On January 14, 1984, Apple released the first version of its Macintosh operating system, System 1.0. Despite being nearly four decades old, many of the features are similar to current macOS. We take you on a short tour of this historic operating system.
The Macintosh Revolution
Released in 1984, the Apple Macintosh radically changed the course of personal computer history. It first brought the graphical user interface (GUI) concept to the masses and promised a very user-friendly experience compared to most computers on the market. It also pushed the state of the art in user interfaces with a full bitmap display and proportional font support.
At the time of launch, the IBM PC was not even three years old, but Apple was on the defensive and running to catch up on its market share, as IBM’s PC had already been hailed as the new industry standard for business-class PCs. Despite this, the Mac stood out most for its innovative operating system, which also inspired how Windows works.
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What’s in a Mac OS Name?
Over time, Apple has referred to its Macintosh operating system by various names. Originally, Apple did not disclose the system software version numbers and internally referred to it as “System 1.0” or “System 2.0”. So technically there is no “Mac OS 1.0”, only System 1.0.
With System 5 in 1987, Apple started calling the operating system “Macintosh system software.” Apple changed the name back to “Mac OS” with the release of Mac OS 7.6 in 1997, and it continued until Mac OS 9. A variation of that went from Mac OS X 10.0 to Mac OS X 10.11. With the release of 10.12 (Sierra) in 2016, Apple changed the name of the operating system to “macOS”, which is how it is still referred to today.
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The Desktop Metaphor
Macintosh System 1.0 used the desktop metaphor developed at Xerox PARC (and previously used on the Apple Lisa) as a conceptual model for working with files and applications. It featured a virtual “desktop” surface as the furthest background layer behind application windows.
As with the current Mac, System 1.0 represented files and programs as graphical icons that could be spatially placed on a two-dimensional plane on the desktop or in folders. This was like putting pieces of paper in a folder on a real desk surface. Double clicking on a document or application icon opened it – just point and click. This was a huge contrast to other computer systems where people had to memorize special commands and syntax typed into a command prompt to use their machines.
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The 200 KB Mac Operating System
The original Macintosh came with only 128 kilobytes of RAM and a single-sided 3.5-inch double-density floppy disk drive. That means System 1.0 had to run well under lean conditions and fit on a single 400KB floppy disk. As a result, Apple has reduced the operating system to a package of just 216 KB, which includes a 42 KB Finder. Compare that to macOS 11, which is more than 14,000,000 KB (14 GB) when installed.
A Macintosh hard drive wouldn’t come until late 1985, so using applications involved a lot of floppy disk swaps. To run an application, you often remove the system drive, insert another drive and run a program, then remove that drive and reinsert the system drive, depending on the task you were trying to perform. It was annoying and annoying.
1-bit black and white images
Until 1987, with the release of the Macintosh II, the Mac platform only supported two colors: black and white, with no shades of gray in between. Coupled with its relatively high-resolution 512×342 display, that made for a unique graphical aesthetic. Application developers quickly invented ways to dither their artwork to simulate gradients, especially in games.
Today, macOS 11 supports over a billion colors, with 10-bits per RGB channel (30-bits total) in many different resolutions. Apple’s premium Pro Display XDR monitor uses a high-density screen of 6016 × 3384 pixels. Mac graphics have come a long way in 37 years!
No multitasking apps
In System 1.0, you can only run one application at a time, with the exception of desktop accessories. After the system software was loaded into RAM on the 128K Macintosh, users only had about 85K RAM left to run software, so there wasn’t much memory space to run two or more apps at once anyway.
When run, each System 1 era application would take over the entire screen and display its own menu bar with custom options, as seen with MacPaint in the screenshot above. Most of the time, the Apple menu in the top left corner remained available.
Running more than one program at a time and switching between them didn’t come until 1987 with MultiFinder in Mac OS. It wasn’t the standard way the Mac worked until System 7 in 1991. These days, of course, you can run as many apps as can fit in memory (plus virtual memory) on modern macOS.
Finder, which handles file management and the graphical shell in the Mac operating system, debuted as early as January 1984 with System 1.0. While it had many features with current macOS, such as mouse support, overlapping windows, an icon-based desktop interface, a menu bar, keyboard shortcuts, a clipboard, and a recycle bin – there were some notable differences.
Some of the most obvious differences stem from different options in the menu bar. For example, System 1.0 did not include a “Shutdown” menu option (which originated in System 2.0). Also, you couldn’t create “New Folder” in the menu bar. Instead, you selected an “Empty Folder” icon on the system disk and selected File > Duplicate from the menu.
Interestingly, at the time, the folders in the Macintosh File System (MFS) only “simulated” folders via Finder, and they were not yet accessible to applications. Mac system software did not support true nested folders until the introduction of HFS in 1985.
Until System 8, the Mac OS also lacked what are sometimes called “sticky menus.” Today you can click on a menu and it will appear. When you release your button, it will remain open. In System 1.0, you had to hold down your mouse button until you selected the option you wanted, then release the button to actually make the selection.
Instead of multitasking, Apple has included a small suite of applets called “Desk Accessories” with its Mac system software. You can run these desk accessories at any time from the Apple menu in the top left corner of the screen.
Includes System 1.0 desktop accessories Scrapbook (a visual clipboard that can hold multiple text or images to paste between apps), Alarm Clock, Notepad (a place to write eight pages of text for later use), Calculator, Keycaps (for keyboard input using the mouse), Control Panel and Puzzle (a small sliding puzzle game).
In particular, System 1.0’s Control Panel stands out because it is much more primitive than the current one, occupying just one window with a single window containing options related to date/time, keyboard and mouse options, sound volume, and a way to view the desktop. change the pattern by clicking on black and white squares in a repeating 8×8 pixel grid.
How to experience Mac System 1.0 for yourself
If you want to try Mac System 1.0 for yourself, but you don’t have an original Macintosh machine, you can run it in an emulator called Mini vMac that supports Windows 10, Mac, Linux and more.
To do this, download Mini vMac, grab a copy of the vMac.rom file, and download a copy of the System 1.0 disk from Archive.org. Place the vMac.rom file in your Mini vMac folder (on Windows) or drag and drop it into the Mini vMac application window (on Mac). With Mini vMac running, select “Open Disk Image” from the “File” menu and select the System 1.0 disk you downloaded. If you need help, you can find more detailed installation instructions for the Mini vMac on the project’s website.
Or if you just want a quick taste of the classic Mac OS experience (with the later and much more refined System 6), you can run a simulation of a Mac Plus right in your browser at James Friend’s PCE.js site. Lots of fun!