A Guide To
Collecting Computers and Computer Collectibles:
History, Practice, and Techniques.
By Kevin Stumpf
1st edition Abridged
Copyright © 1998 and 1999 and 2001 by Kevin Stumpf.
Printed in Canada.
All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
All rights reserved. Don’t copy this book without permission.
On-line, Abridged Edition August 2001.
v ISBN 0-9684244-0-6
Please contact Us about forthcoming titles on the history of
computing. See Appendix B and back cover for details.
This book is dedicated to my wonderful wife Barbara.
You brought me to my faith and gave me three remarkable sons - Ryan , Adam, Ian. I am indebted to you Barber. You taught me how to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. You've loved me during 26 hour marathon runs to West Virginia to pickup UNIVAC control consoles and when I called from the truck rental
agency well after I said I would.
Thank you my buddy, lover, and teacher.
Table of Contents
Preface to second printing.....................................................
Preface to on-line, abridged edition......................................
Table of Contents..................................................................
1. Collecting Computers........................................................
ANECDOTE..........How A PDP-9 Fixed A Leaky Garage Roof
Why do people collect computers?
Who collects computers?
History of the hobby.
Future of the hobby.
How to collect computers.
2. What's collectible?.............................................................
ANECDOTE..........The Last Sigma 9
Don’t collect computers.
What will you collect?
ANECDOTE...........Stupid Internet Thread Yields 360/75
Where will you go?
ANECDOTE..........B220 Control Panel Not Lost In Space
What is value?
How much would you pay?
ANECDOTE...........Old GUI Computer Helps Resolve Sticky Situation
What should you catalog?
Tell its story.
How to catalog.
PROFILE................Bill von Hagen
ANECDOTE...........An Old Car For An Old Computer:
Where are good places to store computers?
Preparing for storage.
ANECDOTE...........Here's A Computer Beyond Repair
Before you switch it on...
After you switch it on.
9. Interesting things to do with old computers......................
ANECDOTE...........What Does A Crane and A 360/22 Have
Appendix A - Resources........................................................
Publicly Funded Museums
Appendix B - Invitation to Budding Authors and Artists, and
OK, time’s up. Computers have been around long enough and somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to write about the hobby of collecting computers, and so, someone did. I hope you enjoy it.
My relationship with computers is an emotional one. Oh, I'm a techie all right. I can handle PL/1 and C (having been employed in the computer industry for 26 years), but I must admit to having a passion for the field instead of merely milking it as a good career.
Being born and raised in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada is great for someone who enjoys computers. The University of Waterloo (UW) is a farm-team for Microsoft, IBM, and Sybase. Waterloo is the site of several large hi-tech firms from the U.S.A. Companies such as Raytheon and NCR have R&D and manufacturing facilities here. Plus some local companies, such as Electrohome and Mutual Life of Canada, were very early adopters of information technology so computers have been around here since they went commercial.
I never went to university. That is, I was never enrolled as a student, but I sure learned a lot there.
I've always just enjoyed being around computers and looking at them. I really disliked working on remote access applications because I couldn't see the computer. Silly and career-stifling, but true. Perhaps, though, this odd, tactile relationship with computers is what has helped make me into a successful collector.
I've often complained that many, many computers are already extinct (meaning there's nothing left but photographs of them). Why has this happened? I believe it has something to do with the way our advanced (if only that were true, eh), western society prizes newness. When something becomes not-new it is replaced even though it is still usable. Since computers change rapidly, they have been replaced often and quickly.
But, you might say, why haven't people come forward and rescued these last-of-their-kinds? Don't we take the time and energy to protect certain civic landmarks? Don't we wince when we hear the last bi-plane (water-wheel, whatever) was lost in a fire? So you're absolutely right in wondering why the machine that has affected human civilization more than any other machine hasn't been treated with respect. It's a sad but true story.
I’ll try to explain this situation from three perspectives - temporal, emotional, and practical. Timing is everything and computers, are much too young, according to the popular definition, to be traditional antiques so there is little interest in preserving them.
Here’s my emotional point of view. Let's face it, computers and people don't mix well. Lot's of people are still afraid of them, and many more still harbor ill will against them. Why? Because of the havoc caused by poorly designed, unreliable systems that were prematurely foisted on people. The computer industry shot itself in the foot in the early days rushing products and systems to improve bottom lines instead of people’s lives. Naturally then some people are more than happy to wave good-bye to these monsters instead of trying to find another home for them.
Even if you didn't believe the temporal or emotional rationale, you must admit that, practically speaking, computers need lots of space. Computers are bulky and they need twice as much space for documentation and supplies so even though there was the insight to preserve it and the desire to keep it, there wasn't the means by which to do it.
I hope you will come to respect my qualifications enough to give this monograph some authority. This is important to me because this field already has many talented and exceptional people involved with it. You see this book was originally called the Official Guide to Collecting Computers, but after getting to know or know of many gifted collectors, I took a much more humble approach.
Also, there’s nothing official about this hobby, yet. It’s like the wild west. For instance, some collectors are spending tens of thousands of dollars while most of us quibble over the idea of buying (or selling) for a profit - even when the amounts are less than fifty dollars. And some people search high and low over the Internet, in companies, and on campuses trying to find that elusive system, board, disk, whatever only to accidentally discover it in the garage of somebody who isn't on the Internet, is retired, and never went to university. Isn't this exciting? It sure is!
Of course there were a few insightful people who started collecting computers long ago, but collecting mainframes, even minis, isn't as easy as collecting micros so only lately has interest in this hobby begun to climb. Hence it is time for a book to help each of us become the best computer collector we can.
P.S. It’s time to
take a different approach to the way the history of computing is covered. Want
to find our more? Please read the invitation to authors, artists,
photographers, and readers in
What a delightful surprise that a second printing is necessary. The total number of books printed is still very small, but the fact that any sold is encouraging.
The second printing couldn’t take place without some corrections and improvements. The following quote from Michael Swaine’s review of this book, that appeared in the February 1999 issue of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, explains the need for corrections much better than I could. Mr. Swaine said:
“...It badly needs an editor to fix the typos and grammatical errors and inconsistencies and to rein Kevin in when his anecdotes gallop off the trail. But the depth of knowledge and the scope of coverage more than offset the book’s flaws. I hope there are many future editions (and that those editions have the benefit of professional editing). For now, I’m tickled that I have a first edition of a book that I think could become a minor classic.”
That explains the motivation for the corrections, but without the volunteered assistance of Tom Owad, a collector from the U. S. of A., the vast majority of the typos would remain. Thank you kindly, sir. The responsbility for any lingering problems remain with the author - they should not have been there in the first place.
I am certainly relieved to make one important correction that Carl “friend of the DG NOVA” Friend discovered. Most readers probably never knew it was an error and that makes me guilty of propagating false information. The error was in the name of a certain, old computer. It should have been described as a Packard Bell, but me and my spelling checker inadvertently renamed it Puckered Bell. Considering the age of the computer, puckered was the most appropriate wrong choice.
Since the first printing several important events, that either reflect upon this new hobby or directly affect it, have taken place. I have choosen two to record here, but first a word about auctions on the web.
By far the company called ebay leads the pack and by far computer collectors have the most contempt for it. I use ebay. The prices paid for items auctioned on it are sometimes ridiculously high. The common complaint is that these inflated prices are keeping those items away from computer collectors who believe they somehow deserve them and who:
1. can’t afford them;
could afford them but have sufficient personal integrity to
restrain them from contributing to such excess;
3. collectors who feel everything should be free.
On the other hand, it makes sense that some people (who will cherish their newly acquired computer no less than non-ebay-using collectors), use the service to save time and hence money. It just makes sense. By using ebay you can cut the chase by easily finding what you want and buying it from the comfort of your own home.
The hunt for a new acquisition is most of the fun for most collectors, but not all collectors. If we placed a value on our time ad we tallied the time spend on composing email messages, making telephone calls, and making trips to see or pickup a computer, we would discover that many of our acquisitions cost quite a bit. Perhaps even as much as some of final prices (bids) on ebay.
On April 5, 1999, The Computer Museum announced it was merging
with the Science Museum in Boston. On July 1, 1999, The Computer Museum closed
its doors and prepared to move its remaining exhibits to the Science Museum
where they will be open to public viewing in the autumn of 1999. What does this
mean? We could read this as further proof that not many people are interested
in preserving history, but just because we are devoted to rescuing and caring
for elderly computers doesn’t mean we are
champions. We are simply very blessed to be doing what we are doing while there is still something to collect.
On June 29, 1999, at the La Salle Gallery in San Francisco, an Apple I was auctioned. The Gallery had speculated the bidding could go as high as US$40 000, but the final bid was US$18 000. Quite the difference eh. Why? Because the stuff is too new and too technical. This is further proof that we are just at the beginning of what will become a very satisfying pastime.
Thank you for your support. Happy collecting!
You might already be exhausted from reading prefaces and are unable to continue reading. I would understand, but as collectors we must all take pride in accuracy and completeness so this preface is just as important as any other material in this book. So read on fellow collector, read on..
Since the last edition vintage computers are still being found in the garbage, some are still being given away, and some are being sold for 100s of Ks of dollars. Almost every minicomputer that I once claimed were all gone keep showing up. There is still substantial harvest of vintage computers out there.
This being the case we still need to work on developing our community of computer collectors and I hope this book helps build one.
I continue threatening to publish a second edition.
At the same time I am publishing a column for newspapers about antiques. It is called the Nostalgic Technophile.
This edition contains each original chapter, but the anecdotes and profiles have been removed.
Happy collecting, and do you know where I can get an IBM 370/165 or 168?
The Family. My wife Barbara for encouraging me, supporting me, and forgiving me. My sons Ryan, Adam, Ian. You fellas have done just about everything - lifting, cleaning, pushing, pulling, encouraging, challenging, complaining, advising, videotaping, photographing, in fact, my work would not have been possible without you guys. Boys, I hope your memories of working and being together are as nice as my recollections of being with you.
The Extended Family. My mom and dad, Eileen and Hubert for allowing me to use spare, and not so spare, parts to make control panels in the basement when I was a kid, for driving me to science fairs (even though my projects never worked), and for trusting me when I stayed late in the data center at the University of Waterloo. My mom and dad -in-laws, Bernice and Tom Phillips for trusting me that I could be a good husband to their lovely daughter while collecting computers (and all that that means) and for letting me use their car with the trailer-hitch. And to both my parents and in-laws for listening to my stories about collecting computers.
The Friends. Norm Socha for being an open-minded high school teacher. Jerry Bolce for letting me accompany him on late night sojourns to the red room at the University of Waterloo and critiquing my first few programs. Bob Taylor of AMRE in Kitchener, Ontario graciously gave me storage space in his store. Henry Neufeld who gave me space in his garage. Harry Hein who gave me space in his indoor pool room. Jeff Caplan of Intermetco, Toronto, Ontario who gave me a carte blanche to roam through his indoor scrap depot. Bruce Bruemmer senior archivist at the Charles Babbage Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Michael R. Williams Editor of the Annals of the History of Computing for their moral support. The late Jim Creighton who owned and promoted the Ontario Computer Fairs. His remarkable insight into the significance of the history of computing provided me with a new venue to explain that history and meet new collectors. Peter Biedinger the ex-neighbor who let me use his trailer many, many times. And to the fellows who helped with the physical stuff - Jeff Klassen, Wally Duerrstein, Peter Kroh, Gary Brazeau, and the brothers Demeuleneare - Paul and Mud for their extraordinary provision of both time and equipment.
The Profilees: Thank you Carl, Bill, Doug, Jay, Bob M., Thierry, and Bob R. for eagerly responding to my original invitation. Your enthusiasm motivated me. Thank you for telling us about yourselves. Your advice will save many much grief and time. Hey guys I just thought of this - you’re preserving history and also making history!
The Advisors: Thank you Mike Strathdee for improving the quality of this undertaking. You were asked to be a proof-reader, but your contributions far exceeded that role. Mike, I’m very grateful you convinced me to include dates and other historical background information about the hardware and software mentioned on the following pages.
The Artist. Bryce Arndt took my idea of a too-proud collector who is about to be crushed by his burgeoning collection, a 1978 copy of Canadian Datasystems, a 1980 copy of Interface Age, a copy of 1971 DEC’s Laboratory Computer Handbook, and a 1967 copy of Martin’s Design of Real-Time Computer Systems, and delivered the picture that adorns the cover of this book. Good show Bryce, you have captured the true spirit of the contemporary computer collector. As any collector’s wife will tell you, we’re a pathetic bunch.
The Collectors. There were many other persons who responded to my inquiries and invitations. You know who you are. Thank you for your support and contributions. Many of you are mentioned in the book. Those of you who aren't, please accept that I ran the risk of making this book into a directory of collectors instead of a guide for them so I chose the stories that would best help deliver a point.
Most of all I thank God, the father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for the thrills, safety, pleasure, challenges, and the wonderful people I've met.
Collecting things is a natural human activity. One's reasons for collecting might be nostalgia, fun or profit. We collect everything from buttons to butterflies, stones to steam engines, money to Matchbox toys. It was just a matter of time before people would begin collecting computers.
This book is about the hobby of collecting computers and things related to computers. It's about the hobby in general for novices who are interested starting, building and maintaining a collection. It's also for veteran collectors as an attempt to bring us and a few of our stories, experiences, and advice together. This book wouldn't be complete without also paying tribute to the pioneers in the field, so it includes coverage of many wonderful private collections and related "how I got started" stories. This book is simply the ideal resource to help you get started and flourish as a computer collector.
There are already many people collecting computers, but there are still many more collecting stamps, money or spoons, and, more relevant to our interests, calculators, typewriters, radios, and telephones. This is good news for computer collectors. It means there are people you can learn from so you’ll be able to enjoy your hobby faster and with less frustration early on.
Another reason for this book is to bring all computer collectors together - we need to know we are not alone. The World Wide Web and the Internet are excellent vehicles to distribute information, but there are still many collectors, and would-be collectors, who aren't connected. Long live the book!
Often books synthesize and nothing can be truer here. I'm not adding value to the hobby. I am only distributing tips and tricks of the trade. This book is written in the first person because of my personal experience. I have verified all stories and any personal contact with the people involved with them are documented in the References chapter.
This book has nine chapters, plus a section on resources, and the very useful, but often overlooked, references section that is followed by the appendix, and concludes with the index. By reading this book you'll discover what to collect, how to collect, and how to manage your collection, including how to clean and store computers. Each chapter opens with an Anecdote and ends with an Profile.
Profiles are written by other collectors about themselves - why or how they started collecting and a description of their collection. These collectors have been collecting for quite some time and I am humbled by their acceptance to participate in this endeavor. You'll understand after you read about them.
Anecdotes are mostly from my own experiences. They no doubt pale in light of your own and the collectors who are profiled. Each anecdote is a brief story about the trials, tribulations and thrills of collecting and collectors. The anecdotes cover a variety of themes, but don’t expect the theme to always relate to the topic of the chapter. Enjoy them on their own merit.
Hopefully anecdotes and profiles will entertain you and make the advice and information contained in this book immediately relevant.
The collectors (it's interesting to note I know only of male collectors) who are profiled are kindred spirits. We are email or phone-friends. Even though we've never met face to face, we are always able to jump right into a conversation that seems to be between two friends who've spent a great deal of time together.
You might wonder how these collectors came to be included in the first book on collecting computers. I invited these people to participate because they seem to be mature collectors. They have done much to move this hobby forward.
There are no doubt many wonderful yet unknown collections because either the collectors don't use the Internet or they enjoy their privacy. Remember not everyone has a PC or has used the Internet. If you and me haven't chatted and you feel you have been overlooked, I am sorry. Please send me a message.
Here is a list of the collectors who are profiled at the end of various chapters. You will learn much from their personal stories. There is 83.5 years of combined collecting experience involving 485 computers and collectibles. It also gives us the opportunity to confirm what we thought or affirm our own approach to this hobby. In any case these profiles are rewarding to read.
# Computers # of Years
Citizen Of Occupation in Collection Collecting
Tom Carlson U.S.A. Network 60 3.5
Carl Friend U.S.A. UNIX Sys 25 14
Bill von Hagen U.S.A. Tech Writer/ 150 8
Doug Jones U.S.A. Computer 5 6
Jay Jaeger U.S.A. IT 35 12
Bob Manners England Systems 50 4
Bob Roswell U.S.A. CEO 100 15
Thierry Schembri France Software 50 7
Kevin Stumpf Canada Programmer 10 14
My own profile is in the first chapter. It isn’t in a place of honor. It is first to help you get to know me. I’ve been through many interesting situations; enough to make me confident I have much to pass on to you.
You will find many, many hardware and software products mentioned throughout the book. You might not be familiar with some of these products so you will find either a date or a footnote that will help you at least place the product in history. The year a product was announced is shown in brackets immediately following the first reference to that product. These dates are often ranges since the reference is made to family of computers instead of an specific model of that family.
I am not an expert at collecting or (especially) at restoring old computers. Neither am I a journalist, but I am committed to helping others in the field and those who think it might be an interesting field to enter by bringing much information about the field together in a single resource.
This is not a pricing guide, although the topic of appraising is covered. I hope you will find this book to be a practical reference, an entertaining piece of popular history, and simply an encouragement.
If you're reading this, you must have been bitten by the computer bug. Not the kind of computer bug that annoys hardware and software developers, but the bug that makes you enjoy owning, buying, selling, trading, reading about, swapping stories about, and talking about old computers and all sorts of other computer-related things.
As the saying goes, "To each their own." Some people collect paintings, others collect automobiles, and of course, there's the venerable art, stamp, coin, and book collectors. Lately collecting phone cards has become fashionable. Some people even collect barbed wire. Isn't that interesting?
I can't think of a more boring, less challenging thing to do with my time and resources than to collect barbed wire. That's how family and friends must have also felt (still feel?) about my hobby. I've endured all sorts of apparently amusing comments that I never found amusing. Perhaps it's happened to you too.
