The manual for the original Macintosh

Original Macintosh manual
Image taken from

One important element in Macintosh’s history that is as worthy of mention as the Macintosh hardware and software, is the manual that came with the original Macintosh. According to its colophon, it was written in 1983 by Carol Kaehler of Apple Macintosh User Education, and it’s an absolutely brilliant read. If you write technical documentation, you should use this manual as a stylebook for the best way to explain ‘tech stuff’ in layman’s terms. It can also be useful in case you need to explain the basics of how to use a computer to people who never touched one. And finally, it’s definitely a source of inspiration for book designers: the only elements that look dated are (obviously) the photos used as covers for each chapter of the book. For the rest, the design is pretty much ageless, elegant, functional. The manual for the original Macintosh is undoubtedly a very well executed Apple product.

You have to understand that, at the time, the original Macintosh was uncharted territory for the user of such a personal computer. Today, actions like using a mouse to move the pointer, clicking, dragging & dropping are second nature. Then, the mouse was basically a whole new input device. What to do with it, and how to associate the actions you performed with it with what was happening on the Mac screen, was not that obvious. Yet the manual explains it with such clarity and brevity, it makes things so much easier to grasp. The writing style is just perfect and so enjoyable.

The general introduction on page 9 is classic Apple, immediately differentiating the Macintosh from the rest:

You’re about to learn a new way to use a computer. If this is your first experience with a computer, you’re starting at a great time. If you’ve used “traditional” computers, you’ll appreciate the Macintosh difference. No more guessing what the computer wants. No more memorizing long commands with names only a programmer could love. With Macintosh, you’re in charge.

This is how the Macintosh desktop is introduced (page 12):

This is the Macintosh desktop. Most computer screens look like the departing flight schedule at a busy airport, but the Macintosh screen looks like a light gray desktop. And you can arrange your desktop any way you want. You can slide documents around, organize your work in folders, throw things away, or get what you want to work on next — just by moving the mouse and pressing the mouse button. The bar at the top of the screen contains menus; you’ll see how to use them a little later. The icons on your desktop always let you know what’s available.

I very much like the general tone of the manual’s descriptions and instructions. It’s never condescending towards the user. You don’t have the feeling you’re listening to someone teaching you a lesson; rather, the impression is of a friend guiding you and giving you advice on things he has experienced before.

On page 13, the manual explains in just five lines how the movements made with the mouse are linked to the pointer on screen, and the fact that the pointer may change appearance during use and why:

Every move you make with the mouse moves the pointer in exactly the same way. Usually the pointer is shaped like an arrow, as it is now, but it changes shape depending on what you’re doing. For instance, it becomes an I-beam when it’s positioned over text you can edit and a wristwatch when your Macintosh is doing something that takes a little time.

When, later on, the manual explains the use of folders (page 35), I just love how this paragraph closes:

Macintosh folders work just like ordinary file folders to help you organize your documents. […] Macintosh lets you organize your documents however you want them (or keep them scattered about your desktop if clutter makes it easier for you to think).

I think it’s a perfect example of what I was saying above about the general tone of the manual.

At the beginning of Chapter 2 (Finding Out More About Macintosh), the first section — “What Can You Do With Your Macintosh” — describes with disarming conciseness something I tried to explain to many people when they kept asking me why I had chosen a Mac:

[…] Macintosh removes a lot of the mystery about using computers. Every action you take has an effect you can see — so you’re always in control of what happens. And you don’t have to keep tedious details in your head, because Macintosh keeps track of them for you. You’re free to think about what you want to do, rather than how to get the computer to do it.

The Macintosh stays out of the way of your work. Think of watching a good movie: You quickly become involved in the plot and don’t think too much about the screen or the mechanics of making the movie. It’s like that with Macintosh: Nothing intrudes on the work you’re doing or the fun you’re having.

These are just a few examples taken from the first chapters of the book, which I hope are enough to give you an idea of the style and the quality. I could quote more, but I’d end up quoting everything. I strongly suggest you hunt for a copy of this manual, and not to part with it if you already own one.

(Update 29 March: As Ben Smith reports in the comments, a PDF scan of the manual is available here. Thanks to all who have chimed in so far, and to all who have linked to my article. It’s really appreciated.)

7 thoughts on “The manual for the original Macintosh

  1. Truly fascinating to see how similar Apple’s philosophy was then to how it is now. I never got to see one of these original manuals myself since I was too young at the time. Has anyone ever scanned the manual into a digital format? I’d be interested to take a look.

  2. Thanks for the write-up. I, too, would love to see a scanned copy as my original is long gone, and finding them is increasingly difficult.

    The quality of the manuals was a major factor in my first love of the Macintosh in the 80s. The HyperCard manual was a particular standout as it had to teach the basics of programming as well, but was absolutely as clear and concise as all the others.

    What a shame software doesn’t come with quality documentation any more. One exception being the venerable bbedit, alas PDF only these days, but still really well written.

  3. I value my ImageWriter II’s manual (I still have it and a working ImageWriter II, the latter connected to a working Mac II ci) because of the same characteristics. it is well-written enough to be pleasant to read, itself an accomplishment for a technical manual, and the design elements look timeless, as was the case with the manual this article concerns itself with. Finding computer/tech manuals written by someone for whom English appears to be their native language is one thing; to find one written by someone who may have been an English major (without letting it get to their head) is in a class by itself.

  4. I found a copy of the original Mac manual stuck in the back of a used bookstore back when I was a lowly grad student in the early 90s. Back then, I was stuck in the wilds of DOS (as that was all I could afford). Good friends of mine had Macs, and I was blindingly jealous. Silly as it sounds, I used to sit and flip through the Manual and catch a glimpse of the other, better side of the computer tracks. I figured it was as close as I’d ever get…

    Today, things have changed. I run a host of Macs, both old and new. Not too long ago, when I finally got ’round to loading up Mini vMac on my MBP, I pulled out the Manual, and got a nice touch of nostalgia.

    It’s an excellent piece of work, and certainly NOT what you expect from computer documentation. Thanks for you article. Think I’ll get it out and flip through it again, for old time’s sake!

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