Inside your bog standard Apple //e computer system

Not nearly as terrifying as it looks
Not nearly as terrifying as it looks

Our VCR broke at some point in 1994. It was one of those huge units from the 1980s, with the now retro-tastic top loading tape mechanism. It was a beast, probably about the same size as a regular gaming computer is today.

The front of the machine had bright green VFD digits for the time of day, time to record, etc. While the technology is different, they now remind me of the same phosphorous green that eminates from the Monitor II, probably one of the best computer monitors to ever have been produced (I remember the Apple colour monitor being quite nice also… who needs 5K anyway?)

I’m pretty sure that the VCR just needed its belts changed, no big deal. The top popped off and dad got to work with the repair. As a six-year-old, looking at the insides of this machine was a moment for me.

It was fascinating to discover that the VCR actually had parts inside of it. It’s hard to describe now what kind of moment that was. Rather than the VCR being made up of buttons, displays and a top-loader, it was actually an extremely complex machine, with mechanical components (like gears, bands) and electronic components (like resistors and ICs), and everything needed to work together – one failed component, like a band, could bring everything to a halt.

This all seems obvious as an adult, and even recounting it now it sounds kind of silly. But there had to be a moment for everyone when they realised their world was more complicated than it looked on the surface. It may not have been electronics – I’m sure similar experinces are had when studying the human body, or global finance, or even agriculture.

Anyway, this fascination turned into a hobby, perhaps for the worse. To this day I’m still pulling apart perfectly good appliances to see how they work – I really just can’t help myself.

Apple must have been catering for the electronic nerds like myself when they made the Apple ][ and later the Apple //e.

Rather than having the computer case screwed shut like most expensive precision instruments, the case of the Apple //e was easily removable. Any idiot could open up the //e and take a peek inside, or even poke around in there.

For many orindary people in the 1970s and 1980s, this was probably their first look inside a computer. Engineers and computer hackers sure, they would have absolutely seen the insides of their own hobbyist machines – many computers of the time would have required a lot of tinkering on the inside to get the most out of it. But office workers, parents and school teachers – orindary, ‘dumb’ people – finally could see the sum of the parts for themselves.

Well, to an extent. Looking at the motherboard and peripheral cards, as intriguing as it would have been, was hard to digest.

What do we have here?
What do we have here?

Just like the VCR, rows and rows of cryptically named ICs and monolithic peripheral cards would have been the first items that stood out – that and the gold coloured power brick, with its terrifying red warning label.

Like most Apple //e computers, my personal machine comes with a memory expansion module that was also capable of driving an 80 column display output. Stock //e memory was 64 kilobytes – the memory expansion card doubled this amount.

80 columns screen width and 64 kilobytes of RAM all on the same card!
80 columns screen width and 64 kilobytes of RAM all on the same card!

Also essential is the Disk Controller Card – in this case a DuoDisk 5.25 inch controller, a special card that communicates with the DuoDisk drive, standard on post Apple //e computers.

Don’t you love that rainbow ribbon? It’s my understanding that most manufacturers did away with the coloured ribbon in favour of grey as a cost cutting measure. But nothing screams retro-tech louder than a rainbow ribbon cable.

Special DuoDisk controller card, compatible only with the DuoDisk drive.
Special DuoDisk controller card, compatible only with the DuoDisk drive.

The card just to the left of the 80col/64k card did not come with the original machine. I ended up selling the Silentype Printer Card and an odd IEEE-488 card on Ebay to finance my purchase of a bog standard Super Serial Card – while basic, utterly essential.

The Super Serial Card is another component that allows this relic to connect to the Internet via the Raspberry Pi. It features dip switches to adjust baud rate and terminal configuration. I bought this one specifically because it had ‘Australia’ written on the card. Even though it was purchased from the USA, I wonder whether this had originally been shipped overseas. I had to bring it home, didn’t I?

The innards of the //e are far too complex for one blog post – I’m hoping to write up several more of these, perhaps some more in depth than others. A blog will never beat the information inside the Reference Manual, but I wanted to share something that I still consider fascinating.

A green board with gold connectors. Throw in resistors, integrated circuits, capacitors, diodes, transistors… the //e is the sum of its components, like many of its contemporaries. But unlike other ‘hobbyist’ computers, you need not learn engineering to work and play on the //e. Even a six-year-old can understand it.

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Inside your bog standard Apple //e computer system

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