A working Apple I motherboard with manuals sold this week for $374,500. Not bad for something that originally sold for $666.66.
The Apple I wasn’t a complete computer, just a motherboard. As best anyone can tell today, Steve Wozniak assembled around 200 of these boards before moving on to the Apple II, which was a complete computer, and much more capable at that. About 50 Apple I boards survive, and 6 of those still work.
Much like today, in 1976 the market for motherboards was tinkerers and hobbyists. A little less like today, those hobbyists modified and experimented with them to suit their curiosities, which explains why 75 percent of the boards are gone today, and only 12 percent of the surviving boards still work. The most pristine boards are the ones that were originally sold to people who quickly found the Apple I wasn’t suited for whatever it was they wanted to do with it and put the boards in a closet, where they sat for a decade or more before being rediscovered. Well-loved boards didn’t hold up well, partly because of the stress of repeated soldering and de-soldering of components, and partly because the chip sockets Apple originally used were a bit failure-prone.
Many of the dead boards probably could be repaired, but when all was said and done would bear more resemblance to a modern replica than to the original board.
If I wanted an Apple I,I’d have a number of options. I could build a replica. Or I could save some time and get a kit. Several kits are available, starting at around $200 and going down from there, based on how much effort you’re willing to put into making it work. Some replicas are more true to the original than others–since many of the chips aren’t in production any more, it’s more practical to build the machine with modern replacement components. The Briel kit, for example, has 11 chips on the board (down from 60 on the original), can be powered by a modern AC adapter, and includes a PS/2 port for convenience. If you started with a $200 Briel motherboard, you could assemble an Apple I almost exactly the same way you would assemble a modern PC, and even use some of the same components.
I think it’s nice that there’s an option for people like me, who are priced out of the league of an original. But I’d rather mess around with my old Commodore when I need a retro fix. It’s cheaper, and more in keeping with my generation.