Welcome to our feature topic of Antique and collectible computers. The Computer Journal has a new structure that features or focuses our attention and pages on one of three topics. This issue's topic is Antique systems and in this article more specifically what makes a system an ANTIQUE.
North of San Francisco is Santa Rosa, and backing up to Highway 101 that goes through Santa Rosa is a sign advertising a local antique store. In rather large letters it says, "we buy Junk, but sell Antiques." That statement pretty much sums up the concept that one persons junk is another person's prized possession.
Now thinking that someone is just waiting with money in hand to take from you that old computer may or may not be true. Antiques comprise almost any item, and you can find books that list items and their current suggested collectors price. I recently checked one of the books out and found no listings for computers of any kind. So as far as the official collecting community is concerned, computers have yet to be discovered.
I think that may not even happen, since I consider the computer to be more like the automobile when it comes to collecting. Antique cars are a group of their own, requiring specialist in that area to know their worth and importance for others.
Antique cars are also still functioning, they can still full fill their original design, that being moving you from point A to point B. Any car of any age can do that, some just do it with more snap or flare. Computers are like that as well, they still can full fill their original purpose no matter how old they get.
I have compared the industries of cars and computers for many years, and the similarities seem to match up very well. A major difference is the automobile industry took over a hundred years to get to this point, while computers have covered the same technological bounds in less than twenty. A similarity is that both groups have new models each year that keep getting better, faster, and come with more features. The old models for the most part get recycled, unless there is some special appeal. It is that special appeal that gets people to collect them. I always wanted to acquire a Stanley Steamer because of the many unusual features that make the vehicle famous. It was extremely fast (in the 80-90MPH range) using steam when most gas cars were lucky to go 30 MPH.
My now collectible and encased in plexiglass Novix system is much like the Stanley Steamer. It is still extremely fast and was unbelievably fast when it came out. The design is very unusual since it is a Forth Engine designed by Chuck Moore who invented if you will Forth. The components are few, simple, and yet it can do incredible amounts of work with very little code. It reads and writes directly to floppy disks, outputs to printer or a Clone compatible monitor, and uses a clone keyboard. All this is on a two sided board with about ten chips and I believe the Novix itself used about 40,000 transistors which is extremely small in comparison to the million transistor CPU's in most systems these days.
The parameters for deciding if a system is an antique and worth having are much the same as might be used for deciding on a car. Almost all drivers have a special love for their first car. That first computer purchased for whatever reason seems very hard to give up. Thus your first system will most likely be your first item you collect. The parameter here is simple fondness and attachment to your coming of age, in this case not learning to drive a car, but drive a computer.
Can we assign a value to that system, generally not. I have watched a few of the collector TV shows, and someone always brings grandfather's what-you-call-it seeking to hear how many dollars it is worth. The host lets them down gently by saying it is priceless only to them and as such he can not put a price on it. Another way of saying it has no real monetary value, just sentimental value. So too for that first computer.
The next area of car collection is uniqueness. Certainly the first cars to ever be produced are very popular for collectors. Model A's by Ford have many groups that meet and tour all summer long. So too are some of the first computer systems of extreme value. I am certain that a Apple I would be a prize in almost any collector stable. In the same sense having a one of a kind or rather unusual car gets many a collector going. What comes to mind here is the Edsel by Ford. This most unusual car was a complete flop and thus having one or more makes you a most ardent of collectors.
So too would be my Novix as unusual, but there were many other early computers that were flashy, worked well, but flopped. Now if your first computer was an Altair, and you saved it, you have both rarity, uniqueness, and personal attachment. The dollars do start adding up.
One system that sold well and has some appeal is the Sol computer. These S-100 units came in a wood sided keyboard case with enough room for a small monitor to sit on top. This is Stan Veit's favorite system and you can see pictures of it and many other collectible systems, in Stan's book "History of the Personal Computer." (Order the book from Worldcomm at 1-800-472-0438.) For any collector this is a must have book since it is one of the few books that attempts to actually document the systems and the times they were built in.
While mentioning books, another is "A Collector's Guide to Personal Computers and Pocket Calculators", by Dr. Thomas F. Haddock. This is a great book as well, but doesn't have the personal stories that Stan's book does. It is much better however at providing a fairly complete list of machines and their features, with a resale value provided. Although printed in 1993, the PC/XT prices are all much too high, and yet the Altair was listed at $800-1200 which I consider accurate. Get your copy from Books Americana, Inc., P.O.Box 2326, Florence, Alabama 35630.
Now it is also at this point that we need to comment on what does not make a collectible system. Age alone is not a prerequisite, antique motorcycles are defined as being 15 years old and reflected the older designs which seldon lasted more than 10 years. Is it still 15 years, I do not know, but doubt it as the new motorcycles last so much longer. But then how long for computers since their life cycle is now considered in months not years?
At our last Forth meeting in Sacramento, the local Corvair club held their regular meeting next door. Now corvairs are certainly collectible for many reasons, but how about a Ford Fairlane club? I think it would seem a bit out of place. The reason being that almost all Fairlanes were stamped one just like another, flat, no zip, no features, mass consumable, designed to provide transportation, to be used, then disposed of. Unless your Fairlane had some special appeal or alterations, you most likely passed it off to some other user on it's way to be recycled.
I think few would disagree that the PC Clone systems of the last 10 years would fall into this group. Now I have and will put together an original IBM everything system, with a real 256K IBM mother board (although a 64K mother board would be better), and IBM labels everywhere. The reason for that being, first model sample, a collectible item. The no-name clones, their boxes, and boards however were massed produced and are much like the Fairlane, without flare.
