A couple months back l was enjoying a glass of wine and flipping through the November 1986 issue of A+ magazine, which covered the newly announced Apple IIgs. I remember reading the very same magazine back in ’86 as if it were yesterday. (I love my GS.) At any rate, I noticed an ad for a curios expansion board for the Apple II, the Graphics Tool Kit from Demco. It triggered a deep memory.
Back in early ’86 I was using had an Apple IIe. I recall seeing ads for this interesting looking Graphics Tool Kit, which promised to bring better-than-Macintosh resolution graphics–640×384 pixels–to the humble Apple II. It featured all of 64K of video RAM and a mouse port. I wanted one badly, but at $399, there was no way that 13-year-old me could scrape that kind of cash together, so I just lusted. I think I might’ve sent in a Reader Service Card (remember those?) for more info. I just wanted to be teased.
Remembering that, I did a quick Google search on “Demco”. It turns out the company is still around. So I sent off an email asking if anyone was still around that worked on the GTK. As it turns out, Demco president Darrell Hoblack designed the device. I asked if he minded a quick interview, and he was game. Highlights follow.
- B: Thank you for your time. I just have a few questions. Can you tell me why Demco was prompted to create such a device as the Graphics Tool Kit?
Hoblack: First of all, we started this before the Mac had come out. If you’ve ever tried to do any graphics on the Apple II, it was just next to impossible.
B: Right, very low res.
Hoblack: Yes, the capabilities weren’t there, so we came out with the Graphics Tool Kit which came out about the same time the Mac did and actually gave better graphics capabilities than the Macintosh did.
B: Right, 640×384 with a dual-screen framebuffer.
Hoblack: Basically, one of the reasons it never really got going was that Apple didn’t want it to be publicized because it gave you better graphics capabilities than the Mac. For example, the Mac couldn’t do an 8.5 x 11″ sheet of paper. There would be about an inch border on one of the sides and almost a two inch border on the bottom that you couldn’t get to. With our graphics board, if you wanted to draw a line from the top to the bottom of an 8.5 x 11″ page, you could do that in one stroke.
B: Why make it for the Apple II instead of a PC?
Hoblack: Well, we started on the Apple II and were making other devices for the Apple II computers, and we got into this and one thing lead to the next
B: Did any 3rd party companies make apps for the GTK or was it pretty much just your bundle?
Hoblack: Mostly it was the software from us. It came with a complete software package but we did incorporate the Mac fonts and all the Mac clip art that was available for it.
B: Interesting, I didn’t realize that. I’ve never been able to find any screenshots of the board in action, rendering to a screen, unfortunately.
Hoblack: Our brochures showed screenshots of the board in action.
We got criticized very badly for not having windowing. The reviewer who did the criticism had two problems: first, he never even turned the device on to try it out, and secondly, he never commented to readers that the reason we didn’t have windowing was that we didn’t need windowing. We showed you the whole width and it automatically scrolled down to the bottom of the page, so windowing wasn’t a necessity.
B: Did the board work with a standard composite monitor or did it need some specialized display?
Hoblack: We recommended a high persistence phosphor display because of the interlacing.
B: Such as Apple’s slow-phosphor Monitor ///
Hoblack: It worked perfectly with that Apple monitor, yes.
B: Do you have a ballpark idea of how many units were sold through the production run?
Hoblack: A few hundred–it was low volume. By the time we got it out there, the Mac took off and everybody was switching and everybody who wanted to do graphics on an Apple product was switching to the Mac.
B: Were there any particular challenges in getting the board to work with the host Apple II? Obviously your board was much more capable than the II’s integrated video hardware…
Hoblack: Basically the board was another Apple. It had a CPU, its own memory, its own operating system, a built in mouse controller, multiple video pages you could work on. It had a lot of really nice features. I used it for years to do all kinds of drawings, schematics, and things of that nature. It was so much easier than what was available at the time.
B: That drawing package that came with the toolkit – I know it wasn’t a windowed Mac Paint clone, but did it feature all the circle, square, line tools and whatnot that people might have expected?
Hoblack: Oh yea. Not only were there circle tools, but we compensated for the aspect ratio for printers. You drew a circle on the screen and you’d get a circle on the printout.
B: Very interesting – it sounds very advanced for the time. I recall very much wanting one back when I was seeing the ads in magazines in ’85 or ’86, but as a 13 year old it wasn’t very easy to come by the $399 purchase price.
Hoblack: Well, it’s one of those things. You make a million and you could sell it for a dollar, you make one and you’ve got to sell it for a million. And that’s what the problem was. We had a tremendous amount of engineering that went into it–it took years to get it all together. There were at least three versions of it that came out. People would complain that they didn’t have a lot of slots available in their Apple IIs, so we came out with another version with a mouse controller on it, saving a slot. Then we came out with a third version where we added the two graphics pages you could work on at one time. Each version had tremendous improvements. The last one I used for years–it was just much easier than using any other machine.
B: Of course, Apple had their 80-column card out there, and I recall that a few companies had compatible boards that featured a higher res display and could go, say, 120 columns on a text screen, etc. Could your board get that going?
Hoblack: Well, it was pretty much with our software. Things could’ve been made to add to it, for example, we had it so you could program in BASIC directly to it, so if you wanted to write your own little graphics program or charting or whatever in BASIC, you could output right to our card.
The interview was quite a throwback for me. Frankly, I wish Hoblack had informed me he had an unsold board lying around and offered it to me. But, alas… It feels good to let folks know about this unique piece of hardware that surely passed most by.