Introduction of the Apple Macintosh Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the first successful computer to feature a graphical user interface, the Macintosh revolutionized computing because of its ease of use. This user-friendly approach would be emulated throughout the world and would replace the more tedious, difficult-to-learn command-line interface used into the 1990’s by IBM personal computers and their clones.

Summary of Event

The graphical user interface (GUI), first used on Apple’s Macintosh computer, changed fundamentally the way most people interact with computers. Earlier use of punch cards had gradually been replaced by interfacing with computers by means of the “command line.” Working with a black screen on which fuzzy, crudely formed characters appeared, users had to memorize countless arcane text strings and type them error free in order to control their computers. Word processing required inserting extra characters to specify formatting, footnotes, and other functions. File names were limited to only eight presuffix characters and so were often enigmatic. This cumbersome system was distracting and had a steep learning curve. The brilliant, dedicated, and youthful team that created the Macintosh, or Mac, utilized nearly five decades of visionary thinking to change all this. Personal computers;Macintosh Macintosh computer Apple Computer;Macintosh Computers;Macintosh Graphical user interface [kw]Introduction of the Apple Macintosh (Jan. 24, 1984) [kw]Apple Macintosh, Introduction of the (Jan. 24, 1984) [kw]Macintosh, Introduction of the Apple (Jan. 24, 1984) Personal computers;Macintosh Macintosh computer Apple Computer;Macintosh Computers;Macintosh Graphical user interface [g]North America;Jan. 24, 1984: Introduction of the Apple Macintosh[05380] [g]United States;Jan. 24, 1984: Introduction of the Apple Macintosh[05380] [c]Computers and computer science;Jan. 24, 1984: Introduction of the Apple Macintosh[05380] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 24, 1984: Introduction of the Apple Macintosh[05380] Engelbart, Douglas Raskin, Jef Atkinson, Bill Smith, Burrell Hertzfeld, Andy Kare, Susan Jobs, Steve

Curiously, the initial vision of information gathering did not entail a computer. In a July, 1945, Atlantic article titled “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush Bush, Vannevar (1890-1974), who oversaw scientific research for the U.S. government during World War II, speculated about the next great engineering task. He proposed an electromechanical microfilm device, dubbed “Memex,” which would extend the user’s mental powers by allowing the user to navigate though vast amounts of information both text and images using multiple screens, buttons, and levers. The device would also allow the user to form links between data, combine them in new ways, and store or share the data through microfilm.

Bush did not foresee that digitizing would provide a superior means of compressing, exploring, and sharing data. Unbeknown to him, Bush inspired Douglas Engelbart, a young serviceman stationed in the Philippines, to use computers to enhance human intelligence by making it easier to find and process information. Engelbart formed the Augmentation Research Center within Stanford Research Institute with funding from the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). At the Joint Computer Conference of December 9, 1968, Engelbart gave an astonishing demonstration. He showcased word processing, video conferencing, collaborative editing over a forty-mile network (a network between his lab and one at the University of California, Los Angeles, constituted the beginning of the Internet), hypertext (jumping from one document to another by clicking a word), the paper paradigm (black text on a white screen), multiple windows on a monitor (as illustrated by the multiple-screened Memex), and graphics and text in the same window. There was also unique hardware: a thirty-one-combination pad with five keys that could enter text more efficiently than a keyboard and a small three-button wire-tethered “mouse” that could move a “bug,” or cursor, to click objects on the bitmapped screen. Save for the keypad which was eventually replaced by the traditional “qwerty” keyboard this was a preview of the future.

The Apple Macintosh, which originally sold for $2,495.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The computer industry’s unresponsiveness was dumbfounding. Engelbart’s system was never successfully marketed, and when government funding ended, some of his people moved to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), renowned for its computer science talent. PARC enhanced Engelbart’s GUI, adding the ability to layer windows of different applications, instead of tiling smaller ones. PARC also added mouse-selectable buttons and pop-up menus. PARC enhanced ease of use with the desktop metaphor, representing mouse-selectable functions by screen images such as file cabinets, printers, and paper. PARC implemented its GUI on two computers, Alto and Star; only the latter was a commercial product. The product’s commercial failure was due to the fact that the computer was slow, overpriced, and ineffectively marketed.

In December, 1979, Xerox was allowed to purchase 100,000 shares of Apple Computer for one million dollars for demonstrating PARC’s GUI on an Alto. The future of GUI moved to Cupertino. Apple decided to use GUI on its upcoming business computer, Lisa. Programming whiz Bill Atkinson devised the routines, later called QuickDraw, that created Lisa’s graphics. He added many refinements: a menu bar at the top of the screen; pull-down menus; instant redraw of hidden windows; and unprecedented user interaction with screen objects, including draggable windows, file icons and folders, and a “trash can” for deleting items. Also, Apple refined the mouse when testing revealed that a single button was less confusing. In the end, Lisa, with a dearth of software and the lofty price of twelve thousand dollars, suffered the same fate as Xerox Star.