That will all change soon. This book will help make collecting computers become a legitimate hobby. There is a future in collecting computers!
Why do people collect computers?
As funny as it sounds, many computer collectors are hard pressed to explain why they collect computers - they just thoroughly enjoy collecting computers. Do we need a reason other than enjoying fiddling with them, gazing at them, showing them to others, fixing them, and programming them? Yes because the more articulate we can be about our motivations and aspirations the more effective our actions will be and hence the more gratification we’ll receive from our investment of time and money.
Why not collect computers? Why collect anything? One reason is as good as the next; its very personal. Each collector must respect the other no matter what they collect. Collecting computers is just like collecting cigar bands, toasters, inkwells, ornamental ceramic cats, whatever. There isn’t anything more important or more worthwhile in collecting computers than collecting anything else. Every collector is proud of their collection.
All hobbies have social and personal residual value. A delightful book on collecting pop culture mentions several such reasons for collecting. Collecting can help you meet people, gives you something to do with your spouse, can help relieve stress, and gives you something rewarding to do.
Birds of a feature do flock together and there’s no better ice-breaker than a common interest. Even when I’ve heard the same story told by the same collector over and over again I still enjoy it. Special social occasions regularly happen through a hobby. Informal meetings or even lecture series can take place in a restaurant, public library, university campus, or somebody’s backyard during a barbecue. I so enjoy reading announcements for get-togethers organized by the Australian Computer Museum Society. These announcements usually include the instruction “Please bring a plate for afternoon tea.”
Working on your hobby is the ideal way to relax. This might seem a bit far fetched to anybody who has worked with computers, but don’t forget, when collecting the only deadlines are those you impose on yourself, there are no corporate standards to adhere to, and you’re always real close to your fridge. Computers might give you a hassle at work, but when they’re your hobby the rules change and you’re in control.
Ever heard of a gifted amateur? It’s a person who is at least as competent at their avocation as the person whose vocation is that avocation. For instance I know of many factory workers, accountants, and doctors who could easily be UNIX sysadmins if they wanted to, but they’ve acquired the knowledge and perfected the skills as a pastime, and not for employment. A hobby can help you develop new talents and make life fulfilling.
When it comes to collecting computers there are two legitimate reasons and two wannabe reasons. There are emotional and technical reasons, and then there are financial and preservation reasons, but rarely would a collector have only one reason for collecting. Nostalgia isn’t a reason. I include nostalgia under the emotional category - Like who collects new computers? Dah. By merely enjoying collecting something old because it is old, you too are exhibiting nostalgic tendencies.
My reason for collecting is emotional. I like the look and feel of computers. To me the bigger the control panel, the better the computer. Right away you can deduce I don’t collect microcomputers built after 1976. Why not? That was the end of the control panel. Your emotional reason might be owning one of each kind of computer you ever worked on.
There are many, many other things to collect instead of actual computers (hardware and software). The computer field is big. For instance, after eight hours of fumbling with hardware and toiling with software, you might not want to see another computer, but you might still feel drawn to the industry. In that case, you might be quite happy collecting brochures, pocket reference cards, T-shirts, or the many, many other collectibles out there that will satisfy your emotional tie with computers.
Having exposed my emotional rationale, I must admit, nothing beats the “technical” thrill of working on an old computer. If it is old enough you’ll hear a cacophony of relays clicking and fans spinning. “Younger” computers aren’t noisy, but working with an early graphical user interface running on a vintage 286 clone, manufactured by some company no one remembers any more, will test your endurance.
In fact, just working on old computers is fun. For example you might never get some old, clunky computer working, but you’ll spend many a happy hour working on it. Working with wire-wrap technology or with discrete components or non-interactive programming, I mean punched cards or tape, requires patience, skill, and determination. In return you get an appreciation for the ingenuity of the makers (or the patience of the users), new skills, and satisfaction.
There really isn’t a financial basis for collecting computers. But if your plan is to acquire old computers and collectibles only to keep them out of circulation until the resale value of each increases, you’re not a collector, you’re either a dealer or an investor. Another distinguishing trait of dealers and investors is that they don’t have collections. They have merchandise and assets.
The first step in becoming a dealer or investor is to become successful at hoarding. If your reason for accumulating computers and collectibles is financial, your pleasure comes from gaining a profit from the sale of the artifact instead of from the artifact itself. There isn’t anything wrong with making a profit. I hope that some day when I choose to sell my DEC PDP 11/45 (1971) I will receive more money for them then I paid to acquire and keep it. There is more to be said about this topic, and you’ll find it in Chapter 4 - Appraising.
The preservation reason sounds so noble. Some people do something because they feel it should be done and when they don’t see any one doing it, or doing it properly, they take it upon themselves. If this is your reason, you’re not a collector, you’re a preservationist. In other words, you’re acquiring computers out of a sense of responsibility instead of pleasure. Of course a preservationist is pleased by each saved computer, but don’t kid yourself - you’re not a collector. Don’t collect computers because you want to rescue them for the sake of humankind. Collect computers for your personal enjoyment. It’s a hobby, not an obligation.
Perhaps it’s more important to ask why collect computers now instead of just why. The question of timing was also pondered in the mid to late 1970s by insightful people in industry, such as Erwin Tomash, and members of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS). Mr. Tomash, then CEO of the printer manufacturer Dataproducts, recognized the urgency with which business in general needed to be educated to preserve computing history. To this end he donated money to create the Charles Babbage Institute in 1977.
AFIPS followed that lead and started publishing the Annals of the History of Computing in 1978. A year later AFIPS published a brochure entitled Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials because more artifacts and records were being destroyed than preserved. As you can see, saving computers from the garbage isn’t a new struggle.
Recent changes in computing technology, specifically the PC, pose new preservation problems. If you don’t soon collect something, there won’t be anything to collect. Over the next 15 years so much more technological and societal change will take place that computers as we know and collect them won’t exist.
The existing scarcity, and potent disappearance, of collectible computers has to do with our cultural propensity to admire newness and Stumpf’s Three States of Computing.
Nothing is replaced faster than an old computer. We prize newness. Computers aren’t replaced when they break down or can’t do the job. They are replaced when they’re no longer new because new means more computing power. Companies need new computers in order to remain competitive because the new computer should enable doing the same work in less time. Both corporate users and consumers (everybody) needs a new computer when they want to move up to the latest software. It’s just so easy to justify replacing the present computer with a new one thereby sending the now “old” one to the scrap heap.
On the other hand, even if the market wasn’t pushing for more powerful computers, the technology itself has sufficient momentum to ruin a computer collector’s future. “When it is written, the history of computers, I believe, will be quite simple. In the beginning was the computer. Then it disappeared.” This phenomenon is called ubiquitous computing. This means computers are everywhere yet they don’t stand out. This could very well mean that to collect computers one would need to collect appliances, etc. because stand alone computers won’t exist.
How can this happen? Let’s try my three states of computing theory to explain it. Just like in nature there are three states of matter - solid, liquid, and gas - there are also three states of computing - hardware, software, and everyware. If you examine most computing technologies you’ll see how they started as hardware. Soon the hardware “melts” into software. Next the software “dissolves” into everyware. When a technology reaches the everyware state it has blended into everything around it leaving nothing in particular to collect.
Let’s use word processing as an example of Stumpf’s three states of computing. Original word processors were huge pieces of dedicated hardware. Then software in the form of off-the-shelf word processing packages replaced the dedicated hardware. Finally software becomes so generic that it becomes part of any application running on any platform that processes words. For example, fax software has word processing features, but isn’t called a word processor.
Before we need to collect entire automobiles in order to collect the computers embedded in them, we’d better collect “real” computers now.
Who collects computers?
How many computer collectors does it take to change a light bulb? 64 - one to change the light bulb, and 63 to talk about how good the old one was. If you laughed, you too can collect computers.
Anybody can collect computers and computer collectibles, but so far collectors are mostly males, of all ages and they live all over the world. I was quite surprised at the gender split, but my wife corrected my reasoning when she mumbled “...mostly men...and you’re surprised? Idiot husbands...”
Collectors are techies, technophiles, teenagers, university students, and retirees. You don't need to be a techie - programmer or electronic engineer - to collect computers. That's like saying you must be a banker to collect money. And there are just as many technophiles - non-techies who enjoy playing with the technology and they are quite competent.
In this case, the distinction is between vocation and avocation. You would think the most likely person to collect computers would be a programmer or service technician, but most often when you spend all day working on something, it’s the last thing you want to play with in your spare time. Yet because techies are most often in the right place at the right time, they were probably the first to start collecting.
It happens this way...you’re walking through a data center and you notice some old piece of equipment that doesn’t appear to be connected to anything. In fact it might even be unplugged and resting in a corner. You ask the operations manager about it and he or she says “if you promise to haul it away, and never bring it back, it’s yours.” Voilá, a new collector is born.
Another fallacy is the stereotypical portrayal of a computer collector. Picture this - a sloppy dresser who lives in a domicile with minimal furniture, stained and damaged walls and floors, computers, and stuff cluttering all available space. This might be true for some, but definitely not all. Most collectors are proud of their collection. Any collector who has the means usually spends money and time on giving their collection a very neat, if not elegant, presentation.
Some collectors are very open. Some are shy and others just prefer to lead quiet lives. There are many collectors who I know have never identified themselves with postings to newsgroups or lists. A friend from Waterloo, Ontario recently moved to Florida. It took two large trucks. One was for personal belongings. The other contained at least one of every minicomputer from DEC’s PDP-11, racks, spares, documentation, and a lonely DEC PDP-8/I (1967). An acquaintance in London, Ontario has several PDP-11’s, but the really neat stuff in his collection is an International Business Machines (IBM) System/32 (1975) and a Burroughs L5000 (1968). Another friend in Waterloo has a sleek and sassy DEC VT05 terminal plus several PDP-11’s and a DECsystem 20 (1978).
I will also go on record, even though I don’t have any evidence, as claiming that some classic computers are part of serious, large, diverse private collections. Can’t you just see it - a straight-8, the original DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, in good company amidst priceless statues, paintings, scientific instruments, and rare Roman coins.
Some collectors build web sites. These virtual museums often provide the only venue for those who are generally interested to actually see what an old computer looks like. The affect these sites have on other collectors is quite different. They make us drool.
An aspect of computers that confirms collectors simply like them for their intrinsic value is that they do not improve with age. Unlike a good guitar that sounds more mellow each time it is played, a good computer will eventually stop working. Having a working IMSAI 8080 (1976) 80 years from now would be a real feat, but it won’t work better. Computer collectors don’t expect anything from their computers - collectors appreciate them for what they are.
One final note. Not only is collecting international in scope, but all collectors have much in common. Collectors share the same ambitions, methods, and problems. This will become more apparent as you read the collector profiles at the end of each chapter.
A history of this hobby.
The recent popularity of this hobby is easily explained by the size of the current generation of computers. Personal computers are much more practical to collect than mainframes or even minicomputers, but the hobby didn’t start with PCs.
This is the first attempt at chronicling¨ the history of collecting computers so there is bound to be many, many gaps. No doubt people around the world began collecting computers and computer collectibles very early on, but their stories weren’t popular enough to be covered by the media. As we will someday discover, the history of collecting computers is short due solely to the lack of information and not because there wasn’t much collecting was done before 1980.
For historical accuracy it is important to distinguish between somebody who kept a piece of an old computer as a novelty or for sentimental reasons, and somebody who deliberately and actively searched for and acquired old computer stuff. The later is a collector. The former is not.
Equally important is distinguishing between early computer collectors and those brave souls who actually built their own computers from scratch. Readers of the August 1967 issue of Wireless World were given the first installment of articles that would show them how to build the Wireless World Digital Digital Computer (WWDC). This was not a kit computer. The WWDC was built transistor by transistor. It was a microwave-sized computer with a traditional control panel.
Claude Kagan is the candidate for the first real collector. He acquired a Burroughs B205 (nee ElectroData Datatron 1953) in 1966. He stored it in a barn. It was operational by 1968. You must remember, the B205 was already 12 years old by 1966. He acquired it from his employer.
The year 1967 was the innocent beginning of what became The Computer Museum. At that time Gordon Bell worked for DEC and was also working on the book Computer Engineering. While working on it, "he wanted to have pieces of everything he was writing about, and he brought them home," explained his wife Gwen Bell. Since the book was about successful DEC architectures that meant a PDP-10 was collected and that’s probably when the collection was moved to DEC headquarters across town. Gwen then took the collection and kept adding to it until it formed the core of The Computer Museum when it opened, with Gwen Bell as executive director, in 1979.
The earliest auction story I have is from New York in the fall of 1970. It was billed as the first of its kind. The audience was made up mostly of data processing equipment buyers looking for good used equipment. IBM 026 keypunches were hot items. All the same the control panel from a UNIVAC I was sold for $110 and a giant UNIVAC Solid State 80 (SS80 1959) went for $325. A few of the items that had no bids included Control Data LGP-30s (nee Librascope 1955), a UNIVAC 1107 (1961), and an IBM 7094 (1962).
The next big event was the introduction of the ALTAIR in 1975. Microcomputing made collecting computers practical - well they were at least small enough, inexpensive enough, available, and accessible enough to collect. The significance of the effect the personal computing revolution had on collecting is best shown by garages full of old computer stuff in several scenes of the 1996 PBS documentary, Triumph of the Nerds, when the host Robert Cringley visited people who had been connected to the PC industry since the beginning. What would computer collectors do without garages?
In 1984 computer memorabilia became part of pop culture. This was the recommendation of Stephen Hughes in his book Pop Culture Mania. This means wise pop culture dealers could have been stashing interesting computer-things away since 1984.
All the while and behind the scenes, dedicated employees of IBM Germany were busy collecting IBM gear. In 1988 a group of 45 retired and active employees of IBM Germany and members of Böblingen’s employee association formed the Section on IBM History. Recently they opened the House of the History of IBM Data Processing in Sindelfingen, Germany. The following partial list of systems and hardware will give you an idea of how long somebody has been collecting systems. Most of the systems are in working order. Here is a partial list: 026 keypunch, 082 cards sorter, 077 collator, 407 tabulator, 602A calculating card punch, 101 Electronic Statistical Machine, 604 electronic calculator, 650 magnetic drum calculator, 1401, 306/20, 370/125, 4361, and an ES/9221.
In 1993 A Collector’s Guide to PCs and Pocket Calculators was published. Thomas F. Haddock, the author, had a great idea, it was just a little ahead of its time. His book is a handy book with black and white photographs of over 150 PCs and calculators. It was described as A Historical, Rarity, and Value Guide.
This was also the year David Greelish printed the first issue of Historically Brewed (HB). This title was a clever take-off on the name of the first known computer hobby club. The Homebrew Computer Club held its first meeting in 1975 in San Francisco. HB silently ceased publication sometime in 1996. I wrote a column for HB. “For the Collector” first appeared in issue #7 in 1994.
Today a computer collector can participate in the Classic Computers List on the Internet, join a Computer Rescue Squad or one of the growing retro-societies. Collectors can also spend time at an auction, attend the annual Vintage Computer Festival, or they can sit down and read this book. Something is happening.
There are various newsgroups on the Internet that tend to attract information about old computers and the history of computing, but there’s nothing like the Classic Computers List. Bill Whitson started the list. It isn’t a newsgroup. It is a free service you subscribe to. It deals exclusively with the foibles and fun of collecting computers, pricing old computers, and requests for information about old computers.
Got a Data General Eclipse S/130 (1977) you don’t need? Then call the Computer Rescue Squad. It is an American phenomenon. Groups of like-minded men swoop down and rescue systems that would otherwise have been sent to the scrap heap. Through elaborate networking, squad members learn of the impending doom of some old minicomputer and the call goes out. Van and trailers are mustered and off they go. My knowledge of and contact with the Computer Rescue Squad is through the Classic Computers List.
Auctions have continued. One of the recent (1995) big price-tag, old technology sale was a portion of Babbage’s unfinished Difference Engine No. 1.The Powerhouse Museum in Australia. bought it for $176,750£. Established auction houses such as Christies vend calculating equipment although computers haven’t yet caught on.
The doors to the first annual Vintage Computer Festival opened on October 25, 1997 in Pleasanton, California. The brain-child of Sam Ismail, VCF featured a large exhibit, guest speakers talking about their personal involvement and contributions to the early days of computing, and, of course, a flea market. It was covered in Dr. Dodds Journal under the moniker Geezerware
The rest of this current history of collecting computers is found in the pages of this book.
The future does look bright, but timing is everything. Already several transitions that have taken place. For instance The Computer Museum moved its entire collection from Boston to what the Museum calls the West Coast History Center. The Museum had been criticized for turning into a discovery center and keeping its incredible collection of computers from the public. The History Center will rectify this when it opens, but that’s the problem. There isn’t enough public and corporate support to open the Center. This lack of interest has also hit the Computer History Association of California and the Commercial Computing Museum. Both of these organizations have removed collecting and exhibiting from their mandates.
So the story of computer collecting continues with a conundrum. Wait until enough people are interested in old computers and risk not having any old computers around by that time, or accept the role and risks of being a vanguard. I believe we computer collectors share a unique insight and have chosen to lead.
The future of this hobby.
There is definitely a future for the hobby of collecting computers. It includes fun, organization, fulfillment, profit, and more fun. Perhaps you don’t like what you’re hearing. Those words - organization and profit - might upset you, but you must face the inevitable. The world of collecting computers is changing, but hey, change is what computers are all about.
If you can’t see how such a relatively new, informal, loosely-knit community, as we currently see ourselves, can ever turn into the fine-tuned machine that stamp and car collecting has become then we should examine the past and see what we can learn from it. Let’s take an older similar technology that is collected and compare it to computers. We’ll see what’s different and what’s the same about the technologies and see how, if at all, the technology affected collectors. The examination might tell us what we should expect to happen to our hobby.
The car is the standard we’ll use in this comparison. Hopefully this exercise will convince you that what has happened to the hobby of collecting cars can happen to computers.