Now don't get me wrong, these systems if still running, will provide good service and do what they were built to do. That is true of the Fairlane and the clones. That car will get you from point A to point B cheaply and reliably for many years after the dealers would like to have put you in the driver seat of a new model. The same is true of the clones, WordStar will still help you write that letter or report, with just as much speed and flare as it did five or ten years ago.
Here is where we separate the collector from the prudent buyer. A collector is looking for a system that meets one or more of the collectible guide lines. Those guidelines being age, uniqueness, history, or flare. The prudent buyer on the other hand is looking for a good buy that can be made to do more than originally designed for. A case in point is using old systems as backbones for alarm systems, or pump controllers. The old clones have replaced most collector's terminals and provide the extra feature of saving to disk the screen displays of the sign on to your prized antique system.
Last issue I touched lightly on what to do with these $10 systems and their boards. The I/O can be used in newer systems, or might turnout to be the original card you were looking for to complete one of those early collectible models. But by and large you will find little if any collectible value in these older units that have no-names of any kind on them. I rather doubt that clones will ever be worth much of anything, except at doing plain simple computing.
One area that is currently a problem with collectible systems, is the lack of documentation. Unlike cars which have been well written about, many of the older systems have no such written history. The systems were built with a different concept in mind, get rich quick and get out of the business. Many got out and few got rich and this all happened very fast, in less than ten years. Thus the documentation of these systems and their history has been a real after thought. I have also talked to many, who unfortunately want to forget it ever happened, and definitely not write about their blunders. I think the industry if you will is starting to move toward recognizing this problem and you will start to see some books and more articles by those who actually lived that time.
An important document problem is the users. When people bought these systems, little importance was placed on the owners manuals and software books. Much as many car buyers take the owners manual and file it away to be lost or trashed latter, so too are computer users trashing the manuals. As collectors, we need to try and get the word out that books, manuals, software listings, and old disks, are of value to collectors. I all to often find some one selling a system with no books or manuals. When asked about them, they usually say, "oh I threw those away before I came here, you mean you wanted them too? But why?"
Collecting and acquiring antiques is as much an educating process as it is a hobby or business. We have to educate the consumer as to what helps make a system a collectible (being in good shape with all boards, software, manuals) or an antique (all of the above plus rare and unique also). We do that by getting the word out, talking whenever possible on the topic, writing articles for local papers, and just shopping for that one special system you can't live without.
Here at TCJ we want to help people collect systems and enjoy the rewards that such a hobby can give them. Currently only a few systems are in demand by collectors. I have had two requests for Altair's, one for an Apple I, all pretty much indicated price is not an issue. As I said earlier, paying $1000 for an Altair now probably would be a good purchase. Two to three years from now, 10 or 20 thousand just might be the going price. Only time will tell.
What sort of support is needed. A forum for discussion, a place to seek documents or help, training and teaching material for doing repairs yourself, any other hobby projects that keep your skills sharp and sense of humor robust. That is pretty much our format as it sits now. The classic issue to focus on collecting and repairing older systems, some robotics and embedded work to sharpen your skills, and for humor we have supporting the PC/XT or "how to make a flop do real work."
As always, we want to hear from you and have you participate in keeping the topic alive. Internet is nice, but being in real print in The Computer Journal is even better. Try it! Send those letters, email, and stories about way back when for others to enjoy.
Bill Kibler talked a bit on his comments in this issue of TCJ about collecting computers as antiques. While we agree that one or two obvious and well-known computers (the Apple I and the Altair) have reached "collectible" status, we disagree on how far this might go. I remember a recent discussion with a person who makes quilts, a woman of 60 or so years. "Antique COMPUTERS? I can't imaging such a thing! Antiques are OLD - and computers aren't OLD?"
Well, that's one point. Cars go back 50, 100 years; other antiques much longer. But personal computers are maybe 20 years old, even less. Hardly "antiquated" except in a technological sense. You can still drive a car of the 1920's or 30's on the expressway; you can't run Windows on an IMSAI.
Computers as collectibles have other disadvantages. Documentation is hard to get, software harder. Parts are still around but getting scarce. And, the KNOWLEDGE to repair at the part level is getting thin. Many S-100 owners I know can't repair their machines - of course, some can and do, and design more stuff. That's the attraction of S-100 stuff to its users, even today. I might note that COLLECTORS don't use these machines - they want them for show. They like the Altair and IMSAI for the "blinking lights".
But for the real antique collector, a computer is TECHNOLOGY. Not much technology gets collected, and only that which is accessible to the common person: hand tools, radios, cars, and so on. Cars have quite a bit of technology, but so many people of the time were familiar with it, and it was part of the culture of the past. Today, a car is either a consumer item or a means to an end. Few people repair - shudder! - their own cars, yet car repairs occur so often that owners can also get parts and still fix their own cars. But computers are something you buy at K-Mart, so why keep an old one around? Why fix it when you can upgrade? And so on.
So the collectible S-100's will likely be the most popularly known stuff, the stuff that gets hyped. And, it must be rare. As for the machines and cards in demand by USERS, it will be those machines that were well-loved at the time and/or have some aesthetic value (Processor Tech SOL's are a good example), or machines that had considerable respect (Compupro, Cromemco, Morrow). My years of S-100 support are pretty much centered on these companies, because that is what is demanded. Other machines may stand out for different reasons in different parts of the country. Heath computers are well-known, but not so rare so far; and they don't break often anyway. Ithica Intersystems and TDL (Technical Design Labs from NJ) are popular here in the Northeast.
But as for COLLECTIBLE VALUE, the public perception of the Altair 8800 will put a value on it that exceeds any other S-100 machine; even though the IMSAI is a superior machine and probably had more impact in the industry and in personal computing. More recent machines were produced in greater quantity, and since value is inversely related to quantity, their value will remain low for some time.
Ask me again in 30 years, when the first Altair is 50.