They always said it: computers are the antiques of the future. The sale of Steve Wozniak’s Apple 1 means the future really is here, and computing finally has a past.
The oak-panelled auction rooms of revered auctioneers Christie's have resounded for centuries to the sound of the hammer going down on countless artworks, antiques and valuable manuscripts.
Today, among the antiques and masterpieces, another important piece of cultural history is on sale – a circuit board. It's not just any circuit board. This particular printed circuit board was hand-built and soldered in a modest Californian garage in the evenings by a young programmer in his spare time nearly 35 years ago. It became the Apple 1.
Only a thousand were ever built and sold – and for $666.66 because the engineer who designed and built it, Steve Wozniak, liked repeating numbers. That modest piece of circuitry – which was the first personal computer – is sold for £110,000 as the star sale.
Wozniak himself is present, having flown in especially to witness his handiwork under the hammer.
'Wow,' he says. 'To see an organisation like this selling the most expensive artwork, furniture, manuscripts and that sort of thing, and see them actually become a power house in selling computer equipment, it really was an important step.
'I look back at that machine. I didn't even feel that way when I designed it. I got to look at it and I can say, 'Oh my gosh', the whole formula was actually there exposed and put out for the world.
'Here I had basically designed something to show off my talents at my computer club. People were amazed that you could get the cost down to that level. So the Apple 1 is really a trend setter. There were very few of them ever made.'
The winning bidder was an IT and dotcom entrepreneur from Turin, Italy. Marco Boglione is the founder and president of BasicNet, a company heading up'a group of industrial and services companies boasting many famous brands such as Kappa and Jesus Jeans. His brother Francesco is at Christie's to bid on his brother's behalf
'He loves computers. He is in his mid 50s now,' says Francesco who says that his brother plans to create a museum of computer history in his home town of Turin.
Originally an engineer by training, the entrepreneurial Boglione had been dealing with machines of this era as a student in the mid 1970s.
'When I was in my mid-20s in the 1980s I was spending more time in front of those things than listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.' The museum he plans to curate will be dedicated to the computer revolution of the last 40 years.
'A museum is good,' he says, 'if it's tied to a revolution.' Turin, a northern Italian city, already has a television museum, a radio museum and a museum of cinema. Computers, and aesthetically-driven Apple in particular, would be a good fit in fashion-conscious Turin.
'It's big money,' says Boglione, who says that he 'couldn't care less whether tomorrow a machine like this goes for more or less. I think it's good in Italy that there is such a historical piece, one of the best, in good condition'.
The idea of a piece of moulded plastics and outdated chips could be an antique on sale for hundreds of thousands of pounds is not that surprising, says Julian Wilson, spokesperson for Christie's.
'Many of those who were personally affected by the computer revolution are now at an age and are in a tax bracket where they can invest in their industry's own heritage,' he says, adding that he believes this this will be first of many high-profile computers from this era to come up for auction.
Cash in the attic?
What we all want to know is: what are the chances of that old Mac SE you had, the ZX81, Commodore Vic 20 or BBC Micro Model B being considered as a collectors item?
Well, while many of the earliest, prototypical computers (such as the original 1965 DEC PDP-8) ended up in the hands of Microsoft billionaires or institutions like the Computer History Museum, these items, although holding their value, were mass manufactured. The Apple 1 was not, and therefore to own one has a certain cachet (even if the cache is on the low side).
The secret is knowing how to separate the junk from the treasure. As with many antique items, 'displayability' is key – who's going to want to come and see it? Another factor affecting the price of vintage PCs is whether or not it's in good working condition and has all its accessories. Most importantly, it has to look good enough to impress visitors.
From this era there are a few items that were rarely produced which might deliver high bids in the world's auction house. For example, the MITS Altair 8800 (1975) and 680 (1976) kit computers, Apple IIs with low serial numbers (1977), Acorn Atoms (1981), and Apple Lisas (1983) – all these rarities and can run into several thousand pounds from specialist dealers or auction houses.
But it is the paper items related to the computer revolution that are likely to reach the highest prices. In 2005, at the Christie's 'Origins of Cyberspace' auction, a 1929 IBM maintenance manual, 'Care and Adjustment of Electric Tabulating Machines', sold for $840.
On 11 April 2005, Intel posted a $10,000 reward for an original, pristine 19 April 1965 issue of Electronics magazine where Gordon 'Moore's Law' Moore first saw his article 'Cramming more components onto integrated circuits' published. The hunt was started because Moore lost his personal copy after loaning it out. Intel ultimately awarded the prize to David Clark, an engineer living in Surrey, England who had decades of old issues of Electronics stored under his floorboards.
Of course, where there are auctions, there is culture at stake. At the same auction that Wozniak attended, a paper written over 50 years ago by the brilliant British mathematician, cryptologist and computer scientist Alan Turing failed to meet the reserve despite reaching bids of up to £240,000. It was expected to reach twice that.
Campaigners from Bletchley Park – Turing's wartime workplace and spiritual home – are looking to approach the owners directly and broker some sort of amicable deal that suits both parties.
A Web posting given by the campaign says: 'Well, there's good news and bad news: we didn't win the papers at auction – but neither did anyone else... currently awaiting a message from Christie's to find out what happens to the papers now.'
The campaign is looking to meet the '500,000 target, yet despite a '100,000 donation from Google it is still some way off. Therefore, if you want to support'the campaign, financially or otherwise, you can get involved in the campaign by visiting www.savingbletchleypark.org.