Popularity of technology High High
Relative age of technology Young Young
Relative size of technology Big Big
Technology life span Brief Brief
Technology rate of change High High
Level of expertise to maintain High High
As you can see computers and cars have much in common. For instance, both are such new technologies that most people consider them much too recent to collect. Both are big and typically not easily moved and stored, both experience frequent changes increasing the collectibility, but their disposal can be easily justified. Both are popular, utilitarian technologies, so some people scorn the collectors because they’re are still using what a collector seeks. Both require a level of expertise to use and maintain, and both are collected as hobbies. The similarities inherent in the technologies will be reflected in how their respective collecting hobbies evolve.
This means that our hobby will grow, mature, become less esoteric and more mainstream. It will become attractive to a generation with little or no contact with the computers and collectibles they collect. It might become an industry itself.
Aside from the evolutionary forces working on our hobby there are monetary forces at work also. The big international auction houses have tried selling old technology, are selling old technology, and will continue to sell old technology. There is no reason for such sales to stop and the more astronomical the prices the more attention they will draw. Therefore the popularity of our hobby will also grow as more people become aware of it through the media.
It might appear that influences beyond our control are going to drag us kicking and screaming into a new era, but organizing is certainly to our benefit. Organizing will make it easier to develop a collectors’ market.
What’s a collectors’ market? It isn’t a flea market. It’s a global community of buyers and sellers of, in our case, old computers and computer collectibles. We must establish a market so that items are preserved, knowledge is transferred, skills are honed, and prices can be set. Without a pricing benchmark, you can’t properly appraise your collection for selling or insuring.
Another aspect of organizing is promoting the hobby to perpetuate it. There are both altruistic and selfish reasons for wanting a new generation of collectors. First of all, since we believe in what we are doing, we want to see our work continue. Finally, when you no longer can or want to collect, it’s good to know that there will be others who are eager to purchase the fruits of your labor.
Perhaps the following “what-ifs” summarize the reasons for organizing and planning for profits.
Scenario #1 You’ve spent years and much money developing a complete collection of graphical user interface hardware, software, and documentation, but your collecting days are over. As you explore your options, you are shocked that the only alternative to giving it away is to break it up because the only other collectors you know are hardware tinkers at heart and don’t appreciate what you’ve done.
Scenario #2 You actually don't want to collect computers any more so you try to do something with your collection, at which point in time you remember how much time, effort, and actual money you spent on your collection. Suddenly selling it for more than it cost you becomes a valid alternative, so you begin looking for a buyer.
Scenario #3 You're older and convinced no one in your life wants to inherit a collection of old computers so you begin looking for someone to give it to. Then an idea comes to mind that a nice cruise would be a fitting way to celebrate something special in your life, so you hope to sell the collection to underwrite the trip.
Scenario #4 Something unforeseen happens to you or a loved one and you need cash to respond to it. At that moment your computer collection takes on a whole new meaning.
Fun and fulfillment will always be the main part of collecting computer and computer collectibles. Without organization and profits, the hobby would still be fun and fulfilling. With organization and profits there will be more fun and fulfillment. We know it will happen so we should act in a manner and with an attitude that will be good both for ourselves and the hobby.
How to collect computers.
How does one collect anything? Here’s a list of essentials:
· you must have an ambition to collect something specific;
· you must have some place to put what you want to collect;
· you must have some idea of where to find what you want;
· you must have some way of determining the value of what you want;
· you must have some means of getting what you want from where it is to where you want it to be;
· you should keep records of what you have in your collection;
· you might need to work on it before it is in the condition you want it to be;
· you should have some goals in mind to help you enjoy it once you get it.
You might need money to purchase what you want, but you certainly will need money to do everything else that’s involved before and after you get it.
Collecting computers involves selecting something to collect; finding places to get it; figuring out how much it is worth; actually getting it; keeping records about it; maintaining a place to keep it; fixing it or fixing it up; and enjoying it once you have it. Let’s briefly review each stage of the computer collecting process before going any farther.
This process has just been described in a logical order. But in practical terms, you must have some place to put your computers, or whatever you plan to collect, before you acquire them. You can’t imagine how frustrating the storage problem can be, so deal with it early. You’ll learn about places you can store computers, what conditions are needed to preserve what you collect, what you should do before placing something in storage, and how to cover or bundle it.
Let’s get back on track. First things first. You must choose something to collect. As the title of this book suggests, the computer field is big. It is so big you should refine your interests for your own sake. A real collector is discerning about what gets dragged home. At the same time though don’t restrict your collecting ambitions to just computers. Be open to specializing in all sorts of other things, such as control panels or memory technologies. You’ll discover your options in Chapter 2 - What’s collectible.
Now that you know what you want to collect it’s good to know where you can get it. An obvious channel is personal networks. One chum watches out for another and everybody reciprocates. It works well, but it isn’t the only way nor the best way. What beats networking you ask? Read Chapter 3 - Sourcing, to find out.
We’re on a roll now. We know what we want and where to get it. All we need to do is pick it up and go home. It’s free isn’t it? Nope, you will (often) pay for it. How much will you pay? How much will you ask if you’re selling? These are the kinds of questions addressed and answered in Chapter 4 - Appraising. You’ll find guidelines on appraising your prospective acquisition or sale, and an honest discussion on the idea of value.
Let’s continue this journey. Imagine you’ve found exactly what you wanted and were able to establish its value. The next part seems easy - just take it home. Well, what are the implications of buying something privately? What are the tax considerations? These are things you should think about. Then there’s actually getting it to your place. What if you’re moving large items, or many items, or items across the country or across the world? You’ll find helpful tips and techniques in Chapter 5 - Acquiring.
There will be a time when you’ll be able to remember what you have in your collection, when you got it, who or where you got if from, what it was last used for, etc. As your collection grows, these details will naturally become more and more difficult to recall. So in the end you finally admit you need to make a list of everything you have. Why not begin keeping records with your first item? It makes sense, and Chapter 6 - Cataloging, makes it easy to do.
Now it’s time to put what you just acquired somewhere. Storage costs are both tangible and intangible. The tangible costs manifest themselves in the form of rent payments. The intangible costs are those you bear as you listen to others complain about the frustration of living in chaos. Hopefully you’ll feel better after reading Chapter 7- Storing.
Wouldn’t it be nice if whatever you get is always in great shape, even in working order? No way! Where’s the fun in that? Repairing and restoring can be very therapeutic. Sure it takes time, but isn’t that why you have a hobby - something enjoyable to do in your spare time? It sure is, so Chapter 8 - Repairing/Restoring covers working on everything from hardware to manuals.
Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of the process. Now you can do something with your collection. Yippee...but what - what should you do with all this computer stuff? You’ll be pleased to know there are all sorts of delightful and worthwhile things to do, but remember, just gazing at it and playing with it is still OK. If you are interested in doing something else check out Chapter 9 - Interesting things to do with old computers.
Before we end this overview of how to collect computers, I must point out that I have mostly used the word want instead of need. Collecting computers is a hobby, so you must be very careful to distinguish between feeling you need something and really needing something. As a hobby, collecting computers is a recreational activity. You’ve supposed to have fun doing it. You shouldn’t depend on your hobby. It’s just something you do in your spare time. So really, when you add something to your collection you do so because you wanted to, not because you had to. Stay in control of the hobby and don’t let it control you.
There are many things to collect. You can find things, other than computers, that are suited to your budgets, tastes, and interests. Even the amount of storage space you have. Imagine how monotonous life would be if everybody collected PDP-11's. The global computer industry is large enough and old enough that there's plenty of opportunity for everybody who wants to collect something. Let's be as dynamic as the industry itself and "collect what no one has collected before."
When you look at a brochure describing the DEC PDP-15 (1968) would you call it ephemera? Or how about the free posters of revolutionary thinkers Zilog¨ offered in 1980 to anybody who mailed in a request; would you call them premiums? If you would you would be correct. Collecting, like any other field, has its own terminology. Let’s learn the lingo of collecting.
Antique The generally accepted definition is something over 100 years old. According to this definition there are no antique computers. This can be argued especially if you claim the rate of change computers experience is substantially higher than humans do, but its much easier to accept the ruling and stop using the word until sometime after 2040 when the Colossus¨ , ENIAC, Zuse III, and others like them will celebrate 100 year anniversaries.
Artifact A human-made object. In a historical setting it usually refers to items in a museum’s collection.
Classic Something that set a standard by which all other similar things are measured against, because it was the first of its kind.
Collectible Something originally made to be used, not collected, but that eventually stopped being used and was collected.
Ephemera Something that is useful for a very short time.
Memorabilia Things worthy of remembrance.
Momento Anything that reminds you of the past.
Paraphernalia Apparatus, furnishings, and ornaments that are somehow associated. This word reminds me of the mainframe days when the word peripheral was popular. It was used to describe all the equipment surrounding the CPU. Tape drives, printers, card readers, etc. were called peripherals.
Premium A bonus offered as an inducement to purchase, or a reward given for a particular action.
Relic Something considered the last of its kind. It’s what's left after other things like it have been lost or through decay are no longer functional or even worthy of attention.
Vintage Something that was well known in the past.
Many people have not collected computers because they accepted the popular definition of an antique. As collectors, we see age differently; to us computers age quickly. The age of a computer is not an indication of its usefulness though, and this distinction is extremely important to understand as this next story illustrates.
In the 1980s a Professor Elliot Avedon at the University of Waterloo opened a games museum on campus. It attracted many visitors from far and wide. This encouraged Elliot to open a computer museum in the cavernous atrium of the university’s new Institute for Computer Research. The faculty and staff weekly newspaper printed an article describing plans for the museum . The article also listed a few of the artifacts in the fledgling museum’s collection. These items had been donated by various departments and faculties.
A certain staff member of the university read that list and was so irritated by it he wrote a letter to the editor. It was printed in a subsequent issue. The letter described how upset the writer was because he was still using a few of the artifacts in the fledgling museum’s collection. This incident gave a new spin to the expression “one’s garbage is another’s treasure.”
Does this happen to you? When you’re at a social gathering and somebody mentions their car, are you compelled to ask them what kind of car they have? The habit is easy to explain - there are just too many makes and models of cars to merely say you have a car. Is it a station wagon, convertible? Is it new, old, vintage, or sporty? Likewise, it isn’t enough to simply say you collect computers. What kind of computers do you collect?
You can collect mainframes, minicomputers, microcomputers, workstations, desktops, laptops, or palmtops. Then there’s maxicomputers, midicomputers, transportable, portable, pocket and pen computers.
Mainframe RCA Spectra 70/46
Maxicomputer Perkin-Elmer System 80
Midicomputer Harris S570
Minicomputer CCC DDP-516
Microcomputer IMSAI 8800
Homecomputer Coleco Adam
Small Business Computers Burroughs B80
Desktop Victor 9000
Laptop Convergent Workslate
Palmtop Atari Portfolio
Pocket Poquet PC
Transportable IBM 5100
Portable Osborne 1
Accounting/Posting Machines NCR 399
There are usually several sub-categories in each category. For example:
Mainframe business or scientific models
Minicomputer single or multi-user
Desktop CP/M or MS-DOS, 286, 386, etc.
If information is an agent of change then since we now know what we know, we are obliged to refer to our collecting activity with greater reverence than we have. Can’t you just hear the buzz at the next gathering of computer collectors? We can no longer say we collect computers, nay, we shall hence forth describe our pastime as something like “I collect classic timesharing systems running on 12-bit minicomputers with 8K of core memory that were built before 1975.”
Don’t Collect Computers
If computers are either too expensive, too difficult to store and transport, too technical, or just too boring, you can still have lots of fun collecting and contribute to the history of computing. We’ll also be able to put many of the new terms you just learned to use in this section about computer collectibles.
There is an important discussion that must take place, and our current topic is an excellent launch pad into it. What if you remove parts of a computer? In other words you don’t collect entire computers. Are you cannibalizing? You might be.
Of course those who wish for the computer you just stripped (e.g. re-moved a control panel from or a memory card or disk drive from) will feel you’ve robbed them of something. Others, even those who don’t collect, might feel you’ve robbed from everybody because the relic is no more. The fact of the matter is they are both right, but you found it so you should determine what to do with it.
We are not talking about elephants being slaughtered for their tusks, we’re talking about machines. It would be foolish to try and set rules or guidelines such as “you should only cannibalize from computers that are already damaged beyond use”. Be thoughtful and consider all the implications of your actions.
OK then, how about collecting mouse pads? Mouse pads themselves aren't interesting. What's so important about the typical rectangular shape with a foam base and a cloth cover? Nothing, but what's printed on the cover is. The artwork, slogans, and company and product names printed on them make mouse pads very collectible.
The next item takes us back in time. Why not collect punched cards? All sorts of interesting stuff is printed on them. You'll find names (company, university, etc.), field names, instructions, etc. Also consider OMR (optical mark recognition) cards.
Through the years storage media has changed and the different varieties make for an interesting collection. Not convinced? Well let's start with the traditionals: disks and tapes. In the disk category there are packs, platters, and floppies/diskettes, all either fixed or removable, differing in size and capacity. Perhaps you can find a 1 meter in diameter, single platter 200K disk drive from Burroughs (circa early 1960's) or you might be able to locate a multi-platter, 8cm in diameter HP Kitty Hawk 40Mb drive. Now there's a way to make a compelling story about advances in computer technology - put a 9 kg (20lb) platter, just the platter, beside a 100 gram (3 oz) complete disk drive.
In the tape category there are different types and sizes of magnetic 9-track, VHS, cassettes, DAT, and cartridges, and even paper tape. Then there are magnetic storage strips you'll find coated to the back of common "plastic" (calling, credit, debit, bank, etc.) cards, posting machine ledger sheets, etc.
Faceplates, or nameplates as they're sometimes called, are prized possessions. The faceplate is where the name and model of each computer or peripheral/option is printed. Sometimes they are actual signs mounted on top of the computer (typically the CPU). Other times they are metal or plastic molded pieces attached to the CPU. Sometimes they are silk-screened onto a cabinet. All the time they're a wonderful way to remember hardware that's too large to keep in the den.
What about those tiny nameplates affixed to IBM-clones? They'd be much easier to acquire, and there are hundreds of different kinds, each unique in color and name, making them great collectibles.
How about keyboards and mouses? Early keyboards were anything but ergonomic. Some were over 1.3 cm (3") high! They're mostly QWERTY keyboards, but special characters are all over the place. In fact you could play a game called "find the ESC key" using 10 different keyboards from the 1970's to 1990's. Different sizes, applications, colors, and key arrangements make keyboards a worthwhile collectible.
As everyone knows, mice are fast breeders. There are tartan mouses, mouses that resemble real mice, wireless mouses, optical mouses...need I say more?
How about control panels? Control panels are probably the most popular feature of big, old computers - they're icons. Ask people what comes into their minds when they think of computers and the answer is usually lights and buttons. In other words control panels.
If you look around, you'll discover the control panel has gone the way of the punched card. This makes them rare and a fun challenge to source. A bonus though is that the faceplate is usually part of the control panel.
Some panels are small. Others are massive, and some are even consoles built into desks and tables. One common characteristic is that they're all impressive.
Here's a true and wild story. A certain computer company, Thinking Machines, had a customer relations problem with their Connections Machine (1988) that they fixed with a bunch of flashing lights. It seems buyers of these multi-million dollar multi-processors didn't feel they were getting their money's worth. Even though the thing was faster than 1K Pentium II's, there was no sign of activity - it just hummed. "Is this thing working or not?," customers wondered. Well an engineering change soon fixed that. A wall of red lights was added to one end of these sleek, black computers. They pulsed according to the job load on the processor. They didn't show what was in the accumulator or address buffer, but they did make people feel better. Have I convinced you just how important control panels are?
This following suggestion is perhaps the silliest, but here goes. Collect push buttons. That's it, just the buttons. There's a great deal of history in buttons themselves. You'll find some buttons with unexpected labels such as "Water Low." Some buttons are raised, while others are recessed. Some only have symbols on them. In fact you can easily identify a particular line of computers produced by a certain manufacturer just by a button's design, colors, and then vernacular used on the label. Does that sound so silly after all?
Warning: read this suggestion only if you are already a devout techie. Collect wire. Yes, yes I admit I referred to barbed wire in an amazed tone earlier, but this, of course, is different. Even cabling, and associated connectors, reveal the drastic advances in computer technology over the past 50 years.
A piece of ribbon cable from a Centronics 101 printer isn't much to look at except when you compare it to the rotund cables snaking through and under any IBM 360 (1964). You'll always be able to make a point when you compare a present 3-prong power cable to the heavy coupler used on a CDC 3500 (1965).
Are you aware of the ingenuity displayed in the way electronics are packaged in a computer? It's truly marvelous and qualifies them as a collectible.
In the 1950's there were no motherboards. Modules were used. A typical module consisted of a single vacuum tube with lots of resistors, capacitors, and diodes. All that stuff was used to store or process a single bit!
Photographs of circuitry are actually very popular in text books and articles to explain the evolution of computers. No doubt the photo of a microprocessor in front of a tube beside a transistor that's beside an integrated circuit helped you learn about the first four generations of computer technology. You can collect modules, boards, cards, backplanes, motherboards, etc.
The manufacturers often printed their names, such as Singer or Scientific Data Systems or Exxon or General Mills (you'd be surprised by how many companies dabbled in computers), on these relics, making them even more interesting.
We shouldn't leave this topic without mentioning cooling technology. Big computers generate enormous quantities of heat and require either cooling fans, water, or other fluids to keep them from melting. From the collector's perspective each system had a different type of fan, grill, pipe, etc.
The cooling issue is heating up again. Some newer chips actually have small cooling fans mounted on top of the case. Amazing but true.
This helps confirm Stumpf's theory of circularity. Let me explain. Early computers ran hot and needed lots of noisy fans to keep them running. The noise was so high that it was impossible, or at least undesirable, to put computers too close to people. So part of the sales pitch for newer, smaller computers extolled their almost silent operation making special rooms unnecessary. Well now we've pushed the technology to the limit once again and the fan is back. What goes around comes around and what better means do you have to tell that story then to have physical evidence? Go ahead. Collect them and see for yourself.
