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That's Not Junk. That's Early Tech

Prices for early computers and other geek memorabilia are on the rise.

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 ( 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.