $110 when you adjust for inflation. Probably a little pricey for most households. But even if you had the cash, in 1971 you probably wouldn’t have felt the need to own an answering machine; because if it was really important, “They can call back.” And please note that back then an answering machine was a real “machine” and probably somewhat of a nuisance. It weighed a good 10 pounds and used all that mass to record about 20 messages. In other words, it took half a pound of technology to record one simple, little message: “Diego’s baseball practice was delayed. Can you pick him up at 7?”
Though the 70’s era answering machine may not have been very impressive, the phones were incredible, so you’ll have to excuse me if I can’t get off this tangent just yet. You see, that call to warn Daddy that Diego’s practice was running late was probably made on a rotary phone, a Western Electric Model 500 to be exact.
And to make that call you had to truly “dial” the number. By that, I mean that the phone’s face had a circular, spinnable dial with finger holes aligned with each number. If a mom wanted to dial a 6 she plugged her finger into the hole next to the six and spun the dial around clockwise until it ran up against a metal stop. Once there, she pulled her finger out and let the dial spin backwards and while spinning it would emit six electrical pulses that would tell the network that a “6” had been dialed. The process made a clicking sound so that if the next number she dialed was a 9 she would have to wait for the phone to register 9 pulses with a click for each pulse. It was a very interactive, mechanical and musical experience that was fun for the whole family. But the fun didn’t stop there — in fact it’s only just begun.
Imagine a world where most of the homes you walked into still offered you the luxury of watching your favorite shows on a black and white T.V.; but not on some thin, two-dimensional screen framed in black plastic. These were genuine pieces of wooden furniture, with retractable antennae and blatantly obvious ways of turning the units on or off, changing the channel and adjusting the volume. Not to mention the fact that shows that jumped out of those boxes were awesome: Kung Fu on ABC from ’72 to 75, All in the Family on CBS from ’71 to ’79, Good Times on CBS from ’74 to ’79 and Land of the Lost on NBC from ’74 to ’76. It was an incredible 8-track world where men looked fresh in leisure suits and women’s hair was glamorously feathered or froed. And it may have continued without interruption you know, if not for one minor innovation that grew and grew and grew…
The personal computer.
Computers had been around for decades, but they were monstrous calculators that filled entire rooms, were originally operated by a vacuum system and even in the 70’s could still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were considered an institutional instrument and the average household back then would have had no more need for a computer than we do for an in-home electron microscope. Although today the practical application of the personal computer in everyday life is obvious, in 1976 the concept of personal computing was so foreign that even industry insiders at Hewlett Packard failed to recognize the pending revolution and turned down the chance to develop the first PC. But not everyone in the computer industry worked at Hewlett Packard. There were others whose ears were closer to the ground who could sense that the first company to successfully market a desktop version of a supercomputer would not only transform world history but would make billions of dollars in the process. Of course by now we all are familiar with the name of that company, and even more so the individual, who in his lifetime achieved quasi-rockstar status for bringing the computer out of the government and university office and into the homes of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Though there were a handful of players back in those early days, you and I both know that I could only be talking about none other than John Roach of Radio Shack.
What? What do you mean, “What about Steve Jobs and Apple?” Are you kidding me?
During the late 70’s Apple was hawking a mediocre machine that was being outsold 4 to 1 in the marketplace by Radio Shack’s TRS-80. As for IBM, it was still years away from bringing its very first personal computer to market. Compaq didn’t exist until 1982 and Toshiba was still focused on T.V.’s and transistors.
If in all honesty you have never heard of the TRS-80, then you have a few things to learn about the birth of the personal computer. If so, put a needle on the record, crack open an RC Cola and let me tell you a story about failures who became legends on accident and legends became who became failures on purpose.
Ladies and gentlemen this is how it all went down.