Category Archives: Computers as Collectibles

An Apple for the Teacher

I saw in the news a couple of days ago that another Apple-1 microcomputer was sold at auction last week for $815,000.  This was less than the record amount of $905,000 paid for an Apple-1 in October 2014 but is still an impressive figure given the downward trend in prices fetched for these rare early microcomputers (as reported in my previous posts on this subject).

The likely reason for the high price paid is that this particular example would appear to be one of a very small number of pre-production prototypes in which the electronic components were soldered onto the motherboard by hand (rather than using a wave soldering machine, as was done with the production units).  This also suggests that it was not originally sold through the Byte Shop or by mail order but was probably one of the units sold directly by Jobs and Wozniak to their fellow Homebrew Computer Club members.

Apple-1 PrototypeUnusually, this story has an altruistic aspect, as the Apple-1 prototype was sold by online charity auction site Charitybuzz, with 10% of the proceeds from the sale going to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Arizona.  The buyers, Glenn and Shannon Dellimore, are also planning to take the machine into schools and universities to “help inspire young people“, although this might prove quite challenging, having purchased a non-working example of an Apple-1.

This reminded me of a project I was involved in a few years ago to create a virtual working replica of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  The idea was to prove that Babbage’s unrealised design for the Analytical Engine was indeed complete and would have functioned according to plan, and to use the resulting fully functional 3D computer model of the Engine as a teaching aid for students of computing.  Unfortunately, we were unable to secure funding for the project and it never went ahead but good ideas have a habit of resurfacing and there is now a similar project underway called Plan 28 which involves Babbage expert Doron Swade amongst others.

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A Juicy Pair of Apples

Following my last post on the subject, The Apple Falls, two more Apple-1 computers have come up for auction in the past few months, with a puzzlingly wide disparity between the prices fetched.  In October 2014, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, smashed the previous record by paying $905,000 for a working example of an Apple-1 at an auction held by Bonham’s in New York.  Two months later, another working example was auctioned by Christie’s in New York for $365,000, less than half the price paid only weeks before.  Both machines included a full complement of accessories and peripherals, although the higher priced example was said to be in “superb overall condition“.

Apple-1 Computer Auctioned by Bonham'sThese latest sales bring the total number of Apple-1 computers which have appeared at auction in recent years to 13.  There are also a similar number of examples held in other museums around the world plus around 30 known to be in private collections.  By my reckoning, that still leaves a few undiscovered examples in circulation from the 63 which are thought to have survived out of an estimated total of 175 Apple-1 machines originally built.  However, it’s very unlikely that one of these undiscovered treasures will turn up in a junk shop or car boot sale in my neighbourhood anytime soon, as Apple had no UK sales distribution channels at that time.

The original batch of 50 units were sold through the Byte Shop, an early computer retail store based in Mountain View, California, and the remaining machines were sold direct by Jobs and Wozniak to their fellow Homebrew Computer Club members located around the Silicon Valley area.  A handful were also sold as a result of adverts placed by Apple in two computer hobbyist magazines, Byte and Dr Dobb’s Journal, but none are known to have gone to overseas buyers.  A significant proportion of these machines were subsequently taken out of circulation as a result of a generous trade-in allowance offered on the Apple ][ following its introduction in April 1977 which tempted many Apple-1 owners into trading in their ‘bare bones’ machine for the sleek new model, hence the relatively low figure of 63 which are thought to have survived.

Given the high prices paid in recent years for Apple-1 computers, there are likely to be some fakes in circulation and authenticating genuine examples will be an extremely difficult task as Apple did not use serial numbers.  It will be very interesting to see what happens when the next Apple-1 comes up for auction.  With around 30 examples still in private hands, it should only be a matter of time before one of these owners succumbs to temptation and puts his or her precious machine up for sale.

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.

Another Bite of the Apple

I learned recently of another Apple-1 which came up for sale at an online auction held by the respected international auction house Christie’s in July.  The winning bid of $387,750 was over 40% lower than the price paid for the previous example sold in May.  The reason for this isn’t clear, as it was in similar working condition and is also believed to be one of the first batch of 50 Apple-1 machines supplied to the Byte Shop in April 1976 for $500 apiece.

Apple-1 Computer Auctioned by Christie's

The seller, a retired school psychologist, had acquired the machine from the original owner in 1979 or 1980.  Remarkably, he paid nothing for it, as it was part of a swap of computer equipment.  He used the machine as a teaching aid for children with special needs for a few years before relegating it to a cardboard box at his home in California.

The auction, which was entitled First Bytes: Iconic Technology from the Twentieth Century, also featured a rare Apple Lisa and three Apple pre-production prototypes.  Surprisingly, several items failed to reach their reserve price and were not sold.  It will be interesting to see if this downward trend continues when the German auction house which achieved a world record price for the Apple-1 sold in May holds its next specialist auction on 16 November.  The star of the show will be yet another example of a working Apple-1 computer from the first batch of 50, this time complete with its original box.  However, in what may be a tell-tale sign of lower expectations, the estimated price for this item has been set at $300,000 to $500,000.

Apple-1 Revisited

As predicted in my earlier post on the auction of vintage computers which was due to take place in Germany on 25 May (Yesterday’s Computers – Tomorrow’s Antiques?), the Apple-1 microcomputer did indeed fetch the highest price.  It sold for a whopping $671,400, beating the previous record by over $30,000.  The buyer was a wealthy entrepreneur from the Far East who wishes to remain anonymous.