We can't forget memories. There are sonic or mercury delay lines, and several densities of core and semiconductor memories. Delay lines are nice, delay lines a good, but core really steals the show. Then again there's the incredible story about RAM chips. From humble, yet at the time spectacular, beginnings at 4K bits (!) to the present lines of megabytes per chip.
Now we're moving into relatively modern notions, so it's a good time to mention microprocessors. These things have been produced at a prodigious rate by a good number of manufacturers. Some of the manufacturers have already come and gone making your quest even more exciting. There are 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 bit micros. There are different architectures, such as bit-slice, to collect. Some micros were second sourced. For instance Motorola once build the MC6803 and permitted Hatachi to also build it. There are even bootleg micros. Microprocessor chips alone could keep you busy for a long time.
I recommend collecting both encased chips and exposed, or naked, chips. Early integrated circuit technology used caterpillar-like cases that quickly evolved into cases with pins coming out all sides. You can split cases and extract integrated circuits. It just takes a bit of patience and the willingness to experiment on a few chips.
This next notion is perhaps the most practical one because sooner or later you could use this collectible. I'm suggesting you collect service kits. You'll be surprised to discover that each manufacturer prepared its own kits, and some computers even had special tools. Early kits would have tube extractors because those vacuum tubes, like high wattage light bulbs, run very hot. More modern kits would have an IC extractor. You know though, I've never seen a kit with the 2 by 4 still in it. You know, the 2 by 4 that, when all else fails, the service rep would wack the computer with.
So far we've focused on hardware, but there's much to be said about software. Don't forget, software didn't start with MS-DOS and Lotus 123. It would be neat to have a 2,000 card COBOL program; source of course, not object code. Next you could move into minicomputer utilities or posting machines programs that were distributed on punched paper tape. This could be followed by IBM operating system updates on reels of 9-track magnetic tape. Then move to "boxed" or shrink-wrapped software of the personal computer era. Ah, remember those huge, bright red cartons Novell used to be delivered in?
Software is such a vast topic that you should probably choose a particular area to specialize in. You could choose operating systems, or languages, or applications such as word processing. A word of caution: if you ever want to use old software you will need a vintage computer running the vintage operating system the software was made to run on.
Another category of software is demos. Some of the most attractive and creative packages have been developed for self-running or live demos. These tell a different story than the actual product does.
Let's talk about paper for a while. Paper, remember that stuff? Under this topic we discuss books, documentation, brochures, magazines, catalogs, sales guides, advertisements, and posters.
Collecting books is an old and noble hobby, so it shouldn't surprise anybody if you admit to collecting introductory data processing text books from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Like software, books can mean much to many people so you should narrow your focus to maximize your pleasure. Begin by choosing between non-fiction and fiction. There are non-fiction subjects such as compiler design, languages, architecture, system security, etc.
Non-fiction was easy to categorize, fiction is not. Most people would think only of science fiction, but there's a new genre of good contemporary mystery stories with themes revolving around computers. They are anything but sci-fi; they include quite accurate technical detail. Watch for titles such as Terminal Compromise or Reboot. Find your passion and stick to it.
Documentation as a collectible might seem redundant considering all software was always accompanied by manuals, but your preference might be the written word over cool screen layouts. Documentation comes in all shapes an sizes from colorful and distinctive binders (usually with a company name printed on it), to nifty pocket cards. Often you'll find a black and white photo of the product somewhere in the manuals.
Brochures are probably the most colorful and expressive relics of the computer industry. Of course they contain hype, but at least, aside from the slick photography, they tell a popular history of the industry and what the industry thought was important. They're just nice to have.
Magazines are similar in appeal and accessibility to brochures, but they are also very educational and objective. Watch for premiere and, unfortunately, last issues, and special issues (e.g. laptop round-up), and as you travel, pick up foreign languages issues of popular magazines.
Catalogs are very product and technology oriented. MicroAge started by publishing a huge, colorful, and informative catalog. For the longest time, Hewlett-Packard has been publishing an annual hardcover catalog of its products. It's like having a combination brochure and technical specification all-in-one.
Sales guides are gems. These are typically confidential, limited distribution publications that gave the inside scoop on new products and typically included a competitive analysis of the market at that time.
Advertisements have always been a collectible. The advertisements you find in a computer magazine aren’t as precious as the ones you’ll find in general interest (e.g. Time), business (e.g. Fortune), or trade press (e.g. Grocers’ Weekly) magazines. The different venues get a different slant to the same story about the same product. It’s very interesting to compare the marketing approach taken on the techie buyer to the user influencer.
Posters have always been a staple in the computer industry. They are great for mounting and easy to store. Companies often prepare very special posters around product launches, but also from time to time just to keep their name around.
Books are nice, but we live in a visual society so don't forget films. Computer companies have always had to sell concepts, not just products, so they've always produced promotional films. You will find them on 16mm reels or VHS cassettes. The most recent manifestation of this venue is the infomercial.
There are at least three categories of films. There are promotional films, educational films, and fictional films. Educational films produced by National Geographic in the 1960s are a hoot to watch. There is are also landmark education productions such as PBS's Triumph of the Nerds.
Fictional films are not limited sci-fi greats like The Forbin Project or the 2001: Space Odyssey movies. Watch films such as Deskset with Tracey and Hepburn, or Ustinov in Hot Millions. These collectibles are easily the most enjoyable to use.
Through the history of computing, various companies have built training aids. What a wonderful way to describe technology at various points in history. DEC had a Boolean logic trainer called the Computer Lab and Bell Laboratories developed a board game called CARDIAC. What an arresting name.
Now on to frivolous relics provided by the industry's marketing machine. Frivolous they might seem, but they're a real part of the industry and the industry's history is only complete with them.
If you've ever gone to a seminar or product announcement, you probably received a handy folder. Not one made from mere paper, but one made from heavy plastic (sometimes even leather or a close substitute) reinforced with cardboard. Historically speaking, these are excellent relics because they usually have the name of the company, product, or event and a date printed on them. For example, you were likely to have a bright yellow Frisbee bounced off your head during one of the Canadian Computer Shows during the mid-1970’s. A company was making a point for their key-to-tape product by passing out Frisbees with the slogan “Toss out keypunching.”
A related item is the carrying bag or case. These are especially popular at trade shows. They started out as simple plastic bags with handles and now include inexpensive sports bags.
Since we're talking about trade shows, I suggest badges are a worthwhile collectible. By badge I'm referring to the piece of paper or plastic you wear during the trade show to prove you've registered. They track the level of activity in the industry and using the show titles as a gauge, they also show trends (i.e. ADP¨ to EDP to DP to MIS to IS, etc). Imagine collecting the badges of well-known people in the industry.
Pin-on buttons are also a favorite collectible. Newer buttons have gone multimedia, with small built-in circuits that flash lights or produce songs.
What about clothing? A product launch wouldn't be the same without a T-shirt. Other apparel includes jackets, ties, shirts, and warm-up suits. Jewelry is also easy to find, but pocket protectors, because of their nerd appeal, are real prizes.
Hopefully I've saved the best for last - premiums. Everybody loves novelties, and the computer industry's merchandising machine won't let anybody down. You can get clocks in the shape of a terminal or PC, bottle opener keyboards, CRT-like paper clip holders, CPU-like pencil sharpeners, rulers, you name it.
Having learned the terminology and examined the possibilities, do you agree with the following examples?
Collectible printed circuit boards, faceplates, magnetic media
Ephemera show guides, show passes, desk pads
Paraphernalia tape racks, raised flooring, diskette trays/holders, adjustable paper holders attached to monitors
Premium T-shirts offered if you upgrade a software package, posters offered in a magazine ad that you can receive if you mail in a request
What Will You Collect?
You can’t collect everything. You can have a messy collection just like you can have a messy room. Do not become a collector like the hero in one of Stephen Leacock’s stories who “rode off madly in all directions.” For you own sake, build your collection around a theme and have goals.
The “what” question is closely connected to the “why collect” question. The decision to collect at all is emotional. Deciding what to collect is a practical one.
Perhaps you want to have something to show your grandchildren so you decide to collect an excellent representative from each category of computers. Perhaps you are interested in early German computers. This is what Kip Crosby, founder of the Computer History Association of California, did - his focus is on computers built in California.
Perhaps you want to demonstrate how a particular technology has, say windowing (Graphical User Interface - GUI) technology. Your plan might then be to collect a Xerox Alto (1973), but you’d be satisfied with a Xerox Star (1981), an Apple Lisa (1983) would be good, copies of IBM’s Topview¨ and Digital Research’s GEM¨¨ , I would even add an Epson QX-10 (1983) running Valdocs I¨¨¨ (what do you think?), and then, of course, you’d need an original Mac and Microsoft Windows, plus several generations of Windows, and then move into the UNIX world with Motif and X Windows. Then collect the corresponding ephemera and any premiums.
As you collect your interests will change and it will take new directions, but the important thing is to always be in control. You must lead the collection and not vice versa.
This anecdote reveals both the most rewarding and frustrating part of collecting. During the hunt you will come across all sorts of interesting people and wonderful new unexpected sources for future acquisitions, yet it requires cold hard cash and lots of time and patience.
Chapter 2 - What’s collectible? ended with a recommendation - don’t collect everything. You should define your collection and that will help direct your collecting activities, resulting in fewer wasted trips or phone calls. So even before you begin your search, decide on precisely want you want.
Even with a well defined collecting strategy you must have both the bucks and space to implement it. Be patient. Don’t let your collecting hobby become a habit, and put you at some sort of (especially financial) disadvantage.
There are many sources of old computers aside from other collectors. Here’s the ones I know of listed in alphabetical order.
Auctions Old computers have been sold through traditional barker-lead auctions, but the real auction activity is happening on the WWW. Several virtual auction houses regularly carry old, hard to find items - books, manuals, hardware, and even ephemera. You will probably pay more buying through a web auction.
Backissue Have you ever wondered how libraries and research
Specialists centers keep their magazine collections so complete? Damage or loss is bound to happen over time, yet most libraries are able to provide every single issue on demand. The truth is that issues are lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair, but libraries rely on the services of backissue specialists to replace the missing issues. The prices are more than the cover price, and the condition varies. Ask your local librarian for the name and phone number of the specialists they use.
Classified This is a fickle source. Sometimes it works too well
Ads and you’ll have people calling long after the item has been sold. At other times you’ll be amazed by the lack of interest.
You should direct your ads to the most appropriate venue. For instance, if you’re looking for GE computer paraphernalia then buy an ad in a Phoenix, Arizona paper because that’s where the plant was. Ads in the computer trade press (e.g. Computerworld, etc.) or the popular computer press (e.g. Computer News of Vancouver) are ideal if your sources or buyers are techies and you’re guaranteed they regularly read those publications. Otherwise, ads in the classifieds of a mainstream newspaper might generate a higher return on your investment.
Computer There are scrap dealers, and then there are computer
Recyclers recyclers. Precious metal reclaimers are most often also in the computer (electronics) recycling business. They specialize in computers so they have opened channels inside companies that you never could. I can see how as metal prices fluctuate, computer recyclers have the option of brokering or reselling. The people who run these businesses are usually interesting to chat with because they know their computing history.
I once read an article about a computer recycler. I had never heard of such a thing so I phoned the man who ran the place. He had never heard of anybody collecting computers, so he invited me to his warehouse. By the way, if his building holds computers, shouldn’t it be referred to as a “ware”house? Anyway, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’d never seen anything like it before and haven’t seen anything like it since. Stacks of IBM, DEC, Wang, Telex, STC, UNISYS gear that were 7 meters (23 feet) high. I picked up many interesting things there. The operation closed in 1990 by the parent company due to a change in corporate direction.
Other’s have had similar success dealing with computer recyclers. A few years ago Alex Zoghlin, of Neoglyphics Media Corp, discovered a company that specializes in recovering precious metals from electronic equipment. He went over the see their place and, in his own words, “I tripped over a system which turned out to be an IBM 701 (1952)!” He bought it.
Recyclers are sometimes bound by the last owner to destroy the computer and not resell it.
Corporate Several funny things can happen in corporations
Catacombs when it comes to computer assets. One is that a computer will be replaced and removed from the data center (or wherever), but since it is still being capitalized it will be moved in storage instead of being disposed. Another funny thing is that after some old and perhaps interesting computer is taken out of production (daily use), somebody convinces management that it would be a great keepsake and so it is tucked away in storage. Then after either the computer is fully capitalized or it’s been in storage for a few years, everybody forgets about it and it sits, gathering dust in a locked room somewhere in the corporate catacombs.
Usually the treasures in these catacombs are only discovered during a major move or if the company goes out of business. This means a company might have an original NeXT Cube (1989), but it wouldn’t show on any records so if you ask someone, they wouldn’t honestly know.
Dumps Who can resist rummaging through a dump? It’s much easier to do these days since landfills have been divided into separate sections, but it still is a matter of timing. Either you’re there when somebody pulls up ready to throw that long sought after disk drive or box of manuals, on the heap or you’ll miss it. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, most landfills don’t officially allow removing items.
Educational This includes primary, secondary, colleges, and
Institutions universities. When I was in high school, I discovered a UNIVAC 120 (1954) tabulator in one of the electrical shops. A forward thinking teacher accepted it as a gift and there it sat. It was fun trying to make it work. By the time I realized important that machine was just by virtue of its age I was out of school. Also, by that time, the novelty had worn off and it was gone
Many, many minicomputers ended up on university and college campuses. Many schools hold annual, if not weekly, monthly, or quarterly surplus sales that offer complete systems or parts. Many a collector got his or her start through such sales.
Estate Sales Computers have been around long enough now that one can gather many momentos and much memorabilia over a lifetime. As this hobby becomes more popular, such items will be as common at an estate sale as china and books.
Flea Markets The venerable flea market is a possibility, but it is a weak one. If you find a vendor, they won’t be selling anything bigger than microcomputer type stuff.
Garage/ Many people can’t resist stopping at a garage sale,
Yard Sales but unless the sale was advertised as having computer gear, you will probably be wasting your time.
Garages and Believe it or not, someday you will probably hit the
Recrooms jackpot in somebody’s garage or recreation room. You will find some long sought after or valuable item that the owner has kept just because it looked neat or odd enough to hold on to it.
Government Governments at all levels quickly embraced comput-
Equipment erization. Most levels of government can’t throw
Disposal something out or give it to a worthy employee. It must go to tender. You can have your name and address added to the appropriate distribution lists so you can bid also.
Library Sales I love browsing around annual public library book sales. My pleasure is increased when the books are organized by subject, but I’ll find that computer book I want no matter where they hide it. These are win-win opportunities. You put money back into an important institution, and you get what you want.
Newsgroups There is a newsgroup for virtually each hobby imaginable. Proper care should be taken to post to newsgroups that accept offers to buy or sell. Also, be prepared to read many useless responses before (if at all) you find what you asked for. I once asked a newsgroup where I might find an old mainframe system. The unanimous advice was “a bank.” Everybody who replied did so with the best of intentions, but a real answer would have told me which bank(s).
Prop Rentals If you’ve watched an episode of the TV show Time Tunnel, you’ve seen an original SAGE AN/FSQ 7¨ behemoth. The long, tall bank of lights and switches in the control area of the tunnel room used to be the computer at the Systems Development Corporation in California that was used to develop and test the real-time software for the military. It was purchased by a Hollywood prop rental company and it’s been in movie after movie ever since. The next time you watch Colossus: The Forbin Project see if you can identify the IBM computer that the control panel, in the “pit” control room, was taken from.
Overstock/ Where I come from we have a chain of stores called
Remainder Len’s Mill End Store. Len’s buyers purchase all sorts
Buyers of interesting and useful items that manufacturers or trustees have stopped making or can’t sell. Each industry has its own “Len’s.” I purchased both a Convergent Technologies Workslate (1983) and an Apple LISA from such vendors. The nice thing about them is that the items are brand new, in original packaging, and in mint condition.
Regulated Facilities like nuclear power plants, coal or gas fired
Facilities generating stations, and chemical plants need to be certified by a regulatory body before they can operate. These facilities can’t just swap supposedly equivalent parts for the ones in place when the facility was commissioned, so they tend to keep their own stock of spares, or at least provide the incentive for manufacturers to keep certain products available for a long while the facility is in operation. Needless to say, such places are completely automated so there are still Varian Data Machines, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, DEC, General Automation, IBM, Scientific Data Systems (yes SDS!) systems, and many others, still around.
I picked up the control panels from several IBM 1800s (1964) running coal fired generation stations in Ontario, Canada when the stations were refurbished and upgraded. The 1800s were officially replaced by a micro-based 1800 emulator.
Roadside Don’t depend on this source, but there are great finds
Garbage on the roadside if you’re looking. I picked up my first Teletype ASR-33 from the roadside in front of a dentist’s office on garbage pickup day. It even worked.
Scrap Yards The traditional scrap dealer doesn’t know what to do with computers, but that won’t stop them from picking them up if offered. After years of driving past one of the local Dairy Queens I finally noticed a flatbed trailer loaded with IBM System/3s (late 1960s to early 1970s), printers, and disk drives. This stash was owned by a local scrap dealer and it sat there because he didn’t know how to process it. I connected him with a computer recycler and the equipment was hauled away. The equipment was beyond restoration having been outside for many hot summers, wet falls, frigid winters, and more wet springs.
Service Once found, these sources are good for years of
Centers collecting. Every computer manufacturer and large retailer has regional repair and service depots. They keep many unusual parts in inventory, but eventually the service revenue drops below the profit level, and these items are discarded.
Swap Meets These are flea markets for techies. We must thank HAM radio enthusiasts for swap meets. In my part of the world everybody waits for the annual HAMfest in Dayton, Ohio, but there are also the regular meets in the parking lot of a TRW office in California.
