Saturday, 17 March 2012 00:00

Collecting Vintage Computers

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

78 computer webPersonal computers are such a recent part of modern life that it’s a bit mind-boggling to think of them as antique or collectable. It is a very small niche right now but, believe it or not, there is an avid and growing interest in vintage computers.

A sure sign of that interest is the number of Computing Museums around the world, there are hundreds of them with more springing up all the time. Some are part of larger scientific institutions or schools, some are stand-alone traditional museums and some are on-line collections which, of course, are only accessible on a computer.

Many of these museums are dedicated to the entire history of computing, it’s a legitimate academic field. Computing aids have been around almost as long as we’ve had a numbering system, the abacus being an obvious example.

The history of modern computing goes back to the 1600s. Mechanical clocks were evolving and computers are basically clocks that calculate. Sir Isaac Newton was the pre-eminent genius of the time and his theories, especially the Law of Gravity, enabled major advancements in science, medicine and banking (he was head of the Royal Mint for many years). During this time Blaise Pascal, Charles Babbage, Gottfried Leibniz and many others developed the first computers; mechanical devices that were the basis of virtually all calculators up until about 1930.

Punch card technology, or programming, was invented in 1801 to run weaving looms. The new, automated looms could be operated by relatively unskilled workers, which spawned the Luddite movement, whose members fought the technology by destroying the machines. It didn’t work but the name lives on.

Electronic computing came about during World War II. Massive, room-sized computers were built to decipher enemy codes and, in peacetime, sort the mail. Very few of the original machines exist today so some museums have embarked on projects to reproduce them from old drawings and descriptions.

On a more popular level there are a growing number of enthusiasts who focus on personal computers, which have only been around since the 1970s. There are Vintage Computer Fairs, fan clubs, and web sites, some dedicated to one certain brand or model, where collectors can meet, trade parts, show off their collections or buy and sell computers. The prices for some can be pretty high.

Does that mean the big, beige box you have tucked away in a closet that runs Windows 95 and has a monitor the size of a smart car is now a collectors’ item? Unfortunately not, and it probably won’t be any time in the near future. But if you were lucky or smart enough to be in California in the 1975 and picked up one of crude devices that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were assembling in Jobs’ garage, you’d be very popular at a Vintage Computer Fair today.

The Apple I was just a circuit board; no monitor, no keyboard, certainly no mouse, not even a case. The owners had to assemble all that stuff themselves but it worked and it was brilliantly simple. It started the current home computer revolution and one of the world’s most valuable companies. Apple’s first logo was an intricate drawing of Isaac Newton sitting under his famous apple tree.

78 apple1 3In 1975 the Apple I sold for $666.66 (so if you think computers are the devil’s work, there’s your proof), only about 200 were made and any that are around today have an estimated value of $20,000 to $30,000. One did sell at Christie’s Auction House recently for $261,000 but real collectors consider that an anomaly, not a real value. Still.

The computer collecting world does tend to exalt Apple more than any other brand. Apple computers have become collectable for the same reasons everything becomes collectable; innovation and great design. People collect things that changed our world and look good, Apple did both. Apple also has a culture of rabid followers. Apple was always the underdog. Even now, Apple computer users are a small minority so to use an Apple computer means you are dedicated, against the grain, part of the counterculture.

Almost everything Apple computers put out has a fan club, even the Apple II which is not rare and not pretty.apple2

There are other computers that are sought-after by collectors; for instance the Kenbak-1, considered to be the very first personal computer. John Blankenbaker designed it in 1971 and marketed his invention as a teaching aid in Scientific American magazine. He sold 40, mostly to schools, before giving up in 1973. Only 14 are known to exist today, seven of which are in the Computer Museum of Nova Scotia. If you work in a school and find a Kenbak-1 in the basement, it’s worth about $12,000 on the collector market. That money would certainly beef up the school’s computer lab.

The Altair 8800 was the first micro-computer to really catch on with the public. It was sold as a kit in Popular Electronics magazine in 1975. Thousands were sold but they remain collectable because so many others copied its design and the first developer to write code for it was a new company called Micro-Soft (as they spelled it at the time). A good condition Altair 8800 should fetch about $2,000 today (price figures come from an article by Harry McCracken, published in PC World in 2008).

Now computers have a habit of dropping in price so most of the so-called collectable computers sell for a lot less now than they did when they were new, especially if you take inflation into account. Buying a new computer and holding on to it until it becomes collectable is not a good investment strategy.

If you are a computer and vintage technology enthusiast, and you want to build a collection that will appreciate in value, there’s a lot of opportunity if you do your homework. Vintage technology is a growing field and there’s a lot of stuff out there. Much of it is too old to be useful but too new to be collectable so it isn’t worth a lot of money; the trick is to find those items that will become collectors’ items in the future.

Remember the mantra; innovation and great design makes collectables. With that in mind you might want to focus on Apple products.

Take the Apple iMac. It came out in 1988, the year Steve Jobs returned to Apple. With a blue, translucent case it brought colour to the beige computer world, it was the first to use USB ports and later came in 12 different colours. There were millions sold and they’re all in the “too old, too new” category so you could pay about 50 bucks for a top condition model. That might be a good investment seeing as the original owner bought it for about 30 times that price.

Even first-generation iPhones and iPods are starting to turn up on eBay as collectables. They aren’t worth a lot now but they were certainly game-changers so at least they make nice conversation pieces if you have a lot of techie friends.

The antique and collecting world is changing; it’s time to think outside the beige box.