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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.

The Self-Publishing Dilemma

Progress on my book has been slow but steady over the past few months with the result that Chapter 12 is now nearing completion.  That leaves only one more chapter remaining plus some tidying up to be done as a result of writing several chapters out of sequence, so I’ve been thinking recently about what to do with the book once it is finished.  The feedback I’ve received on the sample chapters suggests that there is a market for such a book, but what would be the best way of reaching this market?

There appear to be three options available.  These are (in descending order of difficulty):-

  1. Securing a publishing deal with a book publisher.
  2. Self-publishing the book.
  3. Putting the entire book up on the Web as a free download.

With the first two options, there is also a decision to be made on whether to go for a traditional printed book or an eBook, or possibly both.  A book on a technology-related subject may be more attractive as an eBook given that people who are interested in reading about technology are also likely to be keen users of technology.  However, I’d like to include plenty of illustrations in my book and there are currently issues with the use of illustrations in eBooks due to the way in which eBook readers dynamically reformat the pages in order to accommodate different display screen resolutions.

Given my chances of landing a publishing deal with no track record whatsoever, I’m tempted to go down the self-publishing route.  However, to do this properly will involve considerable time and expense, with little prospect of a return on this investment as my book is likely to be lost amongst the competition unless I can find a way of getting it noticed.  Unfortunately, the level of competition is formidable, with more than 2 million eBooks currently available in the Amazon Kindle store alone.

The Web is awash with sites offering advice for unpublished authors, but most of these focus on fiction rather than non-fiction and the two categories are sufficiently different that much of the advice does not apply.  Therefore, if there are any non-fiction authors out there who would be willing to share their publishing experiences, good or bad, I would be keen to hear from you.

Of course, I don’t need to make a decision on this anytime soon.  With a busy day job and other commitments, it’s likely to take me some time to complete the book.  The later chapters have taken longer to write due to the larger amounts of primary source material to digest, so on this basis I probably have another 9 months or so before I’ll actually have something worth publishing.

A Fine Collection

I’ve recently returned from a short holiday in London where I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Science Museum in South Kensington.  This was my third visit to the Museum but the previous two visits were hurried attempts to cover the entire Museum as quickly as possible so this was my first opportunity to take my time and concentrate on examining the Museum’s fine collection of computer-related exhibits in the Computing Gallery.

The highlight of the collection is probably the full-scale replica of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 which contains over 8,000 components and weighs 5 tonnes.  Seeing this mechanical marvel up close really brings home the astonishing achievements made by Babbage more than a century before the birth of the computer industry.  Other Babbage items on display include the trial model and some of the engineering drawings for the Analytical Engine, Babbage’s general-purpose programmable calculating machine which was never built.  These provide a poignant reminder of a lost opportunity and food for thought on how much more advanced computer technology would have been had Babbage succeeded in completing this incredible machine.

Jesse Ramsden's Circular Dividing EngineI was pleasantly surprised to see one of Jesse Ramsden’s circular dividing engines on display.  Ramsden’s work on scientific instruments and machine tools in the 1770s led to major advances in precision engineering.  These advances not only allowed Babbage to create the intricate mechanisms for his Engines but they also provided the foundation for the successful mass production of mechanical calculating machines in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Museum’s collection does an excellent job of covering the mechanical and electromechanical eras and it was reassuring to see analogue computing well represented.  The electronic age is less well represented, however, with only a handful of medium and large scale electronic computers on display.  I’m aware that the Museum has many more items in storage than it can possibly display in the space available but it would be good to see a few more examples of electronic computers from recent times.

Unlike many of London’s tourist attractions, entry to the Science Museum is free.  Despite visiting at the height of the tourist season, there were no long queues at the doors, possibly as a result of stiff competition from the Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum which are both located in the same area.  If you are ever in South Kensington and have an hour or two to spare, I would highly recommend a visit.  If not, you could try reading Chapter 1 of my book which covers the work of Jesse Ramsden and Charles Babbage.

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!

