Collector Article

From: Sam Ismail <>
Date: Thu Jun 19 14:11:58 1997

Here's an article Doug Coward forwarded to me. You guys will get a kick
out of it, especially the price list at the end. $200-$400 for an Apple
][...yeah right. I have some property on the moon...

Computer Historian, Programmer, Musician, Philosopher, Athlete, Writer, Jackass

02490420 60320 THE CUTTING EDGE A Byte of History
Techies Taking a Scroll Down Memory Lane

Los Angeles Times (LT) - MONDAY August 12, 1996 By: GREG MILLER; TIMES
STAFF WRITER Edition: Home Edition Section: Business Page: 1 Pt. D
Story Type: Main Story; Infobox Word Count: 1,797

    The nerds are getting nostalgic.

    Barely 20 years into the personal computer revolution, techies
across the country are growing increasingly sentimental about the
machines and programs that changed their lives and ushered in the
Information Age.

    For them, booting up a vintage Commodore PET computer can conjure
misty-eyed memories. Toggling the switches of an Altair 8800 is better
than gripping the gearshift of a first car. And a shrink-wrapped copy of
VisiCalc software beats a mint-condition Mickey Mantle baseball card any

    This is the memorabilia of the PC generation, and after spending
much of the last decade or two collecting dust in suburban garages from
Silicon Valley to Boston's Route 128, it's starting to make a comeback.

    Virtual museums of vintage hardware and software are sprouting up
all over the Internet's World Wide Web, as are online classified ads
placed by collectors desperate to reacquire the technological wonders of
their youth. Some rare PCs are fetching much higher prices now than they
did when they were brand-new, and even revered institutions such as the
Smithsonian are bolstering their computer collections.

    "The amount of activity that I see is amazing," said Kip Crosby,
president of the Computer History Assn. of California in Palo Alto.
"People are always asking me: 'Can you find me an Altair? Can you find
this or that?' I get 10 to 20 phone calls and e-mails a month, twice as
many as a year ago."

    Most of these early machines and programs, which didn't work very
well when they were new, are even more troublesome to maintain now--and
have been rendered obsolete by wave after wave of new equipment.

    But like certain cars or baseball cards, high-tech relics are
somehow enhanced by the passage of time. Collectors see them as the
symbols of a more colorful computer age populated by legendary
personalities who became billionaires--or, in some cases, went bust.

    "That's why I'm interested in computer history," said Co Ho, 30, an
Internet administrator at Fullerton College. "Many people could have
made it big, but they fell asleep and ended up having somebody else
eating their cake."

    Ho collects vintage software, especially programs that changed the
computing landscape but somehow faltered. One of his favorite pieces is
CP/M, an early operating system created by Digital Research.

    CP/M might have become the operating system had Digital Research's
founder, the late Gary Kildall, been more hospitable when IBM came
calling to license his software. In a legendary blunder, Kildall and his
wife refused to sign IBM's confidentiality agreement, and IBM executives
took their business to a then-tiny company known as Microsoft.
    "CP/M missed the boat because of casual behavior," Ho said. "It's
really a sad story."

    Ho is one of the few people who collect software. More collect
hardware, and one of the most sought-after machines is the Altair 8800,
introduced by MITS Inc. of Albuquerque in 1975. It didn't have a
keyboard or a monitor, only rows of switches on the front of the box.

    The Altair kit sold for $395 when it was new, but one in good
condition today can fetch as much as $1,500 because of the exalted
position it holds in computer history. Widely regarded as the first
mass-market personal computer, it launched a craze when it appeared on
the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. Bill Gates
even dropped out of Harvard to develop an early version of the Basic
programming language for the Altair.

    The Altair "established Bill Gates in business," said Gwen Bell,
founder of the Computer Museum, a Boston mecca for computer lovers. "One
of our prize treasures is the original Basic tape that Bill Gates
developed on the Altair."

    Collectors tend to pass over some of the most popular early
machines, such as the original IBM PC and the 1984 Apple Macintosh,
because there are just too many of them. Scarcity counts, which helps
explain why the most valuable collectible is the Apple I.

    Introduced by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak in 1976, the Apple I
was nothing more than a circuit board. It had no keyboard, no monitor,
not even a case. It sold for $666, and only a few hundred were produced.

    A well-preserved Apple I can fetch as much as $12,000 today,
sometimes more. An Apple I signed by Jobs and Wozniak sold for $22,000
at a fund-raiser auction for the Computer Museum several months ago,
Bell said.

    That kind of appreciation has attracted the attention of even
non-techie collectors.
    "I got a call from an investment advisor for a Wall Street banker,"
Bell said. "He asked: 'Should I get him into collecting old computers?
Will they increase in value more than art?' I said, 'I don't know--I'm
not a dealer.' "

    In fact, there aren't any prominent dealers of antique computers, at
least not yet. But a few collectors are hoping to change that, including
David Greelish, founder of the Historical Computer Society in
Jacksonville, Fla.

