Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs visits the Soviet Union

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July 4, 1985: Steve Jobs visits Moscow for the one and only time, with the aim of selling Macs to the Russians.

During a two-day trip, Jobs lectured computer science students in the Soviet Union, attended a July Fourth party at the American embassy, discussed opening a Mac factory in Russia, and almost ran afoul of the KGB by praising assassinated Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Coming shortly after reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, Jobs’ trip to Moscow came at a tough time for the Apple co-founder. He had lost a political war with John Sculley, and was left in virtual isolation after being abandoned by the higher-ups running the company. Looking for something to do, Jobs went on a trip overseas where he visited Paris, Tuscany and eventually Moscow.

In Paris, Jobs met future-U.S. President George Bush, who discussed with him the idea that distributing Macs to the Russian people could help provoke “revolution from below.” At the time, the less-powerful Apple II had just been launched in Russia, which remained very guarded about technology being available for the masses.

Intriguingly, Jobs claimed he had the “feeling” that the attorney who helped organize his trip to the Soviet Union “worked for the CIA or the KGB” although he never elaborated on this in public. The trip was, however, notable enough that it received a mention in Jobs’ FBI file — mentioning that while there he met with an unnamed professor from the Academy of Science, “to discuss possible marketing of [Apple Computer’s] product.”

Although Jobs’ dream of paving the way for a Russian Apple division didn’t pay off at that time, there is one other fascinating development from the visit. Staying in the hotel with Jobs was Apple VP Al Eisenstat. One night, Eisenstat was awoken to the sound of a nervous computer programmer knocking on his door. When he answered it, the coder pushed a floppy disk into his hand which, upon Eisenstat’s return to the U.S., turned out to have accurate handwriting recognition software on it.

According to several members of the Apple Newton team I’ve spoken to, this code became the basis for the handwriting recognition built into Apple’s MessagePad series of devices.

 

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