JACKSONVILLE — When Steve Earl ran across a VHS tape labeled "Earl Family Film" at his mother's house, it brought surprise and memories of an experiment here in the years when small businesses were just beginning to use computers.
Earl's videotape wasn't family footage. Produced by Apple, it shows what happened when the computer giant placed Macintosh computers with 39 businesses and organizations in and around town as part of a living-laboratory test.
Apple dubbed the project "Operation Inspiration."
"They were handing them out like doughnuts," said Earl. His late father, Bill, got one for the print shop he operated in back of the family home on E Street.
The Apple experiment began in August 1990 and lasted for 18 months. Participants received a Mac, software and printer — then worth $6,000. Apple also offered classes.
According to one news story at the time, the company was looking for a community with the word Apple in its name for the project and found the Applegate Valley. The firm determined there weren't enough businesses in the rural valley, so it went to nearby Jacksonville because it fit the desired small-town profile.
City Hall, fire and police departments and the chamber of commerce also got computers, but 31 ended up in small businesses, the primary target.
The video, about 30 minutes long, contains six segments, including ones titled "Changing the Rules," "Pioneer Partners" and "Jacksonville: A Year of Change."
An in-depth news report by a TV station business reporter is included. The segments date from 1991 and 1992.
"This wasn't a cheap thing to do," Earl said of the video. He also has a small album of photos that Apple prepared for the participants.
A lawyer, a tax preparer, a jeweler, a bed-and-breakfast proprietor and other entrepreneurs tell about their experiences with the emerging technology. All talked about increased productivity and freed-up time.
Earl, a mason who has performed restoration work on a number of historical brick buildings in the Rogue Valley, said his father became proficient with the Mac and kept it when he sold the business.
"He worked the computer. He was starting to get good at it. He set type on it," said Earl.
Steve's mother, Marilyn, attended one of the classes Apple offered at the local school, but she said computers baffled her.
"The instructor said I looked more confused than when I came in," Marilyn recalled.
Videographer Arlis Duncan, who still runs Page One Productions, appears in the pieces. Apple gave the businesses great laser printers that allowed them to work in new areas, said Duncan.
"It greatly changed my life. I became a complete computer nerd," said Duncan. "I teach classes on that stuff."
Duncan said she recycled the old Mac a while ago but has remained loyal to Apple. She presently has four Macintosh computers. She's also an officer in the Medford Mac users group.
When the test ended, participants organized a dinner and dance at the U.S. Hotel to honor Apple. The Bella Union and the Jacksonville Inn, which were in the project, catered the party.
Apple offered to let the businesses keep the computers or accept a cash payment at the end of the project, said Earl. By then the machines were so well appreciated nobody gave one up.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.