Antiques and Computers - Part I
This dynamic business is influenced not only by the artisans and handicrafts of yesterday, but those events that continue to shape our world. Daily, as pre-industrial furniture and art are collected into near extinction, categories of out-dated old things assume a valuable new title to meet growing demand. Objects having both age and class become antiques.
Two relatively new tools, the computer and the microprocessor chip, will arguably prove to be the most important inventions in the history of mankind.
Young collectors should know that hundreds of thousands of interesting objects connected with this industry's continuing development are still available at affordable prices. Some haven't been invented yet! They can be found in our own attics, old store warehouses, even in junk piles. These future antiques include pioneer hardware like the first minicomputer; Digital Equipment's early 1960's, 250 pound, $20,000 PDP-8, and IBM's first portable; the IBM 5100 introduced in 1975, and Steven Wozniak's introduction to the market 1976; the little regarded at the time, $666 Apple I.
The study and collecting of early scientific antiques, like computing devices, can be as interesting as any rug or chair. For instance, Bill Gates describes in his book "The Road Ahead" a day when he stood in Harvard square with his friend Paul Allen. They were pouring over a description of a computer kit featured in a January 1975 edition of Popular Electronics Magazine. The $397 package consisted of lights, switches, and panels. It was little more than a novelty. One thing terrified them, however. The Altair 8800 was the first truly "personal" computer for it used Intel's newly introduced 8080 microprocessor chip for its brain. Intel Corporation had found a way fit the calculating power of a main frame computer onto a device that could be hidden under a postage stamp. Weeks before, Gates and Allen, wanting to be the first to write programming for the promising technology, wrote to every major computer company offering to write software in "basic" for the chip. They had no takers. Now, someone was using the Intel 8080 microprocessor chip in their computer. Would someone else take the lead and begin writing software for the Altair 8800? The article spurred them to action. Gates left college and joined up with Allen to start a small business. Soon, Microsoft was born. If you were one of the thousands who purchased the Altair 8800 kit, don't throw it away. Don't even discard your 1975 Popular Electronics magazine!
Outstanding precursors to the computer like pioneer calculators, adding machines, data processing machines, slide rules, and transistor and tube powered electronic equipment, will someday be housed in museums along side the ancient abacus.
Associated materials like the first issue of Byte Magazine, and early software and hardware promotional displays, and things connected to computer visionaries like British mathematicians Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and Alan Turing (1912-54) will be highly sought-after. Babbage, a forgotten giant in history, devised mechanical apparatuses proving his theory that machines could perform string related calculations and manipulate information if it was first converted into numbers. Turing helped the allies win W.W.II by developing programmable, electronic digital computers like Colossus like that broke enemy codes, and prepared the way for the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He and his colleagues' work at Bletchley Park, England, was so sensitive it was maintained as a military secret until the 1970's. Books, notes, letters, and products, associated with these inventors and their modern day counterparts will be cherished in future years the way we value the heirlooms associated to Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison today.
We'll talk more about computers and their effect on the antiques next week.