History in the Making

Earlier this week I attended a conference on the history of computing held at the Science Museum in London.  The conference was entitled Making the History of Computing Relevant and was organised by the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) in conjunction with the Science Museum and the Computer Conservation Society.

Conference1This was the first event of its kind to be held in the UK for several years and attracted participants from all over the country plus a large contingent of overseas visitors from as far afield as Australia, Japan and Hawaii.  The main theme of the conference was exploring what could be done to make the history of computing relevant and interesting to the general public.  The programme featured 28 presentations spread over 2 days.  These were structured into a number of sub-themes, each of which included a generous allocation of time for questions and discussion.

The presentations were uniformly excellent but the two stand out ones for me were ‘The Voice of the Machine’ by Dr Tom Lean and ‘Reconstruction of Konrad Zuse’s Z3’ by Dr Horst Zuse:-

  • Dr Lean’s presentation featured video and audio clips of interviews with some of the pioneers of computing in the UK which he has been gathering as part of the British Library’s ‘Voices of Science’ oral history project.  Listening to these fascinating clips gave the subject matter a more human dimension which should certainly help in making the history of computing more compelling to a non-technical audience.
  • Dr Zuse’s presentation was a hilarious account of his efforts to build a replica of the legendary Z3 electromechanical computer developed by his father in 1941.  It included clips from a video diary Dr Zuse had kept on the project, featuring such comic scenes as DHL couriers struggling to deliver heavy boxes containing thousands of electromagnetic relays to Dr Zuse’s top floor flat.  It was by far the funniest conference presentation I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

Conference2A reception was held in the Science Museum’s Alan Turing exhibition on the evening of Day 1.  This only added to the general air of conviviality and shared enthusiasm for the subject which permeated the whole event, although there was one moment of heated debate on Day 2 regarding whether museums should make more of an effort to give working demonstrations of their exhibits in situations where the equipment is still in working order.

I was also struck by the number of septuagenarian delegates sporting the latest smartphones, tablets and laptops and who were clearly much more skilled at using them than I am.  Proof perhaps of the adage “once a computer geek, always a computer geek“?

I am indebted to Google for sponsoring the conference, without which I probably could not have afforded to attend, as the delegate fees for conferences of this quality are usually several hundred pounds.  Thanks also to Dr Tilly Blyth (pictured above) and her team from the Science Museum for organising such an enjoyable and well run event.  Hopefully, the programme committee will decide to make this a regular event.  I’m already looking forward to attending the next one!

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

Teashop Technology

In my day job as a Business Development Manager at the University of Glasgow, I’m always looking for good case studies on the benefits of business-university collaboration.  One industry sector that has benefited enormously from university expertise is the computer industry.  A fascinating example of this is a project which dates back to the very start of the industry in the UK.  It involved a collaboration between catering firm J Lyons & Company and the University of Cambridge to develop the first computer specifically for business use.  Amazingly, this landmark project in the history of technology grew out of a simple requirement for the company to more accurately monitor sales of cakes throughout its chain of teashops.

The project started in May 1949 when the Lyons board took the decision to build an electronic computer to serve the company’s growing data processing needs.  This bold decision had been prompted by a fact-finding visit to the USA by two senior managers of the company, Raymond Thompson and Oliver Standingford, two years earlier in May 1947.  Despite the mundane nature of the company’s products, Lyons had a refreshingly forward-thinking attitude to business and had pioneered innovative management techniques in its quest for office efficiency.  Thompson and Standingford’s original remit had been to investigate wartime developments in office systems and equipment but this was extended to include computers following tantalising snippets of information that were beginning to appear in the press about US developments in electronic computation.

During their trip Thompson and Standingford met with Herman Goldstine, a leading figure in the US computer research community, who informed them of efforts to develop a computer taking place much closer to home at the University of Cambridge.  The Cambridge group was led by the pioneering computer scientist Maurice Wilkes.  Wilkes had been one of a handful of non-US academics invited to attend a series of lectures held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in the summer of 1946 to disseminate the results of US government-sponsored research into electronic digital computers.  Top of the agenda was one of the Moore School’s own projects, a radical new computer design based on a stored-program architecture.  This was the breakthrough which would turn electronic computers from sequence-controlled calculators into powerful machines capable of carrying out all manner of complex tasks.  Fired up by what he had seen and heard on his visit to the US, Wilkes began working on his own version of this design during the voyage home.  The machine would be called the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC).

