Monday, September 21, 2015

An Apple a Day

QUESTION: I was cleaning out my father’s attic and discovered an old Apple computer, an Apple II to be exact.  It’s hard to imagine that this little device was at the forefront of computers of its day. How collectible are early computers and how collectible is this Apple II?

ANSWER: The answer to both your questions is simple—very. The Apple II was the granddaddy of home computers. It looked more like a closed typewriter with its built-in keyboard, but it packed a lot of punch for its day.

Steve Wozniak, who designed the Apple I with limited funds, was able to make some definitive and much improved changes in the Apple II. Appearing for the first time at the  first West Coast Computer Faire on April 16 and 17, 1977, it was an instant sensation.

The main difference internally was a completely redesigned TV interface, which held the display in memory and could display it on a TV via an NTSC cable. Not only useful for simple text display, the Apple II included graphics, and, eventually, color. Steve Jobs, Wozniak’s friend and partner, meanwhile wanted an improved case and keyboard, with the idea that the machine should be complete and ready to run out of the box.

But building the Apple II was financially challenging. Jobs began looking for funds. However, banks were reluctant to lend him money—the idea of a computer for ordinary people seemed absurd at the time. He eventually found Mark Markkula, who co-signed a loan of $250,000. Jobs, Wozniak, and Markkula formed Apple Computer on April 1, 1976. They chose the Apple name because they wanted to beat Atari, and Apple came before Atari in the alphabet and this in the phone book.

With its new case and graphics, the Apple II became one of the 1977 Trinity of computers—along with the Tandy Corporation’s (Radio Shack) TRS-80 and the Commodore PET—credited with establishing the home computer market. Apple Computer sold 5-6 million Apple II’s by 1993.

In terms of ease of use, features, and expandability, the Apple II was a major technological advancement over its predecessor, the Apple I, a bare-bones motherboard computer for hobbyists. First sold on June 10, 1977, the Apple II became one of the longest running mass-produced home computer series, with models in production for just under 17 years. Among the first successful personal computers, it put Apple Computers on the map.

Jobs and Wozniak aggressively marketed the Apple II through volume discounts and manufacturing arrangements to educational institutions which made it the first computer to be used in American secondary schools, displacing the early leader, the Commodore PET. The effort to develop educational and business software for the Apple II made the computer especially popular with business users and families.

To load and save programs and data, the Apple II used audio cassette tapes. In 1978, Wozniak implemented a Disk Operating System or DOS, which he commissioned from the Shepardson Company. The final and most popular version of this software was Apple DOS 3.3. Some commercial Apple II software booted directly and didn’t use standard DOS formats. This discouraged copying or modifying of the software on the disks and improved loading speed.

By 1992, the Apple II series of computers had 16-bit processing capabilities, a mouse-driven Graphical User Interface (GUI for short), and graphics and sound capabilities far beyond the original created in 1977.

Wozniak designed the Apple II to look more like a home appliance than a piece of electronic equipment. The lid lifted off the beige plastic case without the use of tools, allowing access to the computer's internal workings, including the motherboard with eight expansion slots, and an array of random access memory (RAM) sockets that could hold up to 48 kilobytes worth of memory chips.

The Apple II eventually had color and high-resolution graphics modes, sound capabilities and one of two built-in BASIC programming languages, plus a microprocessor running at 1 MHz, 4 KB of RAM—today’s computers run at 800+ Ghz with RAM at 8 gigabytes or higher. Jobs and Wozniak targeted the computer for  consumers rather than just hobbyists and engineers. Unlike other home microcomputers at the time, Apple sold it as a finished consumer appliance rather than as a kit.

To reflect the computer's color graphics capability, the Apple logo on the case sported rainbow stripes which remained a part of Apple's corporate logo until early 1998.

Wozniak eventually added an external 5¼-inch floppy disk drive, the Disk II, attached via a controller card that plugged into one of the Apple II's expansion slots, to replace cassettes for data storage and retrieval. Apple's Disk II became the first affordable floppy drive for personal computers.

Wozniak's open design and the Apple II's multiple expansion slots permitted a wide variety of third-party devices, including Apple II peripheral cards such as serial controllers, display controllers, memory boards, hard disks, networking components, and realtime clocks—all common on today’s computers.

The original retail price of the Apple II with 4 kilobytes of RAM was $1,298 and $2,638 with the maximum 48 kilobytes. Today, Apple II’s can be found on eBay selling for $300-400 in working condition.

While there’s a collector for just about any pre-1990 computer, any from the 1970s and earlier are hot. Though there’s a lot of computer related equipment and peripherals to  to collect from this era,  nothing beats the early Apple computers. Apple has staying power. They’re the last of the home-brewed companies that emerged out of the 1970s that are still in business.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Captured in Silhouette

QUESTION: I found this delightful little silhouette at a recent antique show. I’ve seen them in books but know nothing about them. What are the origins of silhouettes and how did people make them?

ANSWER:  Silhouettes were popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries before the invention of photography. Named after Etienne de Silhouette, Louis XV's controller-general of finances, known for his hobby of cutting profiles from black paper, they eventually turned into an art form.

But silhouettes actually date from classical Greece where they graced Greek and Etruscan pottery and ancient Egyptian frescoes. Their fame came much later when they re-emerged during the 17th century as the "poor man's portrait."

There was a real need for accurate and affordable likenesses of loved ones that didn’t require lengthy sittings and could be produced in duplicate. The solution was the silhouette. Neo-Classicism caught hold in the early 19th century, further cementing the popularity of the silhouette and giving it artistic prestige.

