Apple and its cofounder Steve Jobs certainly helped design and popularize storage devices throughout computing history. For example, the Mac mainstreamed Sony’s 3.5-inch floppy drive in the 1980s, but Apple was working on its own storage devices even before the Mac debuted. One of our buddies discovered this eBay listing advertising for what appears to be a prototype of a previously unknown NISHA hard drive adorned with the colorful Apple logo. It comes in a translucent case, and it could easily be the first Apple product we have seen like this, even though it never shipped. It is neither a Hard Disk 20 drive Apple introduced on Sept. 17, 1985 specifically for use with the Macintosh 512K nor is it a Hard Disk 20SC.
The latter product was the first SCSI drive Apple manufactured and deployed on the Macintosh Plus in 1986, effectively obsolescing the Hard Disk 20 unit. It is a safe bet that this unit represents an early prototype of one of Apple’s hard drives, but it could also be a new hard drive design that never saw the light of day. The seller could not tell either, as the drive did not power up. Eagle-eyed readers are aware that Apple of the past had been designing its own storage devices and the aforementioned Hard Disk 20 serves as an illustrious example of the company’s closed approach to hard drives.
Apple designed and manufactured that drive exclusively for the Macs (except the Macintosh XL) and it was not compatible with any other Apple computer or other platforms. The advent of SCSI interface made the Hard Disk 20 obsolete, so Apple stopped supporting it with System 6 and dropped the necessary ROM code beginning with the Macintosh SE/30. Such an approach to storage devices goes back to internal competition between the Lisa and Macintosh product teams. Andy Hertzfeld was a member of the original Apple Macintosh development team during the 1980s. Nowadays a Google designer responsible for the praised Google+ circles interface, Hertzfeld reflected on the agony and ecstasy of working alongside Jobs in this article from 1983:
In 1980, Apple reorganized again, splitting off a new “Disk Division” headed by John Vennard, responsible for developing a hard disk code-named “Pippin” and a next generation floppy disk code-named “Twiggy”. Both were intended to be used first by the Lisa project, and eventually across Apple’s entire product line. At Rod Holt’s request, I had written some early diagnostics for Twiggy using an Apple II, but I felt lucky that they asked Rich Williams instead of me to transfer to the disk division as their software guy, since focusing exclusively on disks seemed pretty limiting. Woz’s Apple II floppy disk design was way ahead of the rest of the industry, so Apple felt confident that it could continue to innovate to extend its lead. Twiggy was a fairly ambitious project, more than quadrupling the capacity of standard floppy disks by doubling the data rate (which required higher density media) and employing other innovative tricks like motor speed control, which slowed down the disk rotation speed on the outer tracks to cram more data on them.
Steve Jobs’ authorized biography by Walter Isaacson offers additional insight, also quoting Hertzfeld:
Apple had a corporate division that built mass-storage devices, and it had developer a disk-drive system, code-named Twiggy, that could read and write onto those thin, delicate 51/4-inch floppy disks that older readers (who also remember the Twiggy model) will recall. But by the time Lisa was ready to ship in the spring of 1983, it was clear that the Twiggy was buggy. Because the Lisa also came with a hard-disk drive, this was not a complete disaster. But the Mac had no hard disk, so it faces a crisis. “The Mac team was beginning to panic”, said Hertzfeld. “We were using a single Twiggy drive, and we didn’t have a hard disk to fall back on”.
Jobs and two other members of the Mac team then flew to Japan and took a bullet train from Tokyo to visit Sony’s facility where a new 3.5-inch floppy drive was made. The Japanese company did not even have a working prototype at the time, so Jobs clearly was not impressed. He dissed Japanese engineers during a tour of the Sony plant:
“What are you showing me this for”, he snapped at one stop. “This is a piece of crap! Anybody can build a better drive than this.”
Although Jobs ordered Bob Belleville to continue working with Alps to produce its own floppy drive and cease all work with Sony, Belleville disobeyed and continued secretly working with Sony engineers. The Japanese giant sent over the engineer who had developed the drive to Apple’s Cupertino offices, where he would have to avoid bumping into Jobs. At one point, the engineer hid inside a janitorial closet when Jobs unexpectedly bustled into the Mac workspace. When in May 1983 Alps admitted it would take them at least 18 more months to nail down the clone of the Sony drive, Jobs panicked and investor Mike Markkula was not too happy either. Luckily, Belleville had a solution:
Finally, Belleville interrupted and said that he might have an alternative to the Alps drive ready soon. Jobs looked baffled for just a moment, and then it became clear to him why he’d glimpsed Sony’s top disk designer in Cupertino. “You son of a bitch!” Jobs said. But it was not in anger. There was a big grin on his face. As soon as he realized what Belleville and the other engineers had done behind his back, said Hertzfeld, “Steve swallowed his pride and thanked them for disobeying him and doing the right thing.”
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