This most recent Fourth of July was the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—not the actual small-d declaration itself, which actually was two days earlier, as all we American history nerds know.
It also was the thirty-fifth anniversary of my first encounter with a Mac.
It was the night of July 4, 1984.
A few months earlier, I had watched the original “1984” Macintosh TV ad during the Super Bowl. I remember seeing it and thinking, “Wow, that’s a weird commercial,” and not knowing what it meant.
Keep in mind that, in those days long before the web, most of us didn’t really keep up with the personal computing scene all that well. I occasionally would go into a store and pick up some brochures or a catalog or a monthly magazine, but that was about it. I had been casually following the personal computer scene since the mid-1970s, but definitely was on the outside looking in.
I had thought about buying a computer several times over the years. When I was in my first real adult job, I came this close to buying a Tandy TRS-80 system but decided against it for reasons that I can’t recall now. (Money, probably.) I later cast longing looks at the TI 99-4, the Atari 800, and the Commodore 64. But nothing had quite driven me to the brink just yet.
A different kind of fireworks
So, now, on the evening of the Fourth of July, 1984, I dashed home from work to pick up my newly minted bride so we could attend the annual fireworks display in the parking lot of the sponsor, the one shopping mall in our mostly rural county.
However, weather—and fate—intervened.
The skies had threatened all afternoon and, indeed, just as we got there it began to rain. Hard. We dashed inside the mall and shopped and browsed, waiting in vain for it to stop storming. It never did in time, and we heard the display was cancelled.
But while we were inside, we happened into one particular department store. (In case you kids don’t know, ordinary department stores used to sell high-priced computers. That didn’t last long, but back then it was common to buy clothes and computers at many of the same places.) My wife ventured into the women’s shoes area and I, bored by that, told her I’d go check out the electronics area.
“For the rest of us”
The first thing that stunned me was the sharpness of its screen (in those days, 512 × 384 in a nine-inch screen was pretty high-resolution, friends). Then, its for-that-era small size. Then, the fact that it was an all-in-one device, probably the first I’d seen. Then, the keyboard, so typist-friendly and so un-computerlike.
And, of course, the mouse.
I’d never seen a computer mouse before. Up to this point, my entire experience with computers in stores had involved a lot of type, type, type, then cursor key, cursor key, cursor key, then more type, type, type—well, you get the idea. Seeing how the mouse so easily moved this little black pointer around the screen and allowed you to point at what you wanted just bowled me over.
I think it was showing some demo program. I only vaguely remember seeing some MacPaint art on it; it was some fancy-looking car, I think. It may even have been digitized art. I just don’t recall.
But then I picked up the brochure: the amazing, original Macintosh brochure.
“Of the 235 million people in America, only a fraction can use a computer. Introducing Macintosh. For the rest of us.”
It still, in my mind, is the greatest piece of marketing material ever created to sell a computer system—or perhaps anything else. And then I really was stunned by the story it told: the thinking that had gone into making the Mac totally different, the ideas about how to use it that were a complete one-eighty from the staid crap that, say, the IBM PC of the time was built to handle. Creative stuff.
And, of course, since I’ve made it clear that on-screen typography is important to me, there were the original Mac fonts. Chicago. Geneva. New York. Monaco. Toronto. The original San Francisco, of “ransom note fonts” fame. Venice. Cairo, which gave us “moof” and the "dogcow.” Having imagined up to this point that all computing would involve only ugly green, fuzzy, monospaced characters (or wretched CGA characters) on dark monitors, I was amazed by how the Mac fonts looked on the paper-like Mac display.
My poor wife finally dragged me away, but I took that brochure home with us and stayed up ’waaaaaay too late into that night reading it and re-reading it.
I knew I had to have a Mac.
Hints of a future
In the days that followed, I eagerly found and read everything I could find about the Mac; and, a week later to the evening, powered by a loan from our credit union, I went to our local ComputerLand and bought a Mac, an extra microfloppy drive to save all the disk-swapping the magazines warned me against, and an ImageWriter printer.
July 11, 1984: A much younger and skinnier me eagerly unwraps my new “Skinny Mac.” (Photo by my overly tolerant spouse.)
That fall, I started teaching at a community college, so I used the Mac and the ImageWriter to produce tons of materials for my classes over the next few years: lesson recaps, tests, graphics to illustrate various concepts, and so on.
In 1986, the college library got a Macintosh XL (the rebadged Lisa) and LaserWriter—oh, my typographical saliva flowed at that—and I gleefully used the library’s installation of Ready,Set,Go! to give my teaching materials even more pizzazz through the magic of a new thing called desktop publishing.
I also, gradually, learned the rudiments of page layout, and read how opportunities were opening up for people who “got” this sort of work and could write their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. I soon realized that I might just have a future on the creative side in the marketing of high-tech products—especially if I could get to a major metropolitan area. That gave me further impetus to pursue a dream I already had for the baby daughter who had come into our lives a little over a year after the Mac did: to move to a place where she, too, would have more opportunities than our sparsely populated home region ever could offer.
Means to an end
It didn’t happen overnight, or easily. Indeed, money got tight and, in 1987, I had to sell not only the Mac system but other equipment I’d bought to feed my inner geek. I often wonder now how much that first-year Mac, still bearing its original 128K of RAM to the end, might be worth had I kept it.
But, in 1989, we moved to Dallas/Fort Worth and, the next year, to a suburb which was and remains well-known for the quality of its schools, as our daughter found out firsthand in her K–12 years. Meanwhile, I embarked on a career, still continuing to this day, that has bridged marketing and technology. More than a little bit of it has been thanks to what I learned to do on the Mac2, especially since my work Macs over the years ranged from the 1987 Mac II to the early-2008 Mac Pro (one of the beloved “cheese grater Mac Pros” of the past, as compared to the new one coming later this year). Unfortunately, I haven’t been in a Mac-accepting workplace since early 2015; but, since July of 2017, I’ve once again had a Mac at home.
When Steve Jobs died in 2011, I posted on social media my gratitude for the role he’d played in helping create the original Mac and later reviving Apple and the Mac—in the process, changing the course of my life, and my family’s. The Mac, and all the things it made possible for me, gave me independence. That’s no exaggeration.
It’s therefore appropriate that I first became a Mac lover on Independence Day, 1984.
The term “Skinny Mac” came about when, a few months after I got my Mac, Apple released the first Mac with 512K, which everyone quickly dubbed the “Fat Mac”—as I recall, partly because Apple didn’t want to refer to it even jokingly as the “Big Mac” for reasons which should be fairly obvious, especially where trademark infringement-seeking corporate lawyers are concerned. ↩︎
To be fair, the coming in 1990 of the web had a lot to do with that, too. However, page layout skills for print turned out to translate pretty well to web design, too, at least in the web’s early days. ↩︎