Goldstine arranged for Thompson and Standingford to be contacted by the Cambridge group on their return to the UK.  Following positive discussions, Lyons agreed to donate £3,000 in cash plus the services of an electronics technician for 1 year to support the Cambridge group in the development of EDSAC in return for advice on the company’s plans for computerisation of its data processing operation.  These extra resources helped the Cambridge group to not only catch up with but to overtake the far more experienced Moore School team in the race to construct the world’s first full-scale stored-program computer.  The fruitful relationship between Lyons and Cambridge continued beyond the initial 1-year agreement and when the company finally took the decision to build its own computer, it was obvious to all concerned that this should be based on EDSAC.  The result was the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO), the world’s first business computer.

LEOBuilt at a cost of £150,000, LEO featured a 17-bit word length and a clock speed of 526 KHz.  Like other full-scale computers of the pre-transistor era, LEO was the size of a room.  Its electronic circuits were constructed using thousands of bulky thermionic valves and its capacious 2,048-word memory was made up of 64 individual acoustic delay lines, long cylinders filled with liquid mercury that stored data in the form of sound waves.  Input and output was via punched cards and paper tape.

LEO ran its first live data processing job in November 1951, calculating the value of cakes, pies and pastries for dispatch to Lyons’ retail and wholesale outlets.  As one of the first electronic computers in the UK, LEO also attracted considerable attention from organisations interested in using the machine for scientific applications.  Lyons was able to take advantage of this situation by making LEO available to a number of these organisations on a fee paying basis in what was probably the earliest example of a computing bureau service.

LEO was conceived for internal use only but the enormous interest in the project prompted Lyons to enter the computer industry and a subsidiary company, LEO Computers Limited, was created in November 1954 to manufacture computers “for sale or hire”.  LEO Computers later merged with the Data Processing & Control Systems Division of English Electric to form English Electric Leo Computers which eventually became part of International Computers Limited (ICL).  On its formation in 1968, ICL was the largest non-US manufacturer of computers with a workforce of over 34,000 employees.

So are there any lessons that businesses today can learn from the success of the LEO project?  Here are three I can think of:-

  1. Play to each other’s strengths.  Lyons took a lead from the Cambridge group on the design of the hardware for LEO.  This allowed the company to focus its efforts on developing the application software, a task which made the best use of in-house expertise in office systems.  The company also subcontracted much of the construction work to other firms.
  2. Don’t be tempted to reinvent the wheel.  The LEO developers did not try to create the most advanced machine possible.  LEO’s conservative design was closely based on EDSAC which itself was closely based on the Moore School’s design.  Proven components and subsystems were chosen over newer technologies.  This combination of modest design goals and the use of readily available technology facilitated speed to market.
  3. Seconding staff can be one of the most effective methods of transferring knowledge from one organisation to another.  The technician chosen for the secondment, Ernest Lenaerts, quickly became a valued member of the Cambridge group.  When Lenaerts later returned to the company, the knowledge he had gained transferred back with him, making the job of building LEO much easier.

If you want to read more about LEO, I can recommend the book A Computer Called LEO by Georgina Ferry.  Also worth reading is Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer by Maurice V Wilkes.  My own book will also cover the development of EDSAC in Chapter 5 and LEO in Chapter 6.

The Military Origins of Electronic Computers

The BBC News web site carried an article last week about the tragic death of a British soldier in Afghanistan.  What made this story different from the depressingly constant stream of similar reports was that his death was caused by a data error.  He was killed by a smoke shell fired from a British artillery weapon which fell short of its target due to an error in the data used to compensate for the effects of weather conditions on the shell’s flight.  The computer system which would normally provide this data automatically was not working so the gunners had to input the data manually.  Unfortunately, they used the wrong data, with tragic consequences.