To make this story even more remarkable, the New York Times has since reported that the machine was sold by its original owner earlier this year for only $40,000.  The unnamed buyer replaced some of the circuit board components to bring it back into working condition, got it signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who also designed the Apple-1) and put it up for auction, making a huge profit in the process.

In contrast to the Apple-1, the Scelbi-8H microcomputer sold for only $20,780 despite its greater historical importance and rarity, with only 3 examples thought to exist.  The iconic MITS Altair 8800 sold for even less at $11,190, perhaps due to the larger numbers of these machines that are known to be in circulation.

As for the beautiful Pascaline mechanical calculating machine, some careful detective work in the weeks leading up to the auction revealed that it was a replica dating from the early 20th century rather than a 17th century original manufactured by Blaise Pascal himself.  Suspicion was raised when experts noticed that the handwritten label on the inside of the lid dating the machine to May 1652 looked identical to the label on an authenticated Pascaline in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.  Further investigation showed that it had been assembled using screws with standardised metric threads rather than the handmade screws employed in Pascal’s era, confirming the machine’s 20th century origins.  The auction catalogue was amended accordingly and the machine fetched $41,562 on the day, a very respectable price for a modern replica.

PascalineWhat I didn’t realise when I wrote my earlier post was that the auction also featured an Alpina Universal Calculator identical to the one I own, suggesting that 20th century mechanical calculators are indeed worth collecting.  However, I’m unlikely to make a fortune from selling my Alpina as the reserve price was only $700!

Yesterday’s Computers – Tomorrow’s Antiques?

I came across a news article the other day about an auction due to take place in Germany later this month (www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22510800).  A number of the items to be auctioned are computers or computer-related, including three early microcomputers (a Scelbi-8H from 1974, a MITS Altair 8800 from 1975 and an Apple-1 from 1976) and one of Blaise Pascal’s beautiful ‘Pascaline’ mechanical calculating machines from the 17th century.  All of these are very rare, especially the Pascaline, only 9 of which are known to have survived.  Though not quite as rare, with 30 to 50 examples thought to exist, the Apple-1 is highly prized and the last one to appear at auction sold for an eye-watering $640,000, which is an incredible return on the original purchase price of $667.

This set me thinking about computers as collectables.  Is there a market for vintage computers in the same way as for vintage cars or antique furniture?  And if there is, which computers would be the most collectable and why?

When I started researching my book in 2003, I soon became aware of several web sites devoted to collections of early computers.  The number of such sites has grown steadily over the years, evidence perhaps that there is a sizable community of computer collectors out there in cyberspace.  Vintage computers do occasionally appear on Ebay but collecting them doesn’t seem to have gone mainstream yet, as there is certainly no sign of computers featuring in any of the many television programmes, magazines and books devoted to antiques and collectables.

Thankfully, computers are becoming more common as museum exhibits and there are now several museums devoted exclusively to computer technology.  Two excellent examples are the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in the UK.  There are also a number of projects aimed at restoring or conserving important early computers, the most famous of which is probably the Colossus Rebuild Project.  In the UK, much of this activity is led by the Computer Conservation Society which was founded in 1989 to preserve historic computers, develop awareness of the history of computing and encourage research.

Historic computers of national importance such as Colossus are clearly valuable and should be preserved for posterity.  But what about the many thousands of different models of computer that were aimed at the commercial market.  Are any of these worth collecting?  Valuing such items will be difficult, as price guides don’t exist and the attributes used for valuing antiques, such as intrinsic value (i.e. the cost of the materials and manufacture), craftsmanship and decorative value, don’t really apply to computers.  Fortunately, there are some which do apply, such as rarity, provenance and condition, so these would be a good starting point.

Other factors to consider might include sentimental value, such as where someone wishes to obtain an example of their first computer.  On the negative side, the physical size of a computer is likely to dampen its desirability, as few private collectors will have the space in their homes for a collection of room-sized mainframes or minicomputers.  Whether the computer is in working order or not is an interesting one.  Would a collector really want to operate an early computer and run software on it?

I’d like to think that historical importance would be a major factor in determining the value of a vintage computer but this can be difficult to assess and there is often wide disagreement over which computer should have credit for a particular commercial or technological breakthrough.  To illustrate this, try typing “first personal computer” into Google.

It will be interesting to see which of the three early microcomputers being auctioned in Germany later this month fetches the highest price.  In terms of historical importance, it should probably be the Scelbi-8H which was the first general-purpose microcomputer to reach the market.  However, few people have heard of Scelbi whereas Apple products engender fierce loyalty amongst their many admirers so the Apple-1 is likely to win the day.

So, which computers would be worth collecting?  My money would be on iconic personal computers, such as the three early microcomputers featured in this month’s auction, or early portable computers such as the Osborne 1 from 1981 and the GRiD Compass 1100 from 1982.  Mechanical calculators might also be a good bet due to their relative rarity.  My personal favourite is the Alpina Universal Calculator from 1961.  Manufactured in West Germany, the Alpina was in production for only a year.  I’m fortunate to own one of these amazing little machines.  Perhaps this could be the start of a collection!

Alpina