The process of making silhouette portraits was simple. Using the light of a candle, the maker threw the sitter's profile as a shadow against a sheet of paper and traced it with a pencil. He or she then transferred the outlined profile to a piece of black paper, then cut it out or transferred it to a white card, filled in with black ink and then applied it to a white board. Though simple to make, silhouettes weren’t limited to amateurs.

Professional silhouette-cutters, known as profilers, thrived, particularly in Europe where a distinctive and subtler style of silhouette portraiture evolved. Basic black British and American silhouettes had little adornment. Profilers from the Continent, particularly France, used colored and metallic inks to add highlights to the portraits and give them an illusion of being three-dimensional.

The golden age of the profiler occurred during the early 19th century when they achieved the same notoriety as painters.

By the 1830s, professional silhouette artists had abandoned free-hand techniques and started to employ devices such as specially designed "sitting" chairs, scaling tools, and the camera obscura in attempts to achieve accurate likenesses of their subjects. These mechanical aids enabled the operator to achieve almost photographic likenesses, but at the expense of artistry. Although most profilers signed their free-hand silhouettes, few of the later works produced using these mechanical techniques bear their maker's signature.

Pre-Victorian silhouettes concentrated on providing only a head and shoulders portrait. They have provided an accurate record of fashionable couture—hairstyles, wigs, ribbons, jewelry and laces. The style of silhouettes changed in the 1840s to include half and full-length portraits, making them even more useful for indicating what was in vogue for the Victorians. Silhouette portraits became so plentiful that they were exchanged much as a calling card would be used later in the 19th century.

By the mid-19th century the popularity of the silhouette had begun to decline. In an attempt to revive it, artists developed a variety of techniques to make them richer and more attractive, including the introduction of color, gilding and fancy backgrounds. But the silhouette's strength was in its simplicity. This fad, combined with the popularization of photography, helped to bring on the demise of the silhouette. The art form became nothing more than a fairground novelty where it has remained ever since.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mystery Solved

QUESTION: I bought this piece of furniture recently, and I'm not sure what it's called. It has drawers on each side and a closet in the middle. The piece is extremely heavy and stands about six feet tall. Can you help me, please?

  Your piece of furniture is commonly called a chifforobe, a combination of the French word “chiffonier” and the English word “wardrobe.” These pieces have been somewhat of a mystery because different groups of people have given them different names over the years.

These closet-like pieces of furniture originated in 1908 and became especially popular during the Art Deco Period in the United States from 1925-1935 or so. Your piece is a good example of high-style Art Deco, similar to French Art Deco. The drawer pulls on the bottom and the front feet are in the waterfall pattern. These pieces held a lot of clothes at a time when houses had very small bedroom closets.

A chifforobe combines a long space for hanging clothes with a chest of drawers. Typically the wardrobe section runs down one side of the piece, while the drawers occupy the other side.  It may have two enclosing doors or have the drawer fronts exposed and a separate door for the hanging space.

The 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue first advertised chifforobes as a "a modern invention, having been in use only a short time." Southerners seem to use the term more than anyone else. However, others use this piece of furniture but may call it an armoire or a wardrobe.

A wardrobe is a standing closet used for storing clothes. Many people argue that wardrobes are different in use and style of closets, but the French created to use as a closet. While the earliest wardrobe was a chest, it wasn’t until the homes of wealthy nobles became more luxurious that a separate room held their clothing. Builders filled this room with closets and lockers since drawers didn’t exist at the time. From these cupboards and lockers the modern wardrobe, with its hanging spaces, sliding shelves and drawers, eventually evolved.
Throughout the evolutionary changes in the form of the enclosure, it more or less retained its function as a place to store a noble’s apparel. Over time, the word “wardrobe” came to mean an independent storage place for preserving precious items belonging to the home’s wealthy owner. The modern wardrobe differs  from the historical one in its triple partitioning, with two linear compartments on either side with shelves as well as a middle space made up of hanging pegs and drawers, which came later. A clothes press, placed at the height of a person’s chest, enabled servants to lay clothing that they had just ironed on a pull-out tray.

In the beginning, cabinetmakers used oak to construct wardrobes, but later oak went out of use in favor of the more elegant walnut. They based the size on a wardrobe on the eight small men method.  A good sized double wardrobe would thus be able to hold eight small men.

In the 19th century the wardrobe began to develop into its modern form, with a hanging cupboard at each side, a press in the upper part of the central portion and drawers below. More often than not, cabinetmakers used mahogany for its construction. However, fine-grained, foreign woods became easier to obtain in quantity, and cabinetmakers used them to create elaborately and magnificently inlaid wardrobes.

While furniture designers in the 18th century often created luxurious wardrobes of highly-polished woods, the ultimate refinement occurred with the introduction of central doors, which had previously enclosed merely the upper part, were carried to the floor, covering the drawers as well as the sliding shelves, and were often fitted with mirrors.

As mass production of furniture became more common in the late 19th century, furniture manufacturers abandoned the refinements of early wardrobes in favor of simpler, if not downright plain decoration. By the 1920s, wardrobes appeared in cheaper woods so that they could be sold to the growing middle class of consumers. The term “chifforobe” became an everyday household word, especially to more blue-color people who could purchase one as part of a bedroom set when they got married. However, some manufacturers still made beautiful examples in the American Art Deco or Waterfall style.