The period between when Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 and the company’s eventual decline forced it to bring him back by buying his startup is a 12-year gap that gets little attention from historians of the world’s most valuable tech company. Walter Isaacson, in his mammoth Steve Jobs biography, barely touches on it.

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Yet Apple Computer found itself in a fascinating place as the 1980s gave way to the ’90s. Jobs was long gone; the company had been publicly traded for more than a decade. It was still stable commercially, but gone were the days of messianic purpose. Still to come were the company’s nadir and subsequent revival.

Mashable recently accessed a series of internal conversations among Apple employees via the company’s “Hotlinks” discussion forum.

The records come from a trove of documents that Apple donated to Stanford University in 1997. The materials were originally intended for an official corporate museum, but are now housed in a mysterious off-campus warehouse and available only by special request.

The discussion threads obtained by Mashable show intra-company tensions between materialistic ambition and counterculture idealism. There was plenty of discord over what it meant to be Apple at the dawn of the ’90s. Should it work with the military? Should it give money to charity? And perhaps most importantly, how were employees coping with their Silicon Valley stardom?

Military-Industrial Clashes

Stances on politically-charged issues were contentious for some employees. Apple’s military contract work had picked up; in September 1989, engineer Jerry Nairn started a thread opposing it.

“I find this development very discouraging,” he wrote. “At every company I interviewed with before coming to Apple nearly two years ago, I made it clear that I was not interested in working for a company which relied on military contractors … How do the rest of you feel about Apple profiting from the use of this system?”

Employees who responded fell on both sides of the divide. But engineer Geoffrey Pascoe wrote back the next day to argue that Nairn had neglected the most important argument for military work by Apple.

“Helping defend our country and the free world is a morally good thing to do,” Pascoe wrote. “Wake up Jerry, the world is a big bad place and we need to defend ourselves. Most Americans and, I hope, most Apple employees see the need for a strong defense.”

Pascoe concluded his post by suggesting that “if you don’t feel comfortable accepting profits on military contracts, maybe Apple can give two levels of profit sharing checks: one for conscientious objectors (minus military derived profits) and one for the rest of us.”

The Rockstar “Phenomenon”

Apple was the first consumer tech corporation to gain a cult following and harness the level of cache and mystique now enjoyed by popular companies such as Google and Facebook. As with Facebookers and Googlers today, Apple employees were often greeted with amazed looks and gasps of fascination when acquaintances found out where they worked.

Diana Whelan, who worked in human resources, raised the still-emerging issue in a thread from May 1989. She recounted the common experience of being at a party or other public place and being “asked THAT QUESTION: DO YOU WORK FOR APPLE?” (All capitals hers.)

A series of familiar follow-ups would ensue: how to get a job at Apple, personal tech recommendations and big ideas for future products.

“After many years and many such encounters,” Whelan wrote, “it’s become clear to me that EVERY APPLE EMPLOYEE IS POTENTIALLY A SPOKESPERSON FOR APPLE.” She then asked: “Does Apple want to acknowledge this phenomenon and provide tools/information for employees so they can feel more comfortable in this ‘role’?”

Other employees supported the idea and echoed her story with their own experiences of the Apple effect — one that would become widespread as technology began to seep into everyday life.

Charity: An “Altruistic Cancer”?

Apple co-founder Jobs famously straddled the line between hippie idealism and ruthless business practice. But a thread started by engineer Mike Chepponis in January 1990 reflected how that tension played out among the company’s rank and file.

He wrote that the company needed to “get focused” and move away from altruism, “a morality diametrically opposed to capitalism.” He believed that a $50,000 holiday charity donation by the company had been a mistake, coming after a year in which its stock declined 12%.

“Our present woes are caused by altruistic executives,” he wrote. “But there remains hope! If we rid ourselves of this altruistic cancer, we will be guaranteed a growing, exciting, 21st century company! Let us move forward into the future by creating the greatest value-producing company the world has ever seen!”

Chepponis’s over-the-top rant may or may not have been tongue-in-cheek, but it certainly provoked a serious response from co-workers. Some acknowledged the validity of a few of his points, but most lashed back at his naked ambition. An employee called “lcw” represented many when he wrote:

“I think your link represents the most disgusting aspect of the 20th century: a money-grubbing, selfish, short-sighted, and inhumane attitude that says to hell with society (and the people who live in it) and up with a bunch of meaningless pieces of green paper.”

Some two decades later, Apple became the world’s most valuable company.