The Bell and Howell Apple II, also known as the Darth Vader Apple II, was a slightly modified Apple II for the education market manufactured by Apple but distributed and supported by Bell and Howell. It is a curiosity for collectors today, and a potential pitfall.
The Darth Vader Apple II
The Bell and Howell Apple II has been nicknamed the Darth Vader Apple II. The name comes from its dark gray color scheme, which is very unlike any other color scheme Apple has used. Internally, it was a regular Apple II Plus, complete with Apple part numbers. The two companies did very little to hide the origins of the machine.
It’s basically a gray Apple II Plus with a different badge, and some bundled accessories that always seem to go missing. And matching disk drives in gray with Bell and Howell badges exist to complete it.
The reason for the Bell and Howell Apple II
Officially, the reason Apple teamed up with Bell and Howell was because Bell and Howell had an existing relationship with virtually every educational institution in the country. In 1979, Apple didn’t have that kind of relationship yet. So if a school wanted to buy a computer, it was easier for them to buy one from Bell and Howell rather than from Apple.
For example, what I was working for a university, when I needed to purchase equipment, it was much easier to use a distributor we already had a relationship with. It wasn’t quite as easy as ordering something from Amazon myself, but it was close. But if I needed a specialty component and the distributors that we had a relationship with didn’t carry that part, we had to put it out for bid.
This bureaucratic step existed for a reason. If that red tape had not been there, nothing stopped employees from starting a side business, buying supplies, and then selling to the university at a profit while adding no value. It prevented corruption.
Apple didn’t want these kinds of purchases going out for bid. It was risky. Apple sold computers to schools at deep discounts. But a generic bid for a computer always carried a risk of losing. Not everyone understood that computers at the time weren’t interchangeable.
Selling through Bell and Howell meant introducing a middleman, but it helped them keep prices where they wanted. And it helped keep competitors out of schools.
The other Bell and Howell theory
The other theory surrounding the Bell and Howell Apple II is that it provided institutions a budgeting loophole. The theory goes like this. Sometimes an organization will have money in the budget for projection equipment but not computers.
The theory goes that the school could make the purchase through Bell and Howell, use the other budget, and sneak a computer purchase under the radar.
Or in another scenario, a benefactor might donate money to be used for a purpose, and that purpose wasn’t a computer. If Bell and Howell made other things that would comply with the wishes of the benefactor, perhaps they could sneak a computer through instead.
The problem with the budgeting theory
The problem with these theories is the paper trail. The invoice would clearly say Bell and Howell computer. And that’s a problem if you are trying to pass the device off as something else. A competent auditor will catch that in their sleep.
I’d like to think most people know better than to try stuff like that. But I worked for an IT director 20 years ago who tried something very much like that. Then again, getting caught doing things like that contributed to the end of his career as an IT director.
So maybe the Bell and Howell Apple II existed to comply with anti corruption measures and to take advantage of corrupt individuals.
Is the Bell and Howell Darth Vader Apple II rare?
Every eBay listing for a Bell & Howell Apple II or a Darth Vader Apple II gushes about how rare these machines are. But for such a rare machine, they sure do come up for sale a lot.
I can’t prove that all of the carefully restored Darth Vader Apple IIs on eBay started out as regular Apple IIs and were converted in someone’s garage. But reproduction badges are readily available, and if you can get 5 minutes alone with one and your phone, you can get a convincing paint match.
So before I paid a significant premium for a Bell and Howell Apple II, I would want to be able to examine it, or at least see some provenance. Because there are plentiful YouTube videos that show you what you would need to know to convert a standard Apple II Plus into a Bell and Howell version, and they don’t talk at all about the ethics of it.
If you want to convert equipment into a replica, that’s your business, but you should mark the item in some way to indicate that it is a replica or a reproduction. Otherwise, you are a counterfeiter.
Should you pay extra for a restored Darth Vader Apple II?
Years ago, I met an Apple completist. At the time, he had an example of virtually every Apple product ever made. He had worked at a large school district, so that made it easy for him to acquire machines cheaply as they went obsolete. And he acquired most of his collection long before those machines were considered collectible.
He had one, and he knew its story. And he is exactly the kind of person who would want one if he didn’t have one.
Personally, I’d be happier with an unmolested Apple II plus, whichever variety it was. Sure, I’d clean it up and make it look nice and get it working again. But I’d rather acquire the machine from the original owner and know a little something about the machine’s history.
And when buying a Darth Vader Apple II, at the very least, look at the keyboard. If the keys are brown like an Apple II, then it’s not an all-original unit. It could be a replica, or it could be an original that had a keyboard swapped with an Apple II. But in either case it’s not all-original.
Should you restore a Darth Vader Apple II?
It’s your machine, so I can’t tell you what to do with your Darth Vader Apple II if you have one. But there is a precedent. With other collectibles, when different variations exist, when you restore a rare example, it loses value. A restored example of the common variant and the rare variant are worth exactly the same.
If you do restore one, be sure to mark it in some way in an inconspicuous place to indicate it’s been restored. That way someone doesn’t pass it off as original and mint condition.
So if I had a Darth Vader Apple II, I’d clean it up to try to make it look presentable, but I would not do a full restoration on it, especially if I could make it look reasonable just by cleaning it up.
This goes against what you see on YouTube, but keep in mind the big YouTube creators have different motivations than you have. They make content for a living. If a computer loses a few hundred dollars in value when they make it look new again, that’s a business expense to them. If cleaning the machine up is good for one video but a full restoration is good for several, it behooves them to restore it and make several videos.