Ironically, one of the driving forces behind the development of electronic computers was the need for accurate artillery firing tables.  In the days before fully computerised fire control systems, these tables provided the settings that gunners require to compensate for the effects of external factors (such as wind speed and direction, air temperature and the rotation of the Earth) on the trajectory of an artillery shell.  However, the preparation of such tables was very labour intensive, with a single trajectory taking two full working days to calculate using a mechanical desk calculator, and the increased demand for them during World War II prompted the US Army to fund the development of calculating machinery which could speed up this process.  This resulted in the development of the first general-purpose electronic digital calculator, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).

ENIAC

ENIAC was developed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Philadelphia.  The completed machine weighed over 30 tonnes and its cabinets lined the walls of a room 50 feet long by 30 feet wide.  Although ENIAC’s main purpose was to perform calculations for artillery firing tables, it also possessed the flexibility to cope with a wider range of computational problems.  The insights which the ENIAC project team gained through providing this extra flexibility led directly to the development of the stored-program computers that we use today.

The two men who led the development of ENIAC, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, went on to create the UNIVAC I, one of the first computers to reach the market.  UNIVAC I was designed primarily for business data processing but its origins, and the origins of all stored-program electronic digital computers, can be traced back to the US Army’s need for artillery firing tables during World War II.

A Wealth of Information

One of the great challenges in writing a non-fiction book is gathering the primary source material.  Since I began writing 10 years ago, the quantity and quality of information available on computers and the computer industry via the Web has increased enormously.  I’m fortunate to have access to the massive collection of over 2.5 million books and journals in the University of Glasgow Library through my day job but in most cases I can now find the information I need simply by typing some carefully chosen keywords into a search engine and clicking on a few links.  It’s amazing to think that only 20 years ago much of the material used in the preparation of this book would have been extremely difficult or in some cases impossible to find.  Now anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection can access it online.

I plan to create a comprehensive list of available online resources at some point in the future.  In the meantime, here are a few I’ve found to be particularly useful:-

Fumbling the Future

As part of my research for Chapter 12, I’ve recently finished reading the book Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer.  The book was written in 1999 by Douglas K Smith and Robert C Alexander, two Harvard educated management consultants.  It chronicles the establishment of Xerox PARC, a corporate research facility set up by the US photocopier giant in 1970 to support the company’s diversification into computers, and the subsequent creation of a groundbreaking personal computer system by one of the most inventive research groups in the history of the computer.

Fumbling the Future does a good job of explaining why Xerox needed to diversify in the first place and describing the corporate politics which prevented the company from taking full advantage of the amazing computer technology developed at PARC.  Where the book isn’t quite so authoritative, however, is when it comes to the technology itself.

One of the reasons for the commercial failure of the personal interactive computer systems developed at PARC was that Xerox did not recognise the changes taking place elsewhere in the computer industry.  The Xerox Alto and its commercial offspring the Xerox 8010 Star were based on a minicomputer architecture but while they were being developed the industry was moving away from minicomputer-based systems to low-cost microcomputers.  By the time that the Star was introduced in April 1981, the market was already awash with inexpensive microcomputers from companies such as Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack.  The Star was clearly a superior product with a revolutionary graphical user interface which made it much easier to use than other personal computers but it was also much more expensive, costing more than 10 times as much as an Apple II.  When IBM introduced the 5150 PC a few months later in August 1981, the struggling Xerox Star was dead in the water.

Fortunately for Xerox, other technologies developed at PARC were successfully commercialised, such as Ethernet, which became the industry standard for connecting computers over a network, and the laser printer which generated many millions of dollars in product sales and licensing income for the company.  PARC also spawned numerous spin-outs, at least two of which (3Com and Adobe Systems) became household names.  Although Xerox failed to make money from it, PARC’s graphical user interface technology was the inspiration for both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and no modern personal computing device is complete without a user interface that owes its existence to the work of Xerox PARC.