Even before Apple’s PARC visit, Lisa team member Jef Raskin had commenced plans for a small, portable “computer for the people,” envisioned as a versatile “Swiss army knife,” an easy-to-use appliance. He named it Macintosh (the Mac) and assembled a youthful, gifted team. His hardware vision was modest; it included a slow central processing unit (CPU), 64 kilobytes (K) of random access memory (RAM), and tape diskette storage. Raskin disliked GUI, but a coworker urged Burrell Smith, creator of the Mac’s logic board, to design such an interface with Lisa’s fast CPU (Motorola 68000). Smith did so and, using programmable array logic (PAL) chips, achieved half of Lisa’s chip count with a 60 percent faster bus. Smith also made the board adaptable based on the growing ambitions of the software team. Steve Jobs pushed Raskin aside and managed the project. He demanded the highest quality and innovation and motivated his staff with slogans such as “The journey is the reward” and by having the team’s signatures etched inside the Mac’s case.

The Mac’s GUI was far more indebted to Lisa than Lisa’s GUI was to PARC, because Atkinson’s QuickDraw graphics engine ran the GUIs of both the Mac and Lisa. The Mac, however, was a labor of love, and it bested Lisa and other personal computers (PCs) in many ways: It was portable, it had an innovative 3.5-inch Sony floppy drive, it had four-voice sound and a voice synthesizer, and it allowed long, natural file names, as opposed to the obscure abbreviations and required suffixes of PCs.

Jobs had a decisive influence on Mac aesthetics. Its unusual shape became as iconic as the Volkswagen Beetle. The Mac, with a very sharp and stable monitor, had square pixels for better graphics and font rendering. It also included many proportional, multiple-sized fonts with descenders, designed by artist Susan Kare, for “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) documents. This was unprecedented in personal computing. The fonts included accents and special characters for European languages. Its GUI sported other refinements, such as the graying of unavailable choices in pull-down menus and elegant round-cornered rectangles used for dialogue box buttons. Kare gave the Mac its distinctive personality with her often whimsical icons: the “happy Mac” that greeted users when it was booting normally, the wristwatch when the computer was busy, and the round, fused bomb when the Mac hung up. She also created its playful Cairo font, composed entirely of pictures.

The Mac’s principal operating system programmer, Andy Hertzfeld, also created the read-only memory (ROM), which included QuickDraw and a “toolbox” that helped developers write applications using the Mac’s GUI. Two applications came with the machine, MacWrite and Atkinson’s engaging MacPaint. The latter featured timeless Kare “tool” icons such as lasso, grabber, and paint bucket; a “fat-bits” feature for pixel level editing; and Atkinson’s brilliant solution for identifying selected areas, known as “marching ants.” Hertzfeld also created desk accessories (DAs) and mini applications such as a calendar, calculator, note pad, and scrapbook that were always available. Text, graphics, or sounds could be stored in the scrapbook and moved to other documents.

The Mac was announced on January 22, 1984, through one the most memorable twentieth century Super Bowl advertisements, the Orwellian “1984.” The commercial was almost pulled by Apple’s nervous board. The commercial cast the Mac as the liberator of workers from drab IBM serfdom. On January 24, Jobs greeted Apple shareholders by reading a portion of the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” At the meeting, the Mac displayed an impressive slide show and introduced itself with its synthesized voice.


The Mac computer was a tour de force, and its creators were lionized in the media. Yet serious problems clouded its future when the “wow factor” dimmed. At the last minute, Apple’s chief executive officer, John Sculley, Sculley, John raised the Mac’s price $500, making it $2,495. Furthermore, the Mac had insufficient storage and RAM. It had just one 400K floppy, and Jobs foolishly vetoed making the Mac capable of using a hard drive or having more than 128K of RAM. Also, the Mac initially had very limited software. Apple responded too slowly, but the 1985 “Fat Mac” had 512K RAM, and the 1986 Mac Plus had 1 megabyte and a small computer system interface (SCSI) port for hard drives. New applications such as Word, Excel, and Aldus PageMaker which teamed with Adobe Post Script, the Mac, and Apple’s new LaserWriter to create desktop publishing ensured the Mac’s success and GUI’s eventual triumph. Personal computers;Macintosh Macintosh computer Apple Computer;Macintosh Computers;Macintosh Graphical user interface

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hertzfeld, Andy. Revolution in the Valley. Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly, 2005. An engrossing, richly illustrated, anecdotal account of the Mac team creating a “dent in the universe.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Steven. Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. New York: Penguin, 2000. Focuses on the technological innovation represented by the development of the Macintosh.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linzmayer, Owen W. Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2004. Presents a comprehensive chronicle of Apple Computer’s triumphs and failures.

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