Apple Donates MacPaint Source Code To Computer History Museum

One of the earliest bits of software that made the original Macintosh computer so interesting to use and unusual for its time was a drawing program called MacPaint.

Released in 1984 with the Mac, it is fondly remembered not only by those who used it, but also by computer scientists for numerous first-of-a-kind innovations. Those who spend a lot of time using Adobe Photoshop constantly use such features as the lasso tool for selecting non-rectangular shapes, and the paint bucket for filling closed areas with a pattern, and later, color. Both first appeared in MacPaint. The program was unique at the time for its ability to create graphics that could then be used in other applications.

Apple is today officially donating the source code to the Computer History Museum in San Jose Mountain View, California. You can read more about the donation on the Museum’s website here.

How the donation came to happen is a bit of an interesting story in itself, as recounted by Andy Hertzfeld, one of the key members of the original Macintosh development team and author of the Mac history book “Revolution In The Valley”. It was in January 2004, at an event honoring the Mac’s 20th Anniversary that the respected Stanford University computer science professor Don Knuth called MacPaint “the best program ever written.”

Knuth went on to ask a panel assembled for the event if it was possible to get the original source code for MacPaint from Apple, not to run it as an application, but rather to study it under the hood as research for his multivolume book “The Art Of Computer Programming.” On that panel was Andy Hertzfeld, a senior member of the development team that created the original Mactintosh. Intrigued at the thought of releasing the source code to the public, he called MacPaint creator Bill Atkinson to see if he had any copies of the original.

Persuaded to dig through his attic, he found a set of original MacPaint floppy disks formatted not for the original Mac, but for the Lisa — a Pre-Macintosh machine — and on top of that in a developmental disk format for the Lisa that had never been released to the world. Eventually a Lisa machine with a network connection was found, suitable, as Hertzfeld put it, “for getting the bits out of the box.”

“After that I got to thinking, that if these files were interesting and useful to Don Knuth, they must be interesting and useful to others,” Hertzfeld told me. He thought of simply posting them to the Web, but feared a lawsuit from Apple.

He then hit upon the idea of convincing Apple to donate the code to the Computer History Museum. By this time he had taken his current job as a software engineer at Google, Hertzfeld reached out to Donna Dubinsky, a former Apple exec who later went on to be CEO of Palm and Handspring. Dubinsky, who sits on the museum’s board of trustees is friends with Nancy Heinen, who was then Apple’s general counsel.

Heinen, as Hertzfeld tells it, said Apple would be “delighted” to donate the MacPaint source code for the benefit of academic and historical research. Formal approval, he assumed, would surely come right away. However, Heinen was soon caught up in Apple’s stock options scandal and resigned her position before formal approval was given. Ultimately Heinen settled an SEC lawsuit in 2008. Hertzfeld sought approval no fewer than six different times Heinen’s various successors with no luck, he said.

Finally in January of this year, Hertzfeld saw Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and told him of the stalled request for the source code. Within 24 hours, Jobs asked Apple’s new general counsel, Bruce Sewell to approve it. The files are going live today.

What you’ll find are actually two files, one containing the source code of MacPaint itself, the other containing QuickDraw, which Hertzfeld calls “the single most important component of the original Macintosh technology.” It was a key enabling technology not only for MacPaint but for the entire Mac interface, and by itself amounts to about one-third of the source code for the original Macintosh operating system, Hertfeld said.

MacPaint was last updated in 1988, and Apple, and later its software subsidiary Claris continued to sell it until 1998. Hertzfeld has much more to say about MacPaint here, on his fascinating Mac-history site And there are some interesting screenshots of MacPaint in action here.


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