Third Party It used to be that each computer manufacturer
Service Firms maintained their own hardware. Today you have the option of using the manufacturer or you can hire a firm that specializes in maintaining any and all hardware. Developing a relationship with such firms will help you locate old hardware, especially old hardware that is about to be de-commissioned.
Used Now we’re talking. A store that carries old computers
Computer and other old stuff. The earliest such establishment I
Stores know of was the Computer Orphanage in 1984 in Mississauga and Kitchener, Ontario. It was intended to be a franchise, but it suffered from being ahead of its time and didn’t grow big enough to continue. The franchise I visited carried minicomputers, microcomputers (personal computers), printers, modems, etc.
Computer Renaissance is an existing franchise operation. It is a used computer store, but deals exclusively with desktops and portables and only those with at least a 386 and up. Another connection to the past can be made through companies that are members of the Computer Dealers Association. These member companies handle used mainframes.
The documentary Triumph of the Nerds made many aware of the popular Weird Stuff Warehouse in California, but not many people ever heard of the Cybernetic Bazaar in Kitchener, Ontario.
The Cybernetic Bazaar was in the basement of a very old factory - the perfect setting to sell truly old computers. I swapped a bunch of Iomega Bernoulli Boxes (1984) for a working DG/One (1984) at the Bazaar. You could, if you could afford it, buy Honeywell Level 6 (late 1970s) minis, Hyperion portables (1982), HP 150 Touch Screen (1984) desktops - it was truly nostalgic.
Used Stuff Goodwill Stores, Salvation Army Thrift Stores typify
Stores retail outlets in this category. People donate old anythings for resale. This concept has grown in popularity with chains such as Value Village and they also exist at the very local level. A store called the Reuse Store in Ontario has literally tons of desktops and accessories. You can easily find any type of refurbished desktop or portable for sale there. Plan to keep such stores on your sourcing prowls you never know what will turn up.
Year 2000 With all the hype surrounding the potential year 2000 debacle, I wonder if I should add to it, but as it’s been said, “this is a once in a millennium opportunity.” Supposedly many, many companies have/are/will be switching hardware platforms at the same time, or in order to, prepare to handle four digit years in dates. Get your dibs in now. I have. Hopefully I will get the entire NCR 8450 (1977) mainframe system from the local NCR plant once they’ve converted a manufacturing database over to the UNIX system that’s replacing the aging giant.
Knowing where to go is one thing. Knowing what to do once you get there is another - it’s a matter of technique. The most natural technique is building relationships with other collectors, and people who share an interest in old computers. One of the more physical techniques is searching high and low checking here and checking there looking for old computers. The technique requiring the most patience is arranging the acquisition of an old computer for sometime in the future.
The most sneaky technique is employed when trying to acquire an old computer that is being stored in somebody’s home. With tongue in cheek, I recommend trying to speak to seller’s wife first. I’ve had very humorous conversations with wives when their computer-nut husbands weren’t around. Usually the ladies are quite happy to negotiate the immediate removal of whatever it is I want, and they usually don’t ask what I’m calling about - getting rid of anything will do just fine thank you.
Networking The best story about networking that I’ve heard yet is the one about Paul Pierce, Gwen Bell, and Herb Burke. Paul of Seattle had collected many wonderful systems including a Packard Bell 250 (1960), an IBM 1401 (1959), a DEC PDP-5 (1963), and an IBM 1130 (1965). Now, as a serious collector, he made contact with, and actually received a reply from, The Computer Museum in Boston. Gwen Bell, the museum’s founder had also been contacted by Herb Burke, also of Seattle, so she connected these two fellas. The outcome? Paul doubled the size of his collection and Herb fulfilled a goal to preserve something he felt deserved to be. Paul added two valuable vacuum tube IBM 709s (1957) and one huge IBM 7094 (1962). Unbelievable.
Scavenging This is typically an individual sport, unlike networking, which is a social activity. Scavenging can be done from the comfort of a comfy chair, or it can be more physical.
The best example of scavenging as a physical activity is dumpsite diving. It is just as it sounds - peeking into large square industrial garbage bins looking for treasures. When found, one climbs into the bin to extricate the treasure. William Donzelli is quite pleased with his dives to date. “My personal best was finding a PDP-8/e (1971) that was literally thrown away, as in dropped out of the building into the waiting container below. It was missing the bus loads card, so I could not test it. A few years later I found the proper card, and the machine worked without a problem.”
The other, more subtle, scavenging technique is done while browsing the web and newsgroups. The opening anecdote for this chapter gives some insight into the sleuthing aspect of virtual scavenging. Scavenging on-line isn’t checking for sale or auction newsgroups or sites, it is: looking in places of information and discussion related to what you want; looking for clues that somebody has what you want; and then contacting people to confirm the leads or to get more leads. Be thorough and be persistent, never be mysterious and always be polite and dignified when following up on leads and potential leads.
And now some moral support. You will be told you’ll never find what you’re looking for. You might even be laughed at for wanting to collect whatever it is you’re searching for. Ignore these remarks and reactions. When I was searching for my Xerox Star, or 8010 (1981), I first contacted the nearest Xerox service center. I asked for the service manager and told him I was a collector looking for a product from the early 1980s called a Star. I continued by explaining I thought he might still have service contracts on them or there might be one or two left in his shop. He said they were no longer servicing 8010s, but he would introduce me to the eldest service rep there. It was the stereotypical “if anybody knows, he will.”
I was transferred, and this man, who sounded like he was in his late fifties, repeated my request as he had interpreted it from what his manager had told him. Then he giggled and said emphatically “you won’t find any of those around - they’re all gone.” I said thank you and hung up. Next I called the national service manager for Xerox Canada. I went through the same introductory spiel as before, except I was able to prove the sincerity of my interest because I had already done some preliminary research (at the regional service center). He graciously passed me onto somebody on his staff who he felt might be able to help.
While being transferred to the fourth person, I wondered what would transpire. Miraculously this man was also by his phone - four in a row, a good sign. He listened to my story that was getting a little longer with each person I spoke to. I finished speaking and I heard him laugh. Understandably my heart sunk and then I heard him say “sure, I’m using one now.” He explained that Xerox built many administrative systems around the Star and so it was common inside the corporation.
He then gave me the phone number of the resident Star expert and keeper. It was through this fifth person I acquired my working Xerox Star.
Vulture-ing Vulture-ing isn’t a real word, but it best describes this next technique. It is actually a hybrid because it requires a bit of networking and scavenging, but the most important trait of a good vulture is patience.
Let’s say you’ve found something you want. It’s that one of a kind thing. You never thought you’d ever see one again. It would fit nicely into your collection. It’s in mint condition too. That’s understandable because it’s still being used.
This can happen and when it does, remember “good things happen to those who wait.” What you want to do now is arrange to acquire when it is not longer needed. At least the arrangements you make will help you endure the wait.
I have sometimes waited years for a system. My experience confirms that the wait isn’t the problem. The real problem is changes in personnel and the effects those changes might have on your original arrangement. I’ve handled it by getting something in writing from somebody with the proper authority. Then, if your main contact leaves the company or moves into another department, your written agreement will explain your arrangement to the new contact. You should also make frequent contact by phone or email with both your official contact and the people who actually work with the system.
Where Will You Go?
How will you decide what sources to use? If you collect anything bigger than a small microcomputer, location is important. For example, if you collect minicomputers and you live in Canada, finding DEC minicomputers is easy compared to Interdata or Varian because DEC products sold well Canada. Shipping and traveling might be costly, but be innovative. Make holidays out of long pick-up trips.
Wherever you go, go often. Timing is important. As a collector there’s nothing worse than hearing “...its gone, but oh, if you had just called last month (week, yesterday).” Establishing a good network will help you avoid such disappointments.
Most collectors I know, including myself, are thrilled just to get our hands on something to do with old computers. Who cares what condition it’s in. Why then is it important to discuss appraising? Two reasons come to mind. One, as our hobby matures and a real marketplace forms, you will need to be precise as you price things for sale, evaluate offers to purchase, or as you try to insure your collection. Two, developing a concern for the quality of old computers, manuals, software, and what have you, will result in better collections.
I’m making it sound like there is big bucks in old computers. That is correct. Already huge sums of money have been paid for old computers. “I have personally watched three Apple Ones sell for, respectively, $12,000, $15,500, and $22,000. The high one was at the Computer Bowl a couple of years ago (a fund-raising event for The Computer Museum), the other two were private collectors...” It’s happening and so we should prepare ourselves, although not every collection will, nor will the owner want to, generate such wealth.
At the same time we must avoid being swayed by the media’s sensational and inaccurate coverage of such sales. Let’s see what we learned from the private purchase of a supercomputer. In 1993 Tony Cole of Hayward, California bought an obsolete Cray I from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, California) for $10,101.01. I reviewed three stories in reputable newspapers and was astounded how the value of the scraped Cray I grew with each story. For instance, The San Francisco Examiner’s story quoted $15,000 worth of precious metals; The Oakland Tribune quoted $16,000 to $20,000; and the Silicon Valley News quoted a whopping $60,000 for the same precious metals.
Have you ever heard of the used car sales “blue book”? It contains the going rates for all makes and models of used cars. It creates a standard by which offers can be judged. There is also a blue book for computers that’s been published by a company called Orion Research since 1986. It doesn’t help collectors though. The purpose of the Computer Blue Book is to help wholesalers and retailers deal in used, but relatively new computers.
Hoddock’s A Collector’s Guide to PCs and Pocket Calculators was already been mentioned in Chapter 1 - Collecting Computers. It was hoped to be a pricing guide, but the collecting community wasn’t ready to discuss pricing in 1993, and still aren’t.
And beware of the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” syndrome. That approach isn’t enough from which to conduct financial exchanges. It works as a means of determining the basis for an exchange, but it usually works best for the seller; not the buyer. Having a formal approach to appraising levels the playing field by giving both buyer and seller the same tools and rules.
If you’re good at shopping for used cars then you’ll be good at appraising old computer stuff. Both take a critical eye. Even if you don’t know much about what you plan to buy, your questioning mind will compensate, but appraising is best performed with a thorough knowledge about the items being appraised. I recommend a four step process to appraise an old computer, documentation, whatever you are trying to appraise. Each step is a test and through research and inspection you satisfy one step before moving to the next. They are:
These four steps enable you to assess the value of a potential acquisition or an existing collection. Step one is confirming what you’re looking at is what you expect it to be. Step two is determining how difficult it should be to find one - the higher the degree of difficulty, the more valuable. Step three is determining what, if anything, distinguishes it from others like it - the more distinctive, the more valuable. Step four is determining how close it is to its original state - the better the condition, the higher the value.
Authenticity Testing for authenticity doesn’t mean you’re suspicious. Confirming authenticity means you have a healthy respect for the size of the computer field and for the rapid changes that have affected both the industry and technology. In other words you acknowledge how easy it is to make a genuine mistake about what something really is. You owe it to yourself, the present owner, and potential future owners to confirm the authenticity of something.
Our hobby isn’t as susceptible to forgeries and fakes as other are. I mean an ALWAC III (1955) is undeniably an ALWAC III - you can’t hide that fact nor can you make any other computer look like an ALWAC III. Yet we should at least be performing our inspections with an eye on confirming what we believe we’re looking at, or have been told we’re looking at, is just that.
The authenticity test can be quite subtle as it was when I picked up my two DECsystem20s. If you know your DEC mainframe products, you’ll know that the 20s were painted an autumn rusty reddy brown. This is the color I was scanning the room for when I was escorted into the data center housing many 20s and various VAXen. I saw the familiar shape of a 20, but it was blue instead of brown. My guide must have noticed the confused look on my face so he reassured me I was looking at 20s and yes, they are blue ones. He explained that, years back, when his company was seeking investors, the company president had all the computers painted IBM blue. The president wanted to project a solid corporate image and he felt DEC computers wouldn’t contribute to this image as well as Big Blue¨ would.
With microcomputers the tests are more rigorous. It should definitely involve inspecting the motherboard checking such things as the ROM, disk controller, harddrive, etc.
Even software deserves your attention. For instance the rigid sleeves that IBM PC documentation binders are often delivered in are not all the same. One distinction is the wording and color used in the text found in upper left corner. For example, the text “Personal Computer Software” is printed in gray on the sleeve housing the PC3270 Emulation Program (1984) binder, while the text “IBM Software for IBM Personal Computers” is printed in white on the sleeve housing the PC Local Area Network (1984). Am I being pedantic? Nope, just precise.
Rarity Rarity defines the degree of difficulty in finding something. The following terms originated in a discussion about microcomputers so I have modified the definitions to suit all types of old computer stuff. Try using them to determine and express rarity:
Rare Almost impossible to find. Computers that became obsolete before many were collected. Prototypes of new products. Products pulled from the marketplace by their manufacturer. Products from companies that went out of business before many were made.
Uncommon Difficult to find. Few were produced either deliberately (limited editions) or unintentionally (the result of poor sales).
Common Easy to find. Many were made and they were popular.
The following list gives examples of rare, uncommon, and common old computer stuff.
RARE UNCOMMON COMMON
MAINFRAME Magnusson M80 IPL 480 IBM 4361
MINI SEL 810 PDP-8/s PDP-11/34
MICRO Apple I IMSAI 8080 VIC-20
PORTABLE Workslate Poquet Osborne
SOFTWARE IBM Topview Lotus Jazz Lotus 123
BOOK High Speed Com- Giant Brains Running
puting Devices Wild
Rarity changes over time and always moves from common to rare. For instance in 1996 a fire at the Canadian Warplace Museum in Hamilton, Ontario destroyed many completely refurbished WW I and II airplanes. This event suddenly reduced the number of historic airplanes and so the ones remaining suddenly increased in value. Entropy also contributes to changes in rarity. Things are lost or damaged beyond repair - it just happens.
Significance What special role did this old computer have in history or what special event involved this old computer? It might be one of the GRiD (1982) laptops that went on the first space shuttle mission. It might be the first ALTAIR (1975). It might be the first computer you ever used. It might have once been used by some great astronomer to figure out the location of the first black hole. It might be a computer manufactured by a company that no longer exists. It might be a Commodre with the University of Waterloo chip set.
Determining significance requires a broad and deep knowledge of the item, the industry that produced it, and popular history of its times. Proving significance is another story. Claiming something is the first of its kind is easy when the official serial and model number plate or sticker is still attached to it, but proving it was involved in some historical event requires much more substantiation. Preparing your collection for such scrutiny is covered in Chapter 5 - Cataloging.
Time changes significance also. For instance, the name DEC (Digital) will no longer be used on products since Compaq acquired DEC in June 1998. Once the name DEC is gone, having been is replaced by Compaq , theoretically, the value of DEC collectibles increases.
Condition Last, but not least, you must take the condition of the relic into account. By performing a physical examination you can determine which condition category it should be placed and the category helps determine value. I propose a simple category scheme that can be used for all of the types of computers and computer collectibles that you will (hopefully) encounter.
Use the following condition categories:
Mint In “out-of-the-box” brand new condition. No blemishes and nothing missing. Its original including packaging and paperwork. And, if it’s hardware, it works; if software the media is readable.
Good Minor blemishes and few pieces/pages/ diskettes/etc. missing. Looks worn. Might work
Poor Will need extensive investment to restore to good or mint condition. Does not work.
You must be picky and well informed to be a good appraiser, because experienced buyers are picky. Here’s a story that drives that point home. The established book trade places high value on first editions. While writing his book Pop Culture Mania, the author Stephen Hughes found a first edition copy of a popular and not too old mystery novel in a nondescript book store. He knew the book was worth several hundred dollars to the right dealer. Much to his delight the sticker price was just a few dollars. He bought it and immediately made an appointment with a book dealer who admitted being interested in purchasing the book at the going rate for a first edition. A handsome profit would result from the sale, if completed. That was not to happen though for Mr. Hughes discovered the high selling price was only for first editions with their original dust covers (jackets), so yes he had a first edition, but without the dust jacket it was worth what he bought it for and nothing more.
How important is it for your computer to work? Being an admitted visual-kind of guy, I’m happy to just have it to look at. Others disagree vehemently. “What good is it if it doesn’t work?,” they ask. My interpretation of this issue is expressed in the value formula. If it works it is more valuable than something that doesn’t. Anyway, after you’ve gained the necessary experience restoring and repairing old computers, they can be the source of much fun and gratification, and that’s what in Chapter 7 - Restoring/Repairing is all about.
What do you check for? It depends on what you’re appraising, but here’s some general guidelines. If it’s hardware, check if it works (following guidelines in Chapter 7 - Restoring/Repairing). Whether it works or not, examine each printed circuit board, rack, frame, box, whatever and verify the essential and optional components and cables are included. It might look good on the outside, but an interior check reveals missing, broken, or damaged pieces. Just the opposite is also true - it might look terrible on the outside, but it works.
What does it look like? Check the exterior - are there blemishes, dents, cracks, folded pages, holes in the material? Or is there rust or discolored plastic? Are all the volumes in the set included? Is it the right operating system for the software? You will develop your own appraising methodology over time.
On the other hand, how would you describe something’s condition? Here’s an excellent example of describing the condition of a set of books, “The books themselves are in very good shape, with only a little scuffing of covers. Bindings are tight, all pages are there, and none are torn, soiled, folded, or written on. The only serious fault with the books is that, on each, the part of the cover over the binding has faded from exposure to light.” I immediately bought those books. Any seller who could so clearly describe the condition of an item must have also thoroughly examined it. That helps me trust the seller.
Proper appraising is extremely important when purchasing something sight unseen. When a buyer is displeased with their purchase it affects the entire collecting community, not just the people involved in the transaction.
What is Value?
If size and age account for anything in determining the value of old computers, then mainframes should generate the highest bids, but this is not the case. Very few people want to collect mainframes. Even if we set a standard against which we can estimate value such as the precious metal content in a computer, mainframes would still come out on top. Why aren’t there more mainframe collectors then? There must be something more to “value.”
