JULIAN RIDDEN, STEM EDUCATOR
Recapturing the Spirit of the Apple I
Whether you are a nostalgic Apple Fan looking for a chance to rebuild a classic piece of computing history or an Educator looking to spark the imagination and creativity within the potential computing engineers of the future, the SmartyKit Apple I will certainly scratch the itch.
1
A walk down Memory Lane
When we talk about iconic early computers that literally changed the world, there are three that always come to mind. The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer built during WWII. This computer was the size of a room and was used to help the Americans compute Artillery trajectories.
The ENIAC Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eniac.jpg
Next up for me is the IBM System/360. Built in 1964, the System/360 was the first to have a 32-bit architecture, something that didn't make its appearance in the PC market for another 21 years. It too was the size of a large room and was out of the range of any but the most wealthy of companies.
The IBM System/360 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_System/360
But third and, for me, most importantly was the Apple I. Built in 1976 by Steve Wozniak (Woz), this was truly a "people's computer". The story of the Apple I is well documented, but if I had to some up the key points of this famous machine, it would be with the following.
The Apple I Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_I#/media/File:Apple1innards.jpg
2
Let's Go Clubbing
It was on March 5, 1975 that two young aspiring technologists by the names of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs attended their first meeting of the "Homebrew Computer Club". This club was a collection of early computer hobbyists who would all get together to share their passions and ideas for computer design. Taking inspiration from this group, Steve Wozniak set to work designing and building a computer that they could put into the hands of ordinary people. In his Biography Woz states "I did this computer … to show the people at Homebrew that it was possible to build a very affordable computer — a real computer you could program for the price of the Altair — with just a few chips,"
Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter: Source: https://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102740021
Even in 1976, computers were very large affairs that only large businesses could afford. To call what Woz built a computer is a misnomer by today's standards. The Apple I was just a circuit board. No screen, no keyboard or mouse. Just a circuit board that consisted of 60 chips, 4KB of RAM and a processor that ran at a whopping speed of 1.023 MHz! What made this computer part of history was the fact that the board was built out of cheap affordable parts and that freely handed out the schematics to all the members at the club and allowed each to build, iterate and improve on the design. As a group the club members continued to experiment, design and iterate and helped shape the basis of what would end up being the origin of the "home computer" as we know it today! It was of course the ever commercially savvy Steve Jobs who suggested that they design and sell a single etched and silkscreened circuit board in a wooden box as a commercial product. The rest, as they say, is history.
The first commercially available Apple I Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_I#
The reason that the Apple I is such a big deal for me as an Educator is because of the true spirit of collaboration, invention and iteration that was behind this first machine. Woz and the other members of the Homebrew Club were both students and teachers combined. Challenging the status quo and pushing to do better. As a STEM (Science, Technology, Maths) educator, I could ask for no better example to show and engage my students with.
3
The Apple I remade for 2020
So, imagine my excitement when I randomly stumbled on a tweet in 2019 from SmartyKit (https://smartykit.io) that announce nearly 50 years later it's initial release, are releasing a fully functional Apple I kit that students (and let's be honest, geeky educators like I) can build themselves to discover and understand the magic that went into shaping the personal computing revolution.
Twitter Post - Source: https://twitter.com/SmartykitE/status/1184212661602541570/
When you receive the SmartyKit Apple I Kit you will have in your possesion all the necessary parts to build your own version of this iconic machine including

