Gordon Bell can hardly believe what he sees when he scrolls through the online catalog for a Feb. 23 Christie's auction of computer memorabilia in New York. "Oh my God, the prices!" exclaims the Microsoft (MSFT) senior researcher, a big-time collector of computer-related books, documents, and other artifacts, most of which he has donated to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. One thing that catches his eye in the 355-item "Origins of Cyberspace" catalog is a first edition of a 1617 treatise by John Napier, the Scottish mathematician whose invention of logarithms was a key advance in creating the early calculators that evolved into today's computers. The auction house figures it will go for $25,000 to $35,000. "I paid $6,000 in 1982" for a similar copy, he recalls.
Bell isn't the only connoisseur in a tizzy over the rising cachet and prices of computer memorabilia. Whether 17th-century mathematics books, mid-1940s documents connected with pioneering executives, or the first 1970s-era microcomputers, prices have soared in recent years. Apple Computer's (AAPL) first model, an Apple 1 introduced in 1976 for $666, now typically fetches $16,000 to $20,000 if it's in good condition, says Sellam Ismail, a curator at the Computer History Museum (computerhistory.org). Christie's estimates the most expensive item in its sale, a 1946 business plan for the first modern computer company, Electronic Control Co. of Philadelphia, will sell for $50,000 to $70,000. The company, a predecessor to today's Unisys, became famous for its Univac computers. Electronic Control's founders, John Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, were part of the team that built the ENIAC, the first "large-scale general purpose electronic digital computer," according to the Christie's catalog. It weighed 30 tons and contained 18,000 vacuum tubes.
Part of the appeal of computer collectibles is there's something for everybody's budget. Indeed, the modern computer industry is so new that key items are still widely available and inexpensive. "If you just look into it a little, you can amass a very good collection," says manufacturing consultant George Keremedjiev, who in 1990 founded the American Computer Museum (compustory.com) in Bozeman, Mont. For instance, a copy of the famous January, 1975, issue of Popular Electronics with a story on the Altair 8800, an early kit computer that helped inspire the founding of Microsoft, still goes for $100 to $175, notes Michael Nadeau, author of Collectible Microcomputers (Schiffer Books, $29.95). Brochures for classic home computers such as the 1984 Commodore V364 can be found for $50 or less, he says, while Christie's figures "Brainiac," a 1966 "electric brain" kit designed by computing pioneer Edmund C. Berkeley, will sell for $800 to $1,200.
Most computer collectors are males with a background in engineering. A few major players have tried to document the entire history of computing, such as Bell, who was instrumental in the creation of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC); Paul Pierce, a retired Intel (INTC) engineer in Portland, Ore.; and Keremedjiev. Others, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, focus on specific periods. Not surprisingly, Allen's specialty is the history of microcomputing, and he is donating his collection to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science for an exhibition space that will open in 2006.
ON THE CHEAP
Small collectors tend to be tinkerers. They like to fiddle with old machines, swap parts, recover old software, and get the antiques up and running again. They also collect manuals, brochures, and company documents. The machines aren't really good for very much; the cheapest PC you can buy today has far more power. But the vintage equipment still attracts a following. Says Wai-Sun Chia, 38, a software engineer with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who collects vintage DEC minicomputers: "The old machines are more interesting because they were made with boards rather than a single chip. It's like an antique car: You can go inside and figure out what each part does."
This type of collecting can be remarkably inexpensive. "The deal I've made with my wife is that my collection has to be self-supporting," says Jack Rubin, a suburban Chicago collector who funds new purchases by trading or selling one of his 50 or so computers. Classic microcomputers such as the Altair 8800, which originally retailed for about $400 as a kit and can now fetch up to $3,000, are getting pricey. But old minicomputers and mainframes can often be had for around $1,000. Patrick Finnegan, a systems administrator at Purdue University, recently paid $1,100 on eBay (EBAY) plus $200 for shipping for a vintage IBM (IBM) mainframe that cost more than $1 million new. Storing the bulky old machines is often a collector's main expense: Pierce bought a warehouse to house his collection, considered the largest of its kind in the world outside a museum.
If this hobby appeals to you, it's not hard to get started. If you're mainly interested in historical documents, work with a reputable dealer, such as Uwe Breker in Cologne, Germany (www.breker.com); John Kuenzig in Topsfield, Mass. (kuenzigbooks.com); or Jeremy Norman, the Marin County (Calif.) author and dealer (historyofscience.com) who built the collection Christie's is selling. The Web sites of the two U.S. computer museums and Germany's Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (hnf.de) are also chock-full of historical information.
Some collectors spend a lot of time searching eBay and rummaging around at flea markets, thrift shops, and computer recycling centers. Two annual events are also invaluable, according to Keremedjiev: Hamvention (hamvention.org), an annual ham-radio flea market in Dayton in late May that he says is "a gold mine of early technology," and the Vintage Computer Festival swapfest (vintage.org) that Ismail puts on every November in Mountain View. Spin-off Vintage Computer Festivals organized by collectors are held in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and in Europe.
Study up before you buy. Seemingly inconsequential details can make all the difference in determining value. Aficionados know that a tan vintage Osborne portable is worth more than a gray one because the earlier tan models are much rarer, Keremedjiev says. When it comes to DEC's PDP-8 minicomputers, the very first ones (dubbed straight 8s) are worth $15,000 to $20,000, while later models fetch only between $800 and $3,000, Ismail says.
If you're careful, "this is a very good investment," Keremedjiev contends. Old machines are increasingly hard to find. And more people are becoming aware of the value of computer-related historical material. "I'm stunned," says Leonard Kleinrock, a University of California at Los Angeles computer science professor considered one of the founding fathers of the Internet, upon learning the value Christie's has put on some of his signed papers. It estimates a copy of his first book that he signed for Norman, a letter he sent the dealer five years ago, and other items could go to up to 3,500. In the past, Kleinrock says he never thought twice about sending his autograph to collectors who asked for it. Those days are probably as long gone as the IBM 709 mainframe.
By Thane Peterson