Value describes the usefulness of something or the worth bestowed upon it. Bringing the practice of appraising into our hobby is intended to make valuation more objective, but proper valuation techniques and standards are a long way off. What’s very clear is that computer collectors are more interested in the intrinsic and nostalgic value of something, than the cash, or appraised, value.
Intrinsic value is calculated by history itself while nostalgic value is based on one’s personal history. Certain things are just important. Core memory, for instance, is valuable no matter what computer it came out of. Even if you collect word processing software, you would probably not skip over a 10K core plane at a flea market. Likewise if the first computer you touched was a GRI 99/40 (1971) minicomputer, you would love and cherish it because of the fond memories it would evoke. You don’t appraise intrinsic and nostalgic values, you appreciate and feel them.
Back to the crass stuff for a moment. In addition to the appraised value there is also the cost of ownership. You should tally the time and money spent acquiring and keeping something into the appraised value to determine a selling price.
Even if something is free. You must include the time and expense of acquiring it (e.g. the 4 hour round trip it took to pick it up). Once you get it home you must add any additional expenses incurred. For instance, any time and money spent restoring it or storing it, should be recouped when it is sold.
What would you say if somebody asked “what are the three most valuable computers in your collection?” Bob Roswell (see Bob’s profile in Chapter 5 - Acquiring) suggests we use the following questions to determine the top three. Ask yourself what is...
1. The most valuable computer, is the first computer I used when I was...
2. The second most
valuable computer is the computer I recommended to my boss, but he ignored it,
and got an
Apple III instead.
3. The third most valuable computer in my collection is the computer that I wanted in 19__, but I could not afford it then.
How Much Would You Pay?
Unless you perfect your sourcing skills and live close to your sources, expect to someday pay more for old computer stuff than you do today. It is inevitable. Following the appraising guidelines offered in this chapter will help determine value and hence prices, but we do need standards. We need pricing guides like doll collectors and sports card collectors have. Until that time be fair, realistic and think about the first two of Jay Jaeger’s Laws of Collecting Computers (see Jay’s profile in Chapter 3 - Sourcing). They are:
1. If you really want something and end up paying for it, another one will show up for less (or a lot less) a week after you buy it.
2. If you don't buy it, you will never see another one again.
There will be more about appraising in future editions of this book as both the hobby and market unfolds. Remember, it’s just a hobby. If you can’t buy something, no matter how tempting it is, don’t worry. You’ll get over it. Never put your family or yourself at a financial disadvantage over some old computer.
This is the last step before that whatever it is finally in your hands. Some acquisitions are easy to make like when a member of the local HAM radio club gave me the terms and conditions of removing an IBM System/23 (1982 - also known as a Datamaster) from his basement. He said “you can have it if you promise to never bring it back.” At other times I’ve had to make all sorts of telephone calls, and send letters and messages via email over several months before a deal was struck. Persistence does pay though. Often those wonderful words “please take this too.”
Establishing Terms of Ownership
Just because you say you own something isn’t sufficient for a well-meaning, professional collector of computers and computer collectibles. Each transaction should be documented no matter if you acquired your computer, book, etc. by purchasing it or bartering for it or you received it as a gift.
Purchasing This should be simple. You find something you want. The owner quotes a selling price for it. You accept that price or negotiate, if permitted, until the seller and buyer agree to a price. You arrange the date of the exchange if it isn’t immediate (as at a flea market). You (buyer) pay the seller the price you agreed to and it is yours. You own it.
The process really is that simple. There can be twists such as asking for first turndown rights in the event you don’t want or can’t easily buy whatever it is at that moment. This is a valid option if the seller doesn’t have any other prospects. You ask the seller to tell you when somebody else has made an offer and if the timing is good for you can either buy it or decline and then at least you know it is no longer available. Another twist is when the seller lets you pay for whatever it is over time.
It is important to pay any appropriate levies and to document the transaction. Taxes are unique to each country and usually also within each region (province, state, etc.). The entire transaction is documented on a receipt and now you have proof of ownership.
Bartering You found something you want, but the owners won’t just give it to you and an outright purchase would be too much. What can you offer in exchange? Think of something you can do to help the owner and in return you receive legal title to whatever it is you want.
Being a mainframe collector my offer, which has always been accepted, is that I will de-install the system and remove it at my cost in exchange for title of the system. In fact my sons and friends and me have gutted entire data centers - hardware, accessories, furniture, and even the false floor.
You must acknowledge the exchange in writing and that document becomes your proof of ownership and clear title. A confirmation letter containing the terms of the barter and a description of what you received will do.
Gifts This does happen. Once people are convinced of your sincerity they will rally around you. Collectors all over the world have been given computers because the giver felt it was going to a good home. Even under these special circumstances you should acknowledge the gift in writing and show ownership has changed. A thank-you letter noting the serial numbers (etc.) will do just fine.
Getting Your Acquisition Home
The moment has arrived. Its time to, in some way, move¨ your acquisition home (the garage, the basement, or the living room for those who like to live dangerously). Some collectors have it easier than others. It depends on what you collect. Moving microcomputers is very easy compared to minicomputers and rolling minicomputers is substantially easier than rolling a single frame from a mainframe.
The emphasis has so far been on hardware, but as usual, the tips and tricks apply to collectibles also.
Pickup There no better way to spend a day in May than hauling old computers. You might have enough space in your own vehicle (plus a trailer), or you might need to rent a vehicle to get your new acquisition home. I one hauled a DEC TU80 double cabinet, 9-track tape drive plus two racks of PDP-11/70’s (1975), several thousand kilometers/miles. It’s amazing what a common car can pull. This shipment was covered with a tarp for most of the trip. By the time the wind finally tore the tarp off the hardware it started to rain. I wasn’t concerned. Just let the equipment dry off before applying electricity (more said on this topic in Chapter 8 - Restoring/Repairing).
Collecting big, old computers is also a great excuse for renting big trucks. If your moving something from a building with a loading dock make sure you rent a dock-height truck. A smaller truck might do if loading docks are equipped with a hydraulically adjustable lift. It doesn’t tilt, it actually moves like an elevator.
Long ago I purchased an appliance mover. This tall two-wheeled moving cart has saved a great deal of time and muscle ache. You can also get smaller moving carts with inflatable wheels.
Planning is very important. Visit the pickup site ahead of time and assess the job. Come fully equipped with more boxes, duct tape, rope, tarps, energy, and hope than you expect to use. You’ll find that moving everything onto the truck takes much less time than actually tying down the load.
If your shipment is coming from a commercial building you might need to reserve the freight elevator and a dock time. If the loading dock is small and it operates on a first come, first served basis, then double the time it should take because you might wait a long time just for a space at the dock.
Ship Cardboard is tough stuff. I once received the control panel from an IBM 1620 (1960) from a fellow in Texas. It arrived in a completely mangled cardboard box, but the control panel was intact and unharmed. I hope all your long distance acquisitions reach you in the same condition.
A popular, amateur packing method is called double-boxing. In the first box you pack the item(s) being shipped. The second box is larger in every dimension than the first. Line the second box with something to absorb any shocks and bangs. Insert the first box into the second box. Cover the first box with the shock absorbing layer and finally seal the second box.
There are three ways to ship. Your choices are mail, or courier, or, due to the size of the shipment, a freight or moving company.
You must be prepared for the possibility of extra paperwork if your shipment crosses national borders. If your acquisition does cross borders then you will pay duty on top of the purchase price and the shipping fee. You will need the services of a customs brokers to have your package released from customs. Your shipper will also provide this service if asked. Typically the shipper can provide insurance.
Deliver From time to time the seller/donor will offer to deliver your new acquisition instead of having you pick it up or having to ship it. This might be due to previously made travel plans or the delivery might become the reason for an unscheduled, yet appealing trip. No matter what the circumstance, the deliverer should be rewarded by a viewing of your collection.
Finally be prepared to be disappointed. It is inevitable. You will arrange to have something shipped or you will travel a great distance only to discover what you had in mind is not what the seller had in their mind. It is possible that the seller isn’t honest, but most often sloppy appraising is to blame.
An interesting article appeared in the October 17, 1994 issue of The Wall Street Journal. It was about the discovery of an apparently "lost" Stradivarius violin and how the previous and present "owners" were handling the situation. What if the article was set in the year 2294 and it was about an antique computer instead of a violin? Might we learn something as collectors? Let's see. The following is a copy of the lost Stradivarius article with the following changes: the violin is referred to as the Osborne I and personal names, dates, and organizations are fictitious, otherwise the stories are identical.
Missing Portable Case: The Finder Won't Move While Losers Sue
Osborne I, Lost 27 Years Ago, Resurfaces - But New Owners Play Coy
By Kevin Stumpf with apologies to Daniel Pearl
LOS ANGELES - Dan M. still doesn't know if he left the borrowed antique Osborne I on the roof of his auto and drove off*, or if it was stolen from the unlocked vehicle while be bought groceries.
That was August 2267, Mr. M., then an assistant curator of the West Coast Innovation Museum and professor of the history of technology at the University of California at Los Angeles, sent notices to pawn shops and used technology stores and took out classified ads. He spent the next 27 years worrying that the Osborne "One", made in 1981, was gone forever.
It wasn't. Officials of UCLA, to which the computer had been donated, say the same computer reappeared this January. But the tale doesn't end there. University officials have discovered that once somebody is smitten with the love of an Osborne, taking it away is like wresting a baby and found a photograph of an Osborne portable with similar scratch marks on the case and keyboard. It was the "One", an Osborne I portable computer. A bigger shock came a week later when the customer picked up the computer. Mr. G. and the customer searched an antique computer registry and saw the computer listed as stolen from UCLA.
The customer was computer buff Rachel S., who says she got the computer as a legacy of her deceased aunt. She says her aunt, who helped run a cyber services store, kept the computer in a closet for years before her death. Where the aunt got the computer isn't known, Ms. S. says, but one piece of family lore had her picking it up beside a freeway on-ramp after mistaking the contoured case with a rare portable sewing machine.
Ms. S. contacted UCLA, but over the next 10 months declined the university's pleas to surrender the computer. Also Ms. S. didn't appreciate the unannounced visit to her home in May by two campus police officers who, she says, threatened to arrest her and told neighbors she was a theft suspect. When they reappeared last week to serve civil court papers, Ms. S. wouldn't leave her locked car. She now is staying at a hotel.
computer has been photographed in Japan, but nobody will tell him who has it. "I have no desire to use any other computer," he says. "It became part of me, and I became part of it."
Ms. S. used her mystery computer for the first time in January. It was "nostalgic," she says, "eclectic and noisy." It even helped her understand things she hasn't been able to make her new agent do. "There are things I can't do on my own i-appliance, but I can do it on that portable computer," she said.
During a recent telephone conversation with Roman P., a curator for UCLA, Ms. S. asked if less-accomplished system wrights or hacks might be allowed to use the computer. And she wondered "if there is any possible legal way I could keep it."
There isn't, says Celine S. a computer re-storer and lawyer retained by the university. If the One was stolen "you can't get good title from a thief," and if it was found, the finder would have had to try to locate the owner.
But Ms. S. notes in a court filling that she wasn't the finder, and
from its mothers arms.
Osborne Computer Company of California, made thousands of portable computers, a few of which still survive. After the company went bankrupt in 1983, factories churned out thousands of copies. And every day, people bring old portable computers to appraisers, thinking they have bought a genuine article for a song. To break the bad news to such would-be millionaires, Los antique computer dealer, Ryan C. shows them an image of a 1985 issue of Byte magazine advertising a clone [I know you know I exercised my literary license in this paragraph as no Osborne clones exist].
But James G., an antique computer dealer in Pealuma, Calfornia, says that when a new customer left a portable computer, bearing an Osborne label, in his shop last January he thought he was looking at the real thing. The slight ruggedness of the case, the spontaneity of the boot screen, and the thrum of the single-density, 5" floppy drives suggested that only Osborne could have manufactured this computer.
He browsed his copy of Domestic Commercial Computing Power Between 1950 and 1990 And the One is in hiding. UCLA lawyers tried to get an injunction Friday in Superior Court in Los Angeles to force Ms. S. to disclose the location. Instead, university officials settled for Ms. S.'s offer to bring the computer today to a neutral museum, where it will stay, unused while the court decides who owns it.
All the fuss is over a computer that by one estimate is valued at $800,000 - a quarter of what the best Osbornes fetch.
Even an Osborne in mediocre condition can be inspirational. System wright W. Terence M., who used the One in the '60s, wrote a novel whose main character was the computer. Of the One he says, "It’s neat, it’s mellow, it’s strong, it responds to every notion one has."
Computer buffs can have sticky fingers with such computers. One New York system hack waited until he was on his deathbed in 2285 to reveal that the Poquet computer he "played" for years was stolen from the Commercial Computing Museum nearly a half-century earlier. And Dominic S. is losing hope of writing prose on his 1984 Convergent Technologies Workslate, which disappeared three decades ago. Mr. S. said the
that several lawyers have told her she might have a claim to the computer. Attorney Amos H., who represented her in Friday's hearing, said later that the computer could have been stolen centuries before UCLA ever got it.
Ms. S. insists she only wants what is right for the computer. The university "lost it one," she says. "They're really not careful."
Mr. P. - who complains that Ms. S. is taking the university "for a ride" - says UCLA will be extremely mindful of the computer if it’s returned.
* Don't laugh, things like this really do happen. I once drove off with a DG/One (1984) on the roof of my car. Thought I'd never see it again. Later that day a UPS dispatcher called my office to explain they had my portable computer. An honest and generous UPS driver picked my DG/One up from the middle of a busy street and tracked me down using the ID on the carrying bag. By the way, it still worked.
There - that's my version. What can we gleam from this story? I can think of two lessons. Keep accurate ownership records and keep your computers off the roof of your car.
Ownership (lineage, pedigree, genealogy, provenance) is just one of the reasons why you should keep accurate records about your collection. When we are able to properly insure our collections ownership papers are essential. Also a record of the serial numbers are very helpful when trying to reclaim stolen items.
Another reason is to simply make it manageable. For instance someday another collector (or museum or movie company or lawyer) might have an urgent need for a such’n’such to complete an important project or exhibit. You have one, but because you acquired it several years ago and haven’t seen it since (because it’s buried underneath a pile of other important things, but that’s a story for Chapter 8 - Storing) the urgent request goes unanswered. What good is it if you don’t know you have it? Much worse is the missed opportunity to sell something because your own memory can’t cope with remembering everything you have in your collection.
Aside from these practical reasons, keeping accurate records increases the value (historical and financial) of an item. For instance, without proper records how would you prove that the GRiD (1982) laptop you own was one of the laptops that went into space strapped to the flight console during early space shuttle missions? Without proof that is complete and organized such claims are mere hearsay like the fisher’s story about the “big one that got away.”
Obtaining and keeping information, both mundane and vital, about your collection is what cataloging is all about.
What should be cataloged?
Everything you collect should be cataloged. My IBM 360/22 (1971¨ ) consists of a CPU (with an operator’s console), channel controller, disk controller, printer, paper carts, disk drives, card reader, card punch, keypunch, card trays and racks, cabling, documentation (hardware, software, and operating), boxes of object decks, and disk packs. This list generates about 100 entries in my catalog. How so? Each obvious piece of hardware is cataloged and so is each manual and the documentation rack that the service manuals are carted around in, and so is the table that attaches to the CPU to form the operator’s console, etc. etc.
Absolutely everything in your collection should be in your catalog.
This can be a daunting task so consider developing some “data reduction or refinement” rules. A rule could be treating printed circuit boards in desktop computers (micros) and minicomputers differently than mainframes. It’s not just because a mainframe has hundreds, or thousands, of individual PCBs, but because the PCBs would have been made by (or for) the manufacturer and they would only work with a specific system. On the other hand, PCBs in minis and desktops could be optional boards made and sold by manufacturers other than the computer manufacturer. The PCB rule would then be don’t catalog individual PCBs in mainframes and don’t catalog PCBs installed in a minicomputer or desktop computer if the PCB is part of the standard configuration for that model and they were made by or sold by the manufacturer of the computer.
Another way of describing this rule involves harddisk drives. Control Data Corp (CDC). had a successful subsidiary that made printers and harddrives - peripherals. These products were sold to OEMs by every major mainframe manufacturer at one time or another. One such company was NCR. The 100MB harddrives NCR sold under their own name as part of their 8XXX (late 1970s) computer lines were actually made by CDC. They are not worth cataloging separately (i.e. under the name CDC), but they should be noted as such somewhere in the catalog.
What about unusual items like the shelves, boxes, or containers software documentation is sometimes filed in? They might not sound essential and that’s true, but then you must consider authentication. For instance the four manuals of The Smart Software System (1984) from Innovative Software once came in an elegant clear Plexiglas container. I would catalog this container separately because it is so distinctive. This means there would be five entries in the catalog - 1 for each manual (4) and one for the container. Now if the documentation also included a pocket reference guide there would be six entries because the guide would also be cataloged separately.
Software is an interesting beast to catalog because software has no physical form itself. It is stored on paper tape, punch cards, reels or cartridges of magnetic tape, disk platters or packs, diskettes (of various sizes), CD-ROM’s, or some form of non-volatile solid-state gadget (ROM or plug-in cartridges/cards). You catalog software not the media it was distributed on, but you must describe the media too and show how many of them (reels, boxes of cards, diskettes, whatever), there are.
In the case of the GRiD laptops used during early space shuttle flights, you should obtain written proof and then catalog the proof itself.
Once something is cataloged the catalog entry becomes part of the relic. The catalog should travel with it so records are accurate and provenance can be established.
Tell its story.
