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.
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.
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.