New appreciation for old computers

CIOL Bureau
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Richard Chang

NEW YORK: Yesterday's computers, so often dumped for the next new model, have finally come to be treasured as historical artifacts. And techies, known more for their skills than sentiments, are waxing nostalgic for vintage models from Apple to Zenith, and paying good money for them.


"Most collectors are geeks, from kids to people who've retired, who share an interest in technology," said Sellam Ismail, a computer historian and consultant who owns more than 1,500 models and runs the semi-annual Vintage Computer Festival. "Some people do collect for money. People are trading them actively worldwide."

Prices are generally still low -- $5 to $100 for computers that originally cost thousands of dollars from 1971 to the early 1990s. These include the popular Tandy Radio Shack laptops, Kaypro desktops and "transportables" (which could weigh more than 35 pounds), and most personal computers.

However, on eBay, 125 items showed up in a search for "vintage computers," with asking prices as high as $1,999. Values are steadily climbing and rare ones can be worth a fortune, especially if they are complete, in working condition, and come with related accessories and software.


For example, the Apple 1, designed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a California garage and sold as a kit in 1976 for $666.66 -- fetched $25,000 at an auction in 2000. The sale included manuals, marketing literature, BASIC computer language on cassette, and other collateral material. Of the 200 Apple 1s made, so far only 31 have been identified by Ismail.

Prices soared during the dot-com boom, when high-profile collectors like Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen competed fiercely for scarce items, some of them intended for museums.

At an auction in 2000, Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold paid $70,000 for a relay rack, or a set of vacuum tubes, that belonged to one of the first digital computers, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator). The gargantuan mainframe computer, designed during World War II to compute bomb tables, is regarded as the great-grandfather of American computing and only remnants of it remain, scattered in different parts of the world.


Since the dot-com bust, prices have fallen back, with another Apple 1 selling online for $14,000 last April. But values remain high for historically significant models, and soared in the past year when the only price guide of its kind, "Collectible Microcomputers", went from manuscript to print.

"There's limited data to draw upon, so it takes only a couple of sales to change that," said computer journalist Michael Nadeau, who wrote the book. For example, an IBM 5100, a 50-pound microcomputer released in 1975 with a proprietary operating system, sold recently for $3,000, far above the previous range of $300 to $1,000.

Other breakthrough machines such as the Altair 8800 by MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) are worth $2,000 to $3,000 in good condition. In 1975, the computer cost $439 for a kit and $621 assembled.


Sphere I, the first desktop computer designed for businesses, is worth $1,000 to $1,5000 in good condition, compared with $1,345 (assembled) in 1975, Nadeau said. However, common machines are worth much less, even if they are landmarks. The first IBM personal computer in 1981, the 5150, set the microcomputer standard for almost all manufacturers. But it is worth only $50 to $150 for the early 16K motherboard version. All later versions are valued at $18 to $65.

"People are concentrating on what they know. That drives a lot of prices now," Nadeau said. "The average collector won't pay a lot. They want it out of nostalgia or they work in a technical field and like to tinker with the systems." Trading is active on the Classic Computer Mailing List, an online community that has steadily grown since 1997 from the United States and Europe to include the rest of the world.

As for future values, any computer with an unusual configuration or the early run of a new model could be collectible. These include certain portable systems, and hybrid notebook and pen-based systems that are coming out now. Apple Macintoshes have an almost cult-like following, and the revolutionary Apple iMac, with its adjustable flat-panel screen perched on top of a hemisphere, is already an icon.

"There will be thousands around, but they changed the industry. You have to look at how likely it is that people won't hold onto a computer, and in 10 to 20 years what kind of impact it has made," Ismail said.

© Reuters