There is a good story behind every computer. Not necessarily a dramatic story, but one that adds character to your computer. If all else fails at least record the facts about what the computer was used for. Start with the basics. Was it used in a commercial, scientific, industrial, or residential setting? When was it installed/bought? When was it decommissioned/replaced? The more questions you ask, the more information you obtain that lead to even more questions and more interesting information.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. The massive control panel from a IBM 360/75 (1966) has every right to draw attention to itself, but the panel from one particular /75 has a real interesting story behind it. You wouldn’t know it by just looking at it. Dick Lathwell once worked for IBM (see also the annecdote in Chapter 3 - Sourcing). He was assigned to a project to complete an APL (A Programming Language) interpreter for a new computer. It would be the smallest commercial computer IBM had built to date. It was for the 5100 (1975) - the first model number in the IBM PC family, but the 5100 wasn’t called a PC - it was IBM’s first portable computer. Dick was given access to a monstrous 360/75 to develop the interpreter. As we all know Dick was successful.
This was the last project for this illustrious mainframe. Before the system was scraped, Dick discovered it was the first /75 ever built (serial number 2075-60001) and that it had seen time at the Manned Space Flight Center in Houston during the Apollo missions processing telemetry. After the moon missions, this remarkable mainframe was returned to IBM New York where it was a work horse for all sorts of projects including the APL interpreter for the soon to be announced IBM 5100.
Dick recognized the significance of this /75 so he rescued the control panel. As his team moved around within IBM he carefully moved it from building to building trying to display it so everybody could enjoy it. Eventually IBM told him to take it home because it was becoming cumbersome to move.
That’s a neat story and with a little effort you might discover your computer has an interesting past also. Commit the story to your catalog as fast as possible so nothing is lost or embellished over time.
How to catalog.
Catalogs are ideal applications for database software, but good old paper and file folders shouldn’t be ignored. Any database program will do the trick, but unless you have a laptop you can easily use wherever your collection is you will benefit from creating a cataloging form to record data on and then enter it into your computerized catalog afterwards.
There is no ideal or common record layout. It depends on what you collect. Due to the diverse nature of books, pin-on buttons, and computer systems you wouldn’t catalog them together. For instance, how would you define a single field in a database that would be suitable to identify them - books have titles, computers have model numbers while buttons don’t have titles or model numbers at all. No single catalog can accommodate all things, but your catalog should at least have the following sections.
Identification In this section you answer the question: what is it called? Today every collector knows what a C64 (1982 - Commodre Business Machines) is, but that will not always be the case. Really, it won’t be long and poof, there will be a brand new group of users (both young and old) who will think that computing started with the Pentium II. Things usually have official and unofficial names and other designations like model numbers.
Description Even though you have provided some description of the item in the identification section, you need to provide more detailed information including such data as physical measurements.
Timelines This is the when section. When did you receive it. When did you sell it. etc
Financial As we’ve learned, old computer stuff already has monetary value and will continue to increase in value. This is where you record how much you paid for it and how much you sold it for.
Provenance This is the story about where something comes from. There are two ways of looking at this. One, “who owned it?” and the other is “who made it?” For instance, did you know that the a UNIVAC 620i (1977) minicomputer was a Varian 620i (1970) until UNIVAC bought Varian Associates’ computer division in 1977, and that the Varian 620i was originally a Data Machines 620i (1967)until Varian bought Data Machines in 1970? This is an interesting story, but it isn’t what we’re talking about, we want to know about the people and companies who have owned it.
Use Computers are tools. They are used for some purpose. Explaining what the computer was used for forms a story. Sometimes the story is interesting other times the story is plain. It is important to understand that, as was discussed in the previous section, no matter how bland the story is, it is essential to forming a complete and useful catalog.
Anecdotes Anecdotes are colorful and cute tales, but they can also be about unfortunate and difficult to accept tragedies. This is the information that distinguishes your computer (or whatever) from any other one like it.
Restoration The computer you acquire might not appear to be the same computer you sell, trade, or donate. This section of the catalog is intended for you to chronicle the changes, repairs, and improvements you made while the computer was in your collection.
Here’s a sample catalog suitable for computer systems. You might want to sub-divide some of the fields. It depends on your goals and tastes.
Accession Number Professional archivists will love you if you use accession numbers. This is the proper term used in the museum and archiving community for the unique number assigned to every item in a collection. It is a simple un-encoded, sequential number. You should write it somewhere on the item. Use pencil for paper, marker for everything else.
Cross Reference To This field ties systems together. It contains the accession number of other cataloged items that belong to each other. Take my 360/22 (don’t you dare!) for instance, I would begin cataloging with the CPU and then every other item that was part of that system (acquisition) would cross reference back to it. The accession number of the CPU is in the cross reference field of each related item. Of course this approach doesn’t permit bi-directional searching, but you can fix that.
Category This could be a controlled vocabulary field. Divide your collection into categories perhaps using the ideas in Chapter 2 - What’s Collectible as your guide.
Proper Name This is the marketing name used by the manufacturer. For example, DEC never used the abbreviation DEC for product names. Thus a PDP 11/45 is actually a Digital PDP-11/45.
Common Name This is the name used by people in casual conversation. To continue with the previous example, the 11/45’s common name is PDP 11/45.
Made By This is the name of the company that built it. For instance, the Omega series (1977) of IBM 370 (1970) compatible mainframes (wild eh, several tonne/ton clones!) was built by IPL Systems, but not sold by them. This can be complicated by the fact some computers were designed under contract by a third party.
Sold By This is usually the name of the manufacturer, but not always. The CDC 480 (1977) product line was actually made by a company called IPL (see above - Made By). Likewise, UNIVAC’s line of portable computers were actually renamed off-the-shelf Olivetti portables.
Model # The name of a computer is not necessarily the designation used when ordering one. For example a Digital or DEC PDP-11/45 is really a model KB11.
Part # Typically computers (CPUs) don’t have part numbers, but the components used to make them do and you might acquire a spare parts inventory so here is where you would enter their precise part numbers.
Serial/System # This is very important for determining provenance. Almost everything has a serial number.
Description Here’s where you would provide details about the base unit and also the particular configuration you have. Base unit data would include clock speed, data path width. Configuration data would include RAM size and disk capacity.
Significance Your computer is obviously special to you, but it might also be held in high esteem by others for because it might be the first or last of its kind. Record any distinctive characteristics of the computer.
Condition Describe the internal and external state of the computer. Does it work? List any missing pieces. Use terms from Chapter 4 - Appraising when actually describing the condition.
Markings To help define the purpose of this field let’s pretend we’re renting a car. The last act you and the rental agent perform before you drive away is to do the “walk around.” This is done to record any unusual spots or missing accessories that existed before you rented the vehicle so the agency won’t hold you responsible for them. The intention of this field is very similar except you don’t record missing parts or features. Instead you record something like “a famous computer scientist’s name is etched inside the cover.”
Physical Characteristics This is the mundane but important data. Characteristics such as height, length, depth, weight are recorded here, and remember to indicate the measurement scales you used. A photograph or sketch might be helpful too.
Date Received Self-explanatory.
Date of Last Valuation As the market fluctuates you can record the estimated value of your computer and this field would indicate the date the valuation took place.
Date Sold Self-explanatory.
Purchase $ Self-explanatory.
Value $ Enter the estimated market value here.
Selling $ Self-explanatory.
Previous Owner(s) List the previous owners in last-owner-first order. Record the personal and company (if relevant) names, address, and phone number.
Previously Owned Dates Record the from and to dates in the same order you recorded the previous owners.
Previous Use(s) In order of previous owners describe what the computer was used for.
Anecdotes In order of previous owners, record any interesting information that doesn’t fit into any other field. Each owner might have an interesting story to contribute.
Restoration Log In the form of a log or journal explain what restoration work you did to the computer. Show any expenses incurred. List any parts or supplies purchased for the work and provide some data about the suppliers. A series of before and after photographs would be an appropriate addition to the collection and catalog.
You might even want to gather data about the buyer and include it in your copy of the catalog.
You should exchange most information about the item when it is sold or donated. In fact, now that you are an enlightened collector, you should ask for such information when you buy something.
The best time to do your cataloging is before you put whatever it is into storage. My tendency is to move new acquisitions into storage immediately and promise myself to do the cataloging later. Not only is it a hassle dragging things out of storage, but you risk damaging it. Since it is a hassle dragging things out of storage, it is easy to postpone and this decision only exacerbates the problem because we are all susceptible to false memories. Be a good computer collector, catalog new acquisitions before storing them.
When serious collectors gather, one of the most common themes of the most urgently swapped stories must be storage. Most profilees mentioned storage and I know it’s always been my bain.
At one point in time my collection was spread all over Kitchener, Ontario. I had a Honeywell Level/6 mini, an IBM System/34 (1977), and all assorted peripherals and supplies, plus 10 skids of various control panels, desktops, portables, accessories, and books in rented storage space in a “ware”house. I also had about 10 large boxes of IBM desktop software and service manuals in a friends unused indoor pool room. I had a DEC PDP-9 in our garage. I had an IBM 2742 in the store room at a friend’s appliance parts shop. I had 20 Wyse terminals (boy they stack nicely) and many boxes of NCR operators manuals, for a NCR 8450 I was supposed to get, in a good friend’s garage. I had the 9-track tape drives and rack mounted hard drives for that same NCR system in an unused room where I worked - HP, Waterloo. Some of you might say, “boy, was he industrious.” Others, and these are the ones I would agree with, might say “what a disorganized nutcase.”
This appears to be such a simple topic that would be laden with commonsense so why discuss it? We should at least breach it because commonsense isn’t as common as one might believe. The more important reason is the amount of attention professional archivists and curators give the topic. There are, in fact, entire conferences about protecting collections from mold (mildew). There must be something more about this topic than meets the eye. Please take the time to do your own research on this topic and perfect the best storage system for your collection.
You must be organized and picky to properly store your collection, in fact, you should grow your collection in proportion to available storage space. In other words, don’t acquire more than you can reasonably store. The resulting frustration can easily damper the spirits of even the most enthusiastic collector. Once space is available, it’s not just a matter of filling it you must ensure the conditions are suited to what you are storing and you must prepare each item for storage.
Where are good places to store computers?
You can store computers and computer collectibles in houses and apartments (preferably your own), garages (preferably your own), or rented lockers or “ware”house space. Your home, apartment, or garage is ideal, but like weeds, computers can soon take over any unused space. If you do use your home, try to store your collection in the form of an exhibit. This will give it an aesthetic appeal that might subdue the clash between your interior decorations and a pile of old computer stuff. It will also make each item in your collection within easy reach.
It is tempting to store your collection anywhere, but consider your needs. How frequently will you need access to the collection? When will you need access to your collection? How much free space (isle or work space) do you want/need? Do you need electricity? Imagine how aggravating it is to have cheap storage, even free storage, but you are limited to when you can get to it because your landlord is a friend or relative and you don’t want to intrude, or your rental agreement doesn’t include a key.
Avoid space with water or steam pipes threading through it.
Your goal is to find the right place where you can protect paper, magnetic media (including audio and video tapes), optical media (CD-ROMS and laserdisks), photographs and movie films, microform (film and fiche), static sensitive components, metal, plastic, and wood (yes wood as in the North Star Horizon (1977) and others) from decay and damage by humidity, heat, moisture, light, smoke, body oil (finger prints), magnetic fields, X-rays, pests, molds, and dust.
The goal is achieved by finding space that is clean, dry, dark, ventilated, and consistently cool. Maintaining a stable temperature is important, but virtually impossible if you use your uninsulated garage or rented storage lockers. Sometimes the entrance and exit to a locker is a big garage door that opens outside. Computers are hearty and if you move them carefully, they will make it through tough winters and blazing summers. Depending on your locale, garages are just a temporary storage option.
Some of the problems are solved by common sense while others are tricky and deserve discussion. Handling a pest problem or protecting your collection from potential floods are therefore omitted.
Paper, removable and nonremovable magnetic media, and photographic material are especially susceptible to the environment, but entropy is inevitable so over time known chemical processes will render them useless or magnetic fields weaken scattering and loosing data. Remember storage media are consumable supply items that are not meant to last a long time; you must work at increasing the longevity of paper, and magnetic media.
Try to keep the storage environment to within the following recommended temperature and relative humidity ranges:
Paper 65-70ºF - 18-21ºC 45%
Magnetic Tape and Disks (all kinds) 65-70ºF - 18-21ºC 45%
Photographs 65-70ºF - 18-21ºC 45%
Microform (fiche and film) 65ºF - 18ºC 35%
Preparing for storage
What are the four elements of successfully storing something? They are: packing, labelling, stacking, and covering. The stacking part doesn’t apply to most hardware.
A special trait of hardware is the insulating foam you might find inside door/cabinet panels and especially covering fans. It is used as a filter, insulator, and as sound-proofing. This foam deteriorates and either becomes gooey or flaky so search your hardware for foam and remove it before storing.
Not to be outdone, software demands some special attention also. It is best described through the following cliché: I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that you have a complete copy of an ancient operating system. Hooray! The bad news is that you have only one copy of this incredibly important piece of software. To avoid the often arduous search for software for your particular computer, you should make copies of software right away.
A variation of Murphy’s Law applies to packing. Given a fixed amount of space you will fill it once, acquire more computers, and miraculously that same space now contains all the old stuff plus the new stuff. How did you do it? By shoving, squeezing, pushing, and by risking significant damage to your collection. When packing make sure the contents of a box are snug so sudden movement doesn’t damage the contents, but not so snug that there isn’t breathing space between the items in the box.
Use small boxes for small items. You might also be able to use some of your collection. For instance if you have a 9-track tape rack and reels of 9-track tape you’ll save space using the rack for its intended purpose.
Always store tape (VHS, cassette, 9-track, etc) vertically, like books in a library, so the weight of the tape is supported by the hub of the reel/cassette. Always keep storage media (including punched paper tape), in protective containers.
Packing printed material in plain plastic bags keeps them clean, but if you pack them too tight the ink might stick to the plastic. A tight packing job also reduces ventilation and, as you now know, still air breeds all sorts of nasty things. Inserting a stiff, acid-free paper backing is another good idea when packing letters, brochures, pocket reference cards, magazines, etc.
Here’s a suggestion for the serious collector. If you have the original box for an item and the box is unique you should pack the box separately from the item. Some boxes have photographs of the items and use wild colors and graphics all of which can be ruined in an instant by handling the box.
Next identify the contents of a box/container/rack/cabinet so you can easily locate things when they’re needed. I have several DEC racks out of reach, surrounded by all sorts of boxes with paraphernalia and books. My dilemma is that I don’t know if I have an 11/40 or 11/45 in one of those racks and I won’t know until I move everything around it. Oops - I guess you know how I learned my lesson on labelling.
The easiest way to label a box is to write the accession number on it. If the box/container, etc. holds several items list each accession number on a sheet of paper and attach it to the box.
Before you begin stacking, create a breathing space by laying out strips of wood on the floor. Also leave space between stacks and outside walls, and sometimes it is helpful to create breathing space between boxes in a stack.
As you know, dust isn’t just annoying, it can permanently damage magnetic media so just before you turn out the lights of your storage space cover everything with cloth. We’ve given a new life to all your old bed sheets. Try to control the movement of dust by keeping any doors and windows shut.
You are not done. There are several preventive maintenance measures you should follow. Magnetic tape and diskettes requires special attention. Even though you have carefully packed your magnetic media, labeled the box(es), stacked them with precision, and covered them, you must haul them out every once and a while and give them some exercise. This job is often called “refreshing”. Refreshing means unwinding and rewinding tape, or giving your diskettes a good spin.
There are 9-track tape cleaners so if your collection includes one this would be the ideal time to test it. Likewise an old computer (or computers in case you have a variety of diskette sizes) could be used for refreshing diskettes.
Actually you’re still not done. I recommended you start with clean storage space and then keep it that way. Don’t sweep or wipe the dust and molds around because molds can be harmful to your health. Don’t just move them out of sight - get rid of them with a vacuum. Good housekeeping is not an inborn skill for many of us so here’s another reason why collecting computers can be good for you personally. Keeping your collection clean and in order might give “messies” the experience they need to organize the rest of their lives.
Computers are tools and intended to be used. Computers are, these days, also seen as consumables. Does it come as a surprise then that we would need to talk about restoration and repair? The very nature of computing forces lots of wear and tear on hardware, accessories, documentation, etc.
Then again there’s the computer (or computer stuff) that isn’t needed anymore or doesn’t work anymore, but for a variety of reasons, it isn’t thrown out or sold, instead it is just put out of sight.. There it gathers dust or mold, or is used as a door stop, printer stand, or is cannibalized for spare parts - you get the picture.
The idea of restoring an old computer back to its original beauty doesn’t need justification. Repairing a broken, old computer and make it run again is debatable. There is a split camp within the community of computer collectors. Some of us don’t mind owning computers that don’t work. Some of us can’t stand owning a computer that doesn’t work. I will not attempt to bring closure to this debate, but if you can’t or don’t want to fix a broken, old computer don’t fret - savor the visual delight. On the other hand, if you can repair computers and discover one that can be fixed but the owner hasn’t, remember, you have no right to get upset. There’s no harm being done.
Perhaps people who prefer working systems should also be called tinkers. Perhaps a tinker collects only to provide more things to tinker with. A tinker is gifted with innate diagnostic skills and a natural understanding of digital electronics and operating systems. In fact there are many tinkers who don’t collect, but who enjoy fixing old computers as much as we enjoy collecting them. We should endorse these people with our business and encourage others to develop expertise with old computer hardware and software. The information in documentation can only take you so far then you need sound, practical experience, so it behooves us to support people with such skills and talents to be around when we need their services.
As was the case with the topic of storing your collection, restoration deserves an entire book instead of this brief coverage. Please take the time to do your own research. You will find the names of several organizations dedicated to restoring old computers in Appendix A - Resources - Where to go for more information and as you spend more time in the hobby you will learn about techniques perfected by others such Doug Jones’ (Doug’s profile is in Chapter 2 - What’s Collectible) famous article on repairing DEC handbook bindings.
Does the restoration task ahead of you seem insurmountable? Need some encouragement? Take heed in the example of the Computer Conservation Society’s (CCS) Working Parties. Since the Society’s inception in 1989 members of the Society have fully restored and made operational many old systems including British Pegasus (1956) computer.