  • 14 custom printed circuit boards for computer modules & 14 integrated circuits (chips)
  • 2.8" LCD-screen (320x240) with custom black frame, bolts and screws
  • Video (RCA) and Keyboard (PS/2) connectors
  • FTDI cable for video/keyboard drivers update & software upload (via Arduino IDE)
  • Video (RCA) cable for monitor and TV connection
  • 5 breadboards (830 dots)
  • 3 jumper wires kits (140 wires)
  • Electronic components (resistors, capacitors, buttons, crystals, LEDs)
  • Battery pack for 4xAAA
  • Sticker pack for chips
Once built, this exquisite little replica will then allow you to load and run Woz's original Apple I code. The kit is ideal for the STEAM curriculum as it inspires kids to learn more about computing and follow computer science or electrical engineering careers.
Apple I SmartyKit Modules - Source: https://smartykit.io/
When building the kit students (and geeky educators like myself) will learn:
  • What the main parts of every computer and smartphone are;
  • What a processor is and how it works as a computer's brain to execute software code;
  • What memory is and how it works;
  • How video controllers work and how a video signal is formed;
  • How a simple operating system works;
  • How the Apple I works;
  • How to write simple code.
4
Rebuilding a Classic
Once you have your parts, assembly of your Apple I is done using "breadboards". These little white boards fulfil the role of a circuit board but without the need for solder. Instead, like lego., you simply insert your chips and use the supplied wires and instructions to hook up the relevant "pins" to each other.


The build itself is a wonderful experiential learning experience. There will be a lot of trial and error as you discover how the components interact, how electricity flows and the critical importance of attention to detail. The sense of accomplishment when you finally complete the system and have the first initialisation script running is truly a genuinely satisfying experience. As Steve Jobs said, "The journey is the reward"!


SmartyKit Apple I on Breadboards - Source: https://smartykit.io/
If your students are not quite up to the task of assembling the hardware, SmartyKit also supply a "workshop" ready version of the Apple I already assembled on one board. Great for the classroom, this pre-built kit is portable, works from batteries and runs Steve Wozniak's face demo program even without a keyboard. In addition, it also has all chips functions as stickers so students can understand how all the components fit together.
Apple I Workshop Edition - Source: https://smartykit.io/
Once you have successfully built your Apple I or powered on the Workshop Edition, the real fun can begin, playing with the code!
5
Coding the World
So, you have your completed hardware. It is useless without the instructions required to drive it. I often say to my students, you can live in the world or you can learn to build it. I truly believe coding skills are critical for students who want to shape the world they live in.
SmartyKit have uploaded all the code needed to run their Apple I, including the original Apple I code to their Github account (https://github.co m/smartykit/apple1). To make this even more accessible to students, SmartyKit have rewritten the original code in Python to help students understand how it works and run it on their own.
Initialising the Apple I - Source: http://www.smartykit.io
By using Python and the Arduino IDE it makes the Apple I a fantastic extension project for those who have been using existing tools like Raspberry Pi, Arduino Uno or Circuit Playground Express.
6
The Open Spirit
Continuing in the true sense of learning and community that Woz had originally envisaged, all the code, samples and materials on the SmartyKit Github are all made freely available using the GNU General Public License. The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away an individual's freedom to share or change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee freedom to share and change all versions of a program--to make sure it remains free software for all its users.
This means that you and your students can not only download and execute the software but are encouraged to experiment and iterate on it. If you create something particularly exciting, you can even share it on to others as long as you maintain the same license with your own version moving forward. Through this "Open Source" license you and your students can ensure the spirit of Woz and the HomeBrew Computer Club continues to live on.
SmartyKit is also building their own Club of sorts for the modern age with an active Discord community where engineers and educators alike are connecting to share each others challenges, successes and stories in what I am hoping will become a thriving "community of practice" as more users get their hands on the kits.
The SmartyKit Discord Community - Source: Discord
In Summary
Whether you are a nostalgic Apple Fan looking for a chance to rebuild a classic piece of computing history or an Educator looking to spark the imagination and creativity within the potential computing engineers of the future, the SmartyKit Apple I will certainly scratch the itch. For more information be sure to visit their website at https://smartykit.io/ or follow their Twitter account at @SmartyKitE.
An Apple I SmartyKit Workshop - Source: http://www.smartykit.io
Whatever your drive, the satisfaction of building your own piece of history will give you a true sense of standing in the shadows of these giants of yesteryear and a new appreciation for what went into the creation of early personal computing. Personally, I can't wait to finally get my own operational. Maybe there is an engineer Woz could be proud of in this old educator yet!
~
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