Appetite (And Cash) for Vintage Technology Collecting SoarsAuthor:Mary Jo Bowling
When the large aluminum doors of Mountain View’s Computer History Museum reopened in January, senior curator Dag Spicer was easily able to guess the age of all who entered the “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing” exhibition. If visitors headed straight to the Apple II on display, they were likely 34; if the IBM personal computer caught a person’s eye, he could be 30; someone who went over to the Super Nintendo was probably around 25. “People unconsciously date themselves by gravitating to their first computer,” Spicer says.
Apple II, 1977 (above)
That kind of nostalgia is driving the collectors’ market for technology created within the last 40 years. The pursuit of outdated computer equipment reached a new high recently with the sale of an Apple 1 computer for $212,267 during an auction at Christie’s in London. The catalog describes it as “the first Apple computer…heralding the home- computer revolution. Introduced in July 1976, the Apple 1 was sold without a casing, power supply, keyboard or monitor.” The computer came with a signed letter from Steve Jobs and was shipped from the garage of his parents’ Mountain View home. At the time of its creation, the Apple 1 sold for $666.66, and the price was dropped to $475 just 10 months later in an effort to sell off the entire lot (approximately 200 were produced). Rumor has it that, just six months prior to the auction, the Apple 1 exchanged hands on eBay for $50,000. Jaws must have dropped in the Christie’s audience, which included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, when the price hit $100,000 and kept climbing.
Apple I, 1976 (above)
Super Nintendo, 1990 (above)
According to Spicer, the record sale changed everything in the market of technology collecting. “Until now, tech items such as this have been within the reach of many people on eBay,” he says. “This will mean similar items are affordable only for multimillionaires.”
Although he calls that development “a shame,” Spicer does have hopes that the well-publicized auction will help generate even more interest in the privately funded nonprofit museum, which reopened on January 13 and is dedicated to preserving the relics of the Information Age. The museum that began in 1979 had been closed since 2002 for renovation. The overhauled 125,000-square-foot building, designed by Mark Horton Architecture, features the mammoth “Revolution” exhibition. “We absolutely showcase one of the Apple 1s in our collection,” says Spicer.
IBM PC, 1981 (above)
Erik Klein, a committed collector of technology and the founder of vintage-computer.com, was one of the first through the doors. Klein, the son of an IBM programmer and a software engineer himself, caught the technology bug early. As a teenager, Klein coveted several machines as they came on the market, but didn’t have the means to buy them. Those longings started to be fulfilled nearly a decade ago when, while browsing on eBay, he made a discovery. “There were all the machines I’d drooled over as a kid,” he says. “And they were selling them for next to nothing.”
Atari 2600, 1978 (above)
Klein started his collection with an Atari 800. Then he purchased a 1977 Commodore PET—a name that was a play on the popular Pet Rocks of the late ’70s. Fast forward a decade later and Klein, a senior software engineer at Elekta in Sunnyvale, has now devoted half of his garage to storing his collection of more than 100 machines. “Systematically, I bought all of the computers and games I ever wanted while I was growing up,” he says.
IBM System/360, 1964 (above)
“The people who collect these things do it because they respect the technology that has come before,” says Klein, who sees himself as something of a tech-history teacher. He displays some of the computers he’s collected at fairs and festivals around the Bay Area, such as the DIY mecca Maker Faire. “I want kids to know where their iPhone came from,” he says. “They enjoy messing around with the old machines, but the first thing they do is snicker.”
Nintento Gameboy, 1989 (above)
It’s a reaction Tracey Mazur, curator of the Intel Museum, knows well. The museum, which is on the Intel campus in Santa Clara, features rotating technology exhibitions and a collection of Intel products. In 2010, 130,000 people visited the museum, including many students who don’t recall life pre-Wii.
“We had an exhibition of phones in the museum. We started off a grade-school tour by showing three things: a candlestick phone, a rotary phone and a push-button phone,” recalls Mazur. “Some of the kids tried to dial the rotary phone by punching the holes. When we showed them how to do it, they couldn’t believe that it had ever taken that long to dial one phone number.”
Mazur, a former curator with the Smithsonian, says that for the adults who visit the museum, many of them collectors, the pursuit of outdated technology is no laughing matter. “Many people collect chips and other Intel products. I’ve heard of one Busicom printing calculator [which prints calculations on a paper roll] selling for $10,000,” she says. “And we get hundreds of requests every year about our company’s archival products.”
Everyone’s accustomed to hearing about fine art selling for nine figures, but if paying thousands of dollars for a large, vintage buff-and-brown calculator raises eyebrows, consider that beauty is in the eye of the collecting beholder. “Although technology may seem impersonal, real people put pencil to paper and created it. There is an art and beauty to an elegantly written computer program,” says Spicer. “I think the personal computer is the most world-changing invention since the creation of fire or even the wheel.”
REBOOT: COMPUTER HISTORY MUSEUM
The Computer History Museum is located in a renovated Silicon Valley institution. “Before we redesigned it, the building was the headquarters for SGI,” says architect Mark Horton, whose firm is based in San Francisco. “The offices were the poster child for the high-flying excesses of the tech world in the late ‘90s.”
Pre-remodel, the building had Venetian plaster walls (“They brought in artisans from overseas,” says Daniel Mason, project architect), rotating cubicles and conference rooms named after technology pioneers.
The challenge Horton and Mason faced was transforming an off-putting warren of cubicles into a welcoming space to display history. Now visitors find a new streamlined space which features a sleek lobby with terrazzo floors embedded with the museum’s mission statement spelled out in old-school punch code.
“The building seems quieter now,” says Horton. “But that allows the beauty of the objects to shine.”
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