My Mac History

Apple / Musings
Photo of an original Mac running Through The Looking Glass

Everybody posting their 40th Anniversary of the Mac stories obviously prompted me to write this, which is a roundabout Mac journey. In hindsight the Mac clearly had its effect on me even when I wasn’t using it…

I grew up in Kingston, South West London. Very popular at the time for its affordable/renovatable semi-detached Victorian houses which are now largely unaffordable to normal people. I didn’t know it at the time but I saw what I presume was one of the first ever Macs in the UK, in our house.

Photo of the house in Grove Lane, Kingston as it is now

The house where it all happened.

In early 1984 I would have been 10 years old, just starting to program on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. In the home office adjacent to our dining room was my Dad’s IBM PC or XT with its 5.25-inch drives. This was an improvement over the previous Transam pre-PC with dual 8-inch drives, on which my Dad would let me play “Shoot the little green bastards”, a green-on-black character-mode CRT Space Invaders-like game. On the PC I got to play Zork…

Photo of an old IBM PC with green on black CRT screen

The IBM PC in all its dismal, joyless glory. Source:

I can’t be certain, but I presume it was years previously through playgroup that my Mum met Lynn, the mother of a boy similar in age to me called Felix who lived in the same street as us and we became family friends. Her husband was Adrian Boot, a hugely successful music photographer working for Island Records, who I’d now describe as a true polymath. He always seemed generous, enthusiastic and a touch anarchic. Here’s a post from his Instagram account.

He started teaching my Dad how to program BASIC on the old pre-PCs of the time, allowing my Dad to build a business on music industry royalty accounting software in the years that followed.

Several years after that in 1984, not long after Adrian kindly showed me how to render a random “moon landscape” on my Spectrum in BASIC — a memory so cool it is burned into my brain and probably sowed the seeds for what came later — Adrian had said something to my Dad along the lines of “Hey I’ve got this new computer from Apple called a Mac, I’m going to bring it round to show you, it’s fucking incredible”.

There it was on our dining room table, next to an ash tray. Adrian had clearly just grabbed it by the handle and walked 250m down the road with it to our house. Unthinkable for the time.

I was young so I don’t remember that much with clarity about the experience. I don’t remember being blown away by the small size — after all I had a ZX Spectrum that was tiny by comparison to my Dad’s PC setup that was huge.

I do however remember the crisp black and white screen, a major improvement over the green on black CRT monitor of my Dad’s PCs or the Spectrum’s colour output on a 14” CRT TV. Thinking about it, this was probably the first time in my life I truly saw pixels. Drawing them on a Spectrum on a fuzzy TV was not the same.

It was the first time I’d ever heard of or seen a mouse and a mouse pointer, and a GUI. Everything I would see and use for several years after — IBM’s mouse, early Windows versions, Amstrad GEM operating system, Atari TOS/GEM etc. — would be inferior to that.

Adrian showed us the Alice In Wonderland themed game “Through The Looking Glass”, which had the best graphics I’d ever seen at the time.

Photo of an original Mac running Through The Looking Glass

Through The Looking Glass running on an original Mac. Source:

Then he made a huge fuss about how great the 3.5-inch floppy disks were. In an era where people were scarred by the failures of unreliable 5.25” floppies which were so prone to creases and scratches causing data loss, this really was revolutionary.

A photo of an 8-inch floppy disk, an orange 5.25-inch floppy disk and a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

Floppy disks 8″, 5.25″ and 3.5″.

Adrian proceeded to demonstrate the robustness of 3.5″ floppies by putting one of the disks he had brought with him into the ash tray and aggressively stubbing out his cigarette on it. Luckily I have so far escaped lung cancer no thanks to my parents, but this memory has stayed with me forever.

So I immediately became obsessed with Apple and the Mac. Nope, sadly not. If I could turn back time and beg my parents for a Mac back then I would. I suspect that because the Apple approach was so different, in a way my Dad never really understood the value of, he stuck with PCs despite working in the music industry which in large part went to Mac quickly at least on the creative side.

Later he got an Atari ST for home music production with Steinberg Pro-24, and somehow I ended up with one also. So I began my 68000 demo coding journey which of course happened to be the same chip architecture as Mac for quite some time.

I was deep in the PC/Atari desert. I think some time around 1988 when I was 14 or so, I remember us visiting Adrian again in his new house in the country. He had a photo studio with what I now presume was a Hasselblad on a tripod and a more modern Mac or PC in the corner. They had a living room absolutely wall to wall with amazing looking books.

He was raving at me and my Dad about this new programming language called Pascal and showing us the book “Oh! Pascal” which I ended up owning but I don’t know if it was my own copy or he gave me his. At some point I got hold of a copy of Turbo Pascal for IBM PC and a love for Pascal was born. Thinking about it now Adrian probably copied it for us on to some floppies!

This amazing book and language started my structured programming journey which… after many other languages, PC-platforms and jobs ended up with me buying my first PowerPC Mac Mini in 2005.

I was instantly hooked on the superior developer experience for Java-based Web development. I soon got the first Intel Mac Mini when it came out and … have never looked back. The misery of maintaining PCs and dealing with the endless problems of Windows was behind me forever.

Strangely, between that first Mac in 1984 and getting my own in 2005 the only other Mac I ever saw in the flesh was I am guessing some form of Quadra. It belonged to my demoscene graphic artist friend Niklas Malmqvist and he had it in his room in his mum’s apartment in Sweden when I visited him around 1991. This was not long after it had survived him blowing himself up in that room and causing the anti-terror squad to turn up.

At least I think it survived, I don’t remember it being switched on. I do remember him continually picking small bits of glass out of his body though…

Correction: I remembered today that I did see other Macs and was utterly confused by them. In the early 2000s I saw an iMac G4 in use at The Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath, and my friend Tim Smith had a pre-G4 iMac which I actually used briefly, or tried to, to sort out his dial up internet access. I couldn’t even understand how to use the one button mouse and get file info etc. I was super underwhelmed. OS X changed everything.

The Author

Marc Palmer (Twitter, Mastodon) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He currently works on the iOS team of Concepts sketching app, as well as his own apps like video subtitle app Captionista. He created the Flint open source framework. He can also do a pretty good job of designing app products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's really embarrassing. You can find out more here.