Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Apple Falls

The downward trend in prices paid for working examples of the rare Apple-1 microcomputer continued last week when the latest example to be sold at auction went for only $330,000, a fall of over $57,000 from the previous Apple-1 sold by Christie’s in July and less than half the record price of $671,400 paid for a similar example in May.  The reason for this isn’t clear, as the computer was in excellent condition and included the original box plus monitor, software and peripherals.  It may be that the Apple-1 is no longer seen as quite so rare, as this was the fifth to come up for auction in only 18 months.

The auction, which was held by Auction Team Breker in Cologne, Germany, also featured an Arithmometer manufactured by Thomas de Colmar in Paris in the 19th century.  This rare example of the first mass-produced mechanical calculating machine sold for $313,000, a new world record price for an Arithmometer.  The date of manufacture was given by the auction house as 1835 but this is almost certainly incorrect, as Thomas did not finalise the design of his machine until 1848 and the presence of a serial number (No. 541) on the front panel suggests that it was one of a later batch of machines manufactured between 1867 and 1870.

Thomas de Colmar's Arithmometer

I’m a huge fan of early Apple computers, having used an Apple II and an Apple Macintosh extensively in the 1980s.  However, I always felt that they were overvalued by collectors in comparison to genuine antiques such as the Arithmometer, which are much older and in most cases rarer than early microcomputers, so it’s heartening to see signs that this disparity in prices may be coming to an end.

Computing Heroes

It was good to see Ada Lovelace Day attracting a large amount of press coverage this year.  The international day of celebration, which was held on 15 October, has been running for only 4 years and aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.  This year’s Nobel Prize also attracted similarly high levels of press attention, particularly here in the UK as a result of the Physics prize having been awarded to Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a Nobel Prize in Engineering.  The closest we have to it is probably the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering which was awarded for the first time in June.  The inaugural prize was jointly awarded to Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf and Louis Pouzin for their contributions to the protocols that make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, for inventing the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, who wrote the Mosaic web browser.  All five richly deserve their award, as the Internet and World Wide Web have in the words of the judges “initiated a communications revolution which has changed the world“.

Ada LovelaceAda Lovelace is also worthy of honour.  Known as the Enchantress of Numbers, she was the person who contributed most to our understanding of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine through her notes of 1843.  Her contribution may have had less of an impact than that of the five people mentioned above but she is an excellent role model and there is little doubt that she would have played a pivotal role in putting the machine to work had Babbage actually succeeded in constructing the Analytical Engine.

J Presper EckertThis got me thinking about who I would pick as my own hero amongst the many hundreds of contributors to the development of the computer featured in my book.  In terms of engineering, it would have to be the American electrical engineer J Presper Eckert.  Eckert’s name is associated with several of the most significant innovations in the early years of electronic computation, including the mercury delay line, magnetic drums and disks, the electrostatic storage tube, magnetic core storage and the stored-program concept.  He and Moore School of Electrical Engineering colleague John W Mauchly were also responsible for the development of the first general-purpose electronic digital calculator, ENIAC, and the UNIVAC I, which was the most influential of the early large-scale computers to reach the market.

Presper Eckert was not only a highly successful engineer.  He also co-founded the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, one of the earliest computer companies which was later absorbed into Remington Rand.  Eckert died in 1995 as a result of complications from leukemia.  Though not exactly an unsung hero, most of the awards he received during his lifetime were shared with John Mauchly and it is high time that he was recognised in his own right as one of the greatest engineers of all time.