    Greelish, a computer repairman, has spent about $2,600 in recent
years building a collection of 35 computers, mostly by trolling for
bargains on the Internet. He uses search engines such as Yahoo to root
out online classified ads for Altairs and other vintage machines, and he
keeps an eye on alt.folklore.computers, a newsgroup where history buffs
hang out.

    "Ultimately, I would like to see (the Historical Computer Society)
grow and publish magazines and books," he said. "I'd like to start
displaying our collection and even restoring computers for sale."

    Greelish and others said would-be collectors should look for
machines that look clean, have all the original equipment and
documentation and still run. A number of guidebooks are available,
including Stan Veit's "History of the Personal Computer," published by
WorldComm in Asheville, N.C., and "A Collector's Guide to Personal
Computers and Pocket Calculators," published by Krause Publications in
Iola, Wis.

    Experts urge caution, however. There's no guarantee that old
computers will grow in value, and they are very difficult to maintain.

    "If you've never opened up your computer and looked inside, this is
probably not the collectible for you," Bell said.

    Instead, experts say, this is a hobby better left to people who were
enthralled by the recent PBS documentary "Triumph of the Nerds," people
who still have a soft spot for monochrome terminals, "Chiclet" keyboards
and the odd shapes of the early machines.

    But even among techies, there are plenty of people who scoff at this
new fad, including Kim Nelson, service manager at ACP Superstore in
Santa Ana. Founded 20 years ago, ACP is one of the oldest computer
stores in Southern California, holds swap meets that attract legions of
collectors, and might be one of the region's best unofficial museums.
The store's top shelves are crammed with artifacts of computer history,
although Nelson calls it junk.

    "Isn't it amazing that we have computer folklore now," he said,
walking with a reporter along rows of vintage Commodores, Imsais and
Tandys. "That's kind of sad when you think about it. Seems to me there
are things that are a lot more important."

    But as he uttered those words, service technician John Krill walked
by and surveyed the line of creaky machines. Almost against his will,
Nelson was sucked into an episode of technology reverie.

    "Look at that Kaypro," Krill said. "That company grew so fast they
were warehousing their inventory in tents."

    "Weren't they the ones that had the fire too?" asked Nelson, perking
up just a bit and eager to demonstrate his techno-trivia prowess.

    The conversation drifted from machine to machine.

    "When I was in college, I would just leave my Osborne up in the
library," Krill said with a laugh, recalling the immobility of the first
portable computer. "The damned thing weighed 27 pounds. I didn't want to
lug it around."

    Fifteen minutes passed before the two realized that their walk down
memory lane might have strained the attention span of their guest.

    "That's enough, John," Nelson finally said with an embarrassed grin.
"You're boring him."

    Greg Miller can be reached via e-mail at greg.miller


Computer Collectibles

    Here are some of the PCs attracting the attention of nostalgic

    Model: Apple I

    Year introduced: 1976

    Original price: $666
    Current value: $10,000-$12,000


    Model: Mark-8

    Year introduced: 1974

    Original price: $250

    Current value: $3,500-$4,000


    Model: Scelbi 8H

    Year introduced: 1973

    Original price: $440

    Current value: $1,200-$1,500

    Model: Altair 8800

    Year introduced: 1975

    Original price: $395

    Current value: $1,200-$1,500


    Model: Imsai 8080

    Year introduced: 1975

    Original price: $440

    Current value: $400-$600

    Model: Apple II

    Year introduced: 1977

    Original price: $1,195

    Current value: $200-$400


    Model: Osborne I

    Year introduced: 1981

    Original price: $1,795

    Current value: $200-$300


    Apple I: With no monitor, no keyboard and no case, the Apple I was
little more than a circuit board. Only a few hundred were produced.
    Mark-8: A kit computer that was the subject of the first magazine
article describing how to build a computer. The article appeared in
Electronics Magazine in 1974.

    Scelbi: Predated the Altair and was the first computer based on a
microprocessor advertised for sale. Only a small number was made.

    Altair 8800: Programmed by switches, the Altair 8800 had no
no monitor and just 256 bytes of memory. But it is widely regarded as
first mass-market personal computer. The Altair, based on an Intel
processor, started a craze when it appeared on the cover of Popular
Electronics magazine in January 1975.

    Imsai 8080: Modeled on the Altair, the Imsai had several
advances and a more polished look. Had no keyboard or monitor but was
briefly the fastest-selling personal computer.

    Apple II: This is the machine that launched the company--and the
personal computer industry. Apple II computers came with a keyboard,
monitor and two disk drives. Most important, they ran VisiCalc, the
original spreadsheet program that was the personal computer's "killer
    Osborne I: Considered the first portable computer, even though it
weighed about 30 pounds and was the size of a suitcase. It had a 5-inch
screen, two floppy disk drives and 64K of RAM.

    Sources: Stan Veit's "History of the Personal Computer," published
WorldComm, Asheville, N.C.; David Greelish, president, Historical
Society, Jacksonville, Fla.; "A Collector's Guide to Personal Computers
Pocket Calculators," published by Krause Publications in Iola, Wis.

AL SCHABEN / Los Angeles Times
Received on Thu Jun 19 1997 - 14:11:58 BST

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