CCS members tend to be people who actually worked on the computers being restored. This does give them an advantage, but their experience isn’t essential to the task. The almost famous saga of a Lawrence Wilkinson proves this point. In 1981 he didn’t know what an IBM 360/30 (1964) was yet by December 1982 he had resurrected one and got it working. You can do it too.
Please heed the following warnings before proceeding. Be advised - cleaning computers can be bad to your health because you are dealing with contaminants and chemicals. To go beyond cleaning and making cosmetic repairs requires sound technical knowledge of electricity and electronics. Repairing old computers can be dangerous - be safe, don’t do it unless you know what you’re doing.
Your job now is to remove all sorts of stuff from all sorts of stuff - molds from documentation sleeves, water marks from CD-ROMS, tarnish from plastic or metal hardware cases/covers, gooey remains of tape from keyboards, etc.
You must accept the health risks of working with dusty, moldy, smoky, dirty things and the chemicals you might use to remove them. When cleaning mold-covered materials you should work outdoors. Older computers might have been built before the ecological movement enlightened us about the damage we were wreaking on the environment and ourselves so beware of chemicals that seep out of cabinets and treat them carefully. They could be toxic.
Making a habit of wearing surgical gloves when you clean your computers is a good one to start. It serves two goals. Gloves will protect your and you will protect what you’re working with, especially optical and magnetic media, and paper (i.e. books, empire, punched cards, etc.)
Question: what do plastic and metal surfaces of computer covers, cases, or cabinets and kitchen fridges have in common? They’re all great for taping things onto. You might find instructions for gaining access to a now defunct on-line system on your collectible computer or something like that. These notes might be useless or they might be a significant part of the history of the computer - remember Chapter 6 - Cataloging. You might be able to pull the tape off without leaving any residue, but usually tape leaves a gooey mess behind.
How do you safely remove sticky residue from tape? How do you clean smoke from plastic surfaces? How do you restore the original color of plastic surfaces or remove grease pencil markings? Chemicals that’s how. I do not recommend any of the following products, nor do I have any practical experience with any of them, but they come highly recommended and they form a starting point for you to begin experimenting.
Brand Name For
Touch of Oranges stickiness, crayon and
grease from any surface
3M GP Adhesive Remover for stickiness
Purple Stuff for discoloration
Fulcron for discoloration
Antistatic Foam Cleaner for discoloration/markings
Cameo Copper Cleaner ink/marker
I don’t want to appear fastidious, but discriminating computer collectors prefer to use authentic parts and software. At least make every effort to source and acquire them. Substitute parts and software are sometimes just not an alternative due to product specifications. When substitute parts will work, use them as a temporary solution only and continue searching for the original ones.
We all know that someday authentic parts, software, and documentation will have withered away, but that’s a different story. After that point in time you will be considered clever using or developing substitutes, but until then attempt to use the authentic parts.
Before you switch it on...
Working safely and properly with electricity and electronics isn’t something you can learn in a short chapter in a book about collecting computers. The following discussion is intended to give you a glimpse of the scope of the job and shouldn’t be interpreted as guidelines.
Before you switch on your latest acquisition you should first give both the exterior and interior a thorough cleaning. Next inspect all electrical connections and circuitry.
What should you look for? Look for:
· evidence of smoke, water, or corrosion;
· loose screws;
· cold (broken) solder joints;
· bent pins;
· blown or missing fuses;
· melted capacitors;
· burnt resistors;
· whatever else is suspicious and
· whatever else is appropriate for the hardware you are working on.
After the inspection, remedy each problem. If you discover traces of smoke or water you should inspect the area thoroughly looking for causes and closely checking near-by components for damage. Basically then you tighten the screws, straighten the pin, replace or install fuses and any other components.
Another good practice is to remove and re-seat all components that aren’t soldered to the printed circuit board, and do the same for all boards plugged into the bus/backplane/motherboard (e.g. remove and re-seat a modem card). Next do the same thing for all inter-board connectors (ribbon cable, etc.). Then clean all pin and edge connections before you re-seat them. Pink erasers do a good job on edge connectors and toothbrushes can be used on pin connectors.
Next try to make a copy of the contents of any EPROMs, ROMS, and PALs. You must have special equipment and knowledge to do this.
Finally make sure the power supply works properly. Do this by disconnecting the power supply from the rest of the hardware and attaching a dummy load to it. Plug it in and listen for loud humming or other unusual or unexpected sounds coming from the power supply.
After you switch it on
After booting your computer for the first time listen to the hard disk drives. If they squeal you might have a mechanical problem. Next proceed to exercise any diskette drives. Format a diskette in each drive and write and read files to and from each drive before you try to read any diskettes containing valuable data or software.
Next you must check for unexpected data on any storage devices or media. It often happens that the last owner isn’t the last user and the last user didn’t erase or remove all the data that should have been removed. I once acquired a CADO Tiger (mid 1980s) from a man who explained he acquired it from a rural hospital. He was warned by the hospital it might still contain private records. This should have surprised me, but it didn’t. Such is privacy in the Information Age.
If and when files containing someone or some company’s data is found on the used computer you call your own, you should destroy them immediately.
Interesting things to do with old
There will come a time when you will find, or be offered, an old computer and, for whatever reason, you decline. This unnatural condition can be treated by offering to help the current owner find a good home for it. There will also come a time when you’ve got as many somethings as you’ll ever need and every other collector you know is equally well stocked. So what do you do when you come across another one? This chapter is best used when you encounter those situations, although I highly recommend reading it now because of the useful and creative ideas you’ll find in it.
Some of us are never at a loss for ideas of what to do with old computers. That’s because we’re entrepreneurs. I encourage you to work at making those ideas materialize, but let me tell you about some recent experiences about trying to commercialize old computers.
Remember Tony Cole’s purchase of some old Cray hardware (see Chapter 4 - Appraising). He originally hoped to sell the systems to someone with the means to spend lots of money collecting supercomputers. He didn’t find any prospects so he became a merchandiser of relics from the history of computing. He’s been selling circuit boards for several years now; in other words they’re not selling like hotcakes.
Another example is about reprinting documentation. A while back I visited a friend who recently bought a 1957 Corvette. In his house I found a stack of recently published reprints of all the GM manuals about the Corvette. What a great idea eh. I’ll do the same for old computer documentation. I contacted IBM Canada only to discover, they haven’t yet taken any manuals off their price lists. Yes, that means, if you have the part number, you can purchase a new copy of most manuals. Even though I failed others, like Doug Jones (profiled in Chapter 2 - What’s Collectible) have succeeded by making agreements with manufacturers to make a few authorized copies of selected old manuals.
Then there’s the media conversion game. I’m an advocate of good’ole paper as the ideal medium to store important information. In fact, I went on TV to say so. The theme of the 1995 vignette, broadcast over the Canadian Television Network (CTV), was intended to make people aware of the problem of keeping pace with new, tiny, high density mediums. What most people don’t know is that it also means keeping old reading hardware if you’re not planning on converting files every time a new and improved technology becomes common. We collectors are in a good position to provide such services because we have the hardware and the knowledge to make the old reading devices work.
If all else fails and the computer must be put in the garbage be aware that, due to ecological concerns, you might not be able to just throw it on the garbage heap. Each province, state, county, and country have their own by-laws you must observe. This movement coincides with the computer industry’s move to make more easily recycled hardware from safer, more ecologically friendly materials.
The ideal thing to do with working yet unwanted computer hardware and software is to give it to someone who could benefit from them but can’t afford to buy them. These deserving souls are students and the employees or volunteers of non-profit organizations such as schools, libraries, and charities. You can either distribute old computers to such organizations by yourself or through non-profit agencies. One such agency is Computers for Schools and Libraries Program, in Ottawa, Ontario. Check for a similar agency near you.
Don’t be alarmed or frustrated if your offer of free and usable stuff is turned-down. Think about it for a moment. Do we want our children to learn WordStar on a 286 or Word97 on a GUI? When discussing the reuse of old computers the arguement “something is better than nothing” is only partially true. For one thing working with wretched, old technology can discourage instead of encourage future use of any computer and if we believe our school’s goals include preparing students for the workplace, we would be helping our students to fail.
The problem with old technology in charities centers around training and capabilities. Usually people learn about computers at work and competitive businesses try to stay up-to-date so you might have willing volunteers who don’t know how to use the old systems.
Old technology might also isolate an organization by not having the minimum capabilities of most other systems used in government or related organizations. Email is the simplest example. If you can’t get on the Internet because your thrifty executive director accepted a donation of 20 286-based (1982) systems you might be forced to do more work to compensate for the lack of access to email.
Then there’s the practical aspect of maintenance. Say your ingenious organization finds a way to thrive using the old technology. We might even say it becomes dependent on it. Then one day something breaks down and needs parts to fix it. Unless you have spares you might wait a long time before the old computer is fixed.
Even hardware that doesn’t work or just parts of systems are useful to somebody. Conestoga College, a community college in Kitchener, Ontario accepts all sorts of electronic gear. Students strip parts off the donated hardware to use in class projects.
Dear reader, you will appreciate this section more than most, because you already think computers are just neat in and of themselves. Well can I interest you in a statue of a tiger made from spare wire, capacitors, resistors diodes, ICs, and LEDs? You can also make eagles, elephants, whatever you have the mind and spare parts for. Honeywell Information Systems hired a number of artists in the 1970s to make such beasts that were used in colorful full page ads in Datamation. Imagine all the fun you could have working with thousands of tiny, colorful pieces.
There is a popular line of clipboards and binders made from unused printed circuit boards that are sold throughout North America. Earrings made from ICs are in vogue and dangling resistors are very chic. Everybody now knows about using hollow dumb terminal or Mac cases for kitty litter boxes or fish bowls, but what about a coffee table made from single platter disks? In my Computer Room you won’t find a working or even complete computer, but you will find that everything, except the chairs, are made from parts of old computers. The end tables are empty IBM RS/6000 (late 1980s to present and DEC Pro-350 (mid 1980s) cabinets. The bookends are exposed 5 1/4” harddrives with wood bases. The food keeper is the cover normally used to protect a 10 platter disk pack, and on and on. You can do fun, goofy, and useful things with old computers. Give it a try.
A group of employees at Oak Ridge National Labs have applied the saying “there is power in numbers” in a very creative way. They have successfully built a massively parallel processor (MPP) from unwanted 486s (1989). Called the Stone SouperComputer (that’s right “soup”) and it is used regularly. To techies this appears to be a novel idea, but to a funding-starved researcher this is a blessing.
I believe another socially significant role for old computers is as a fund raiser. The Boston Computer Society (BCS) once used old computers in such a role. The BCS shuttled several large, mainframe-type cabinets into a courtyard in downtown Boston and let people beat them to a pulp with a sledge hammer. Each hammer yielding individual at a few dollars for a few whacks. Computers already suffer from a bad rep, but I offer the following two alternatives and remember folks, you heard it here first.
Ever thought what you could do with empty PC cases/cabinets? I hadn’t either until I needed a special outdoor event for techies. It was never held, but I think it would be fun to hold a contest similar to the collegiate sport of seeing how many freshman you could stuff into a phone booth. Why not have corporate teams competing to see how many PCs (empty PC cases) they can stuff into a phone booth? There is an art to it because they’re not all the same size and shape.
Or how about a variation of the 1950 TV contests pitting celebrities in a tense trial of culinary coordination. They were called celebrity bake-offs. Our computer version would be called celebrity make-offs. The goal would be to see who, among several CEOs or managers, could assemble a 286 and be the first to boot and successfully list the directory of drive a:. You would spread all the components out before them (e.g. the case, the keyboard, the motherboard, a boot disk, etc.), give them a countdown, and watch them go to it. The strangest things could happen.
An Invitation to Budding Authors,
Artists, Photographers, and
There are many as yet untold stories about computers and computing. Most studies of the history of computing focus on either technology or high-profile corporations or entrepreneurs. As important as technology is and as dramatic as big business is, technology is merely a tool and most innovation, if not real work, isn’t done in the boardroom.
Without a proper and complete account of the practical, if not routine and mundane side of computing, its history would consist solely of a series of technological and economic leaps and bounds that highlight the machine and flaunt the buck instead of also recognizing the importance of the people, processes, and procedures that harnessed* and actually used the machine.
I want to help capture and preserve those stories. If you are interested:
· in writing your story;
· in writing a story;
· in drawing, painting, or photographing a moment in computing history or;
· in reading about the history of computing;
please read on and see how we might collaborate. This is exciting!
Dear Budding Authors:
Please contact us (get it? u for Unusual and s for Systems), if you have a story to write about the history of computing. Send us a sample of your work (published or unpublished, it doesn’t matter) and your idea. We’ll review it and discuss it with you.
* conceived, designed, built, serviced, programmed, and operated.
Dear Artists and Photographers:
If you are an artist and see beauty in an IBM 650 or an Apple Lisa, please contact us. Send us a sample of your work (a photograph or photocopy will do just fine). We’ll review it and discuss it with you.
Dear Anxious Readers:
If you enjoy reading about the history of computing and have discovered gaps in the present coverage of this history, or you have a request, or you have some topics you feel should be covered, please send your ideas to us and who knows some budding author might turn your idea into a weekend of reading enjoyment for yourself.
When it is written,...Brown, John Seely. To Dream the Impossible Dream. Communications of the ACM. Aug.’96.
A delightful book...Pop Culture Mania. Hughes, Stephen. McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York. 1984.
Ever heard of a gifted...Prisons We Choose To Live In. Doris Lessing. 1985 Massey Lecture. CBC Books. Toronto, Ontario.
Mr. Tomash recognized the...History and the Future. Datamation. 1979 May. P. 253.
A year later AFIPS published...Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials. American Federation of Information Processing Societies. 1979.
Readers of the August 1967...Wireless World Digital Computer. Wireless World. 1967 August. P. 366.
He acquired a Burroughs B205...Computers in a Barn. International Science and Technology. 1967 April. P. 18.
"He wanted to have pieces of everything... Computer Museum to be Established in Silicon Valley by 2000. John Bluck Astrogram. NASA Ames Research Center Employee Newspaper. 1996 November 11
The earliest story I have about...Used but Useful?. F. Barry Nelson. Datamation, 1970 October 1. P. 26. New York.
In 1984 computer memorabilia became... Pop Culture Mania. Hughes, Stephen. McGraw-Hill Publishing, New York. 1984. P 184.
This was also the year David Greelish...Historical Computer Society. Texas. August 1993.
One of the recent (1995) big...CALCULATE: Mechanicals for the cognoscenti. The Daily Telegraph. 1997 July 8. London, England.
Here's a true and wild story...CIO. Trendlines. November 15, 1992. P. 16
The faculty and staff weekly newspaper...UW Gazette. 1990 June 20. P.5.
The letter described how upset the writer was because he was still... UW Gazette. 1990 July 11. P.2.
DEC had a product called the Computer Lab and Bell Laboratories developed the CARDIAC. Digital Computer Lab Workbook. 1969. and email from Ethan Dicks 1998 August 18
He went over the see the place...Alex Zoghlin email sent to the author. 1998 August 16.
The documentary Triumph of the...PBS. 1995.
All the while and behind the scenes...IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Vol. 19 No. 4. 1997, Page 73.
“My personal best was finding a PDP-8/e...William Donzelli in an email sent to the Classic Computer List. 1997 June 21
“I have personally watched... Kip Crosby of the Computer History Association of California in an email sent to the Classic Computer List. 1998 May 13, 08:43:53
In 1993 Tony Cole of Hayward, California bought... San Francisco Examiner’s story quoted $15,000. The Oakland Tribune quoted $16,000 to $20,000. Silicon Valley News quoted a whopping $60,000.
The following terms originated in...email@example.com alias Captian Napalm. email to Classic Computer List. 1997 March 21.
Here’s an excellent example...from an email entry posted in ebay for item # 22281418 that was sold 1998 July 7.
Microfilm and Microfiche. Technical Leaflet. Northest Document Conservation Center. Andover, MA. no date.
Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling. Dr. J. W. C. Van Bogart. National Technology Alliance. June 1995.
Since the Society’s inception in 1989 ... Resurrection. Autumn 1995, P. 4..
The almost famous sag...posted to newsgroup alt.folklore.computer 1995 June 29
Classic Computer List FAQ. Available on the web.
If all else fails and the computer...When Computers Are Junked. The Futurist, July-August 1990. P. 7
Well can I interest you in a statue of a tiger.... Famed for His Menagerie. Datamation July 78 P.40
A group of employees at Oak...Making Soup from Stones. Troubleshooting Professional.(on WWW) 1998 May. P. 4.
The Boston Computer Society (BCS)
Computerworld. 1992 November 2. P. 12
¨ I make this claim after being told by both Michael R. Williams, Editor of the Annals of the History of Computing, and Doron Swade, Senior Curator specializing in Computer and Information Technology at the Science Museum in London that, to their knowledge, nothing has been done.
¨ Zilog Inc. was once a manufacturer of Intel 8080 compatible microprocessors called the Z80.
¨ These are all claimed to be the first electronic digital computers. All were built during the Second World War. The Colossus in England, the ENIAC in the U.S.A., and the Zuse III in Germany.
¨ ADP - Automatic Data Processing, EDP - Electronic Data Processing, DP - Data processing, MIS - Management Information Systems, IS - Information Services
¨ Topview was IBM’s original Windows competitor.
¨¨ Digital Research also developed and sold CP/M. GEM - Graphical Environment Manager - was their Windows competitor.
¨¨¨ Valdocs I - Valuable Documents - would work only on an Epson QX-10 (or a later model the QX-16). It was developed and sold by Rising Star. A special keyboard replaced the need for a mouse.
¨ SAGE - Strategic Air Ground Environment - AN/FSQ 7 was a military computer commissioned in 1955. Many were used in the original North Amercian Aerospace Defense - NORAD - system.
¨ Big Blue is a nickname for IBM. The IBM logo was blue.
¨ Because it’s impossible to pickup a something like a Honeywell 4200 (1965)!
¨ IBM announced the System/360 family in 1964, but the Model 22 was announced in 1971.