Electrical engineer Fred Hatfield bought an Apple-1 computer in 1976, one of Apple's first computers. At an auction in Germany this weekend, it sold for $671,400.
Hatfield's relationship with that computer was an interesting one, and involves one bold interaction with Steve Jobs himself.
Hatfield, now in his 80s and living in New Orleans, says he was always into technology. "I've always been interested in digital machinery. As a kid I used to go to different junk stores and so on, to buy a pinball machine, to rewire it and make it do things like tic-tac-toe."
Naturally, he was one of the first to purchase an Apple-1. But he didn't like it. At all.
"It was capable of doing some calculations and so on, but it was kind of short on necessary things that you needed to actually use it well."
Hatfield joined a users group, to try to improve the machine and get some work done on it. "It didn't work out too well," he said. So, in 1978, Hatfield went straight to the source.
"I called Steve Jobs, and discussed his machine with him. I complained to him about it. We had a long discussion. It was an interesting conversation," Hatfield says. "I didn't get anywhere."
Jobs then personally wrote Hatfield, and offered up a solution. He would send Hatfield a new Apple-2 if he'd send the Apple-1 back with $400. Jobs said Hatfield could keep the memory chips.
Hatfield declined. "I kept the Apple-1. I continued to use it, to decode radio signals."
Eventually the Apple-1 ended up in a box. "I had packed it away, and just carried it with me from place to place for many years," Hatfield says. "It was just an old piece of electronics."
Over time, other Apple-1s began to appear at auctions. And a few years ago, a friend of Hatfield's started an online registry of vintage Apple computer owners, to find out how many Apple-1s were left. Hatfield says he registered on that site two or three years ago. He posted a photo of his old Apple-1, with the letter Steve Jobs sent him.
A buyer contacted him soon after. Hatfield sold the Apple-1, with the letter, for $40,000. "It sounded like a good deal to me," Hatfield says. "I figured that was a pretty reasonable offer."
That was about two months ago. The buyer repaired the machine and made it run again, then made a lot of money selling it at an auction in Germany this weekend.
Hatfield thinks all of the buzz around his old computer is a good thing. "It's bringing back a lot of the romance of the old technology, when we were just learning," he says. "Sort of like being back in kindergarten, you know?"
Hatfield also said he has no regrets, even after the computer sold for several times what he was paid for it. He's staying too busy with new technology to worry about things like that. "I'm still playing with computers. I've got a new Raspberry Pi, the $35 computer," he says. "I'm going to write a program that will operate an Etch A Sketch. The interest goes on, there's just new technology now. I'd rather be working with current things."
As for the $40,000? "I deposited it, and I'm using it to live on right now. I might get myself a new amateur ham radio, hopefully."