Just skimmed an article on classic computers in the Washington Post:
Mentioned were Sellam Ismail and Michael Nadeau. Heck let me quote the
thing and make sure I attribute it properly:
Geek Chic: Old Computers As Collectibles
Yesterday's State of the Art Is Now Regarded as 'Artwork'
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; C01
The year was 1986 and Bud Ballos was an eighth-grader, a proud owner of
a brand-new computer with what was to him "a weird thing" called a mouse.
Remember the Apple II? It was a fixture -- in the library, next to the
card-catalogue filing cabinet -- in many a middle school beginning in
"This was the start of the new computer, and at the time, I didn't
really know what it was," Ballos says of his very first desktop, its
screen no bigger than 7 inches by 5 inches, its color off-white, the
kind of plastic that starts to yellow after a while. In the early years,
not too many families actually had a computer at home. "I thought it was
cool. My friends thought it was cool. We'd look at it and go, 'Wow, all
Ballos is 33 now and goes by Thomas rather than Bud. He's a novice
collector and a random one at that: coins from the United States and
Canada, belt plates from the Civil War, Native American spearheads and
arrowheads, some of them 1,300 to 3,000 years old. They're all kept in
the garage of his Ashburn home, where the showpiece -- "I did my
homework on it; I played Donkey Kong on it; I brought it with me to
college," he explains -- is his Apple IIc.
You'd think Ballos would have trashed or recycled his childhood Apple,
but these days people are holding on to their first (and second, and
third) desktops and laptops. Some keep them for nostalgia's sake, others
for the kitsch value. Whatever the motivation, the urge to hang on has
turned yesteryear's outmoded computers into today's historic artifacts
-- giving them a growing value in the ever-so-hungry collectibles market.
From an early 1975 Altair 8800, named after a planet in a "Star Trek"
episode, to a 1981 IBM Personal Computer that a young Bill Gates helped
develop, what's on the collectibles menu covers a broadening taste. Some
of these computers are rare. Some are actually quite common and may be
sitting in people's basements right now.
Pepe Tozzo, author of the upcoming book "Retro Electro: Collecting
Technology From Atari to Walkman," puts the price of the Altair,
depending on its condition, between $930 and $2,785. But that's chump
change compared with the $72,000 that Lot 238 -- the eight-page typed
"Outline of Plans for Development of Electronic Computers," written in
1946 and regarded as the "founding document of the computer industry" --
brought at Christie's in New York in February.
Ten years ago, the mantra was that old computers were worthless --
smushed, forgotten, unbought in roadside yard sales. Today, the chances
of scoring undiscovered gems at Sunday flea markets, or thrift shops on
Nowhere Boulevard, or computer recycling centers on Faraway Street, are
still pretty good, but even casual collectors spend a great deal of time
shopping and researching online. There's Classic Tech (
) and the Obsolete Technology Website (
), to name just two sites, and of course
there's eBay, where on any given day dozens of vintage IBMs, Ataris,
Amigas, Apples, Commodores, you name it, are up for bidding.
On a recent Wednesday, with 4 days 7 hours left on a listing, the top
bid for an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer circa 1977 -- Matthew Broderick, in
the 1983 film "War Games," almost started global thermonuclear war with
one -- is $1,025. "I built it from kit and used for several years,"
writes the eBay seller. The bid started at $450.
Tony Romando, editor in chief of Sync, the men's magazine for the
gadget-obsessed, says there's a one-word reason why people collect old
hard- and software: cool.
"Who keeps an Apple II laying around? The hipster who owns a Treo cell
and a PowerBook G4 and an iPod but last month went out and bought a
rotary phone for his living room and sometimes walks around with a
Walkman for street cred," says Romando. He keeps his circa-1999 iBook --
the one that looks like a toilet seat -- in the basement, next to one of
those tiki lamps that repel mosquitoes. "Nobody's buying these old
computers for the technology. They're buying it for style. For a lot of
people it's artwork."
Sync runs a column in which a resident expert prices readers' electronic
treasures. To Ritesh Dulal of Lexington, Ky., who wrote in asking about
"a box full of Bell & Howell Apple II dinosaurs," Sync suggested that
instead of cashing in for an estimated $300 ("with appropriate
manuals"), he should hang on: "You never know when that Mac-crazed
hottie from work is going to drop by for drinks. You'll score with this
super-hip antique on your desk."
Apart from the hipness factor, Michael Nadeau, author of "Collectible
Microcomputers," a field guide of sorts for collectors, says holding on
to a vintage computer is about taking a stroll down memory chip lane.
"If you grew up in the late '70s, for example, and you used this
computer, the computer meant something to you," says Nadeau, who founded
the Classic Tech site. He has a soft spot for Radio Shack TRS-80s,
affectionately known as Trash 80s. "I think cars make for a good
analogy: If you grew up in the '70s, the Corvettes, the Mustangs, the
Camaros meant something to you. Maybe you didn't own one of those cars,
but you wish you had."
For uber-collector Sellam Ismail, storing his more than 2,000 computers
locked in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse in Livermore, Calif., is akin to
storing history. If the warehouse weren't so messy, he says, he'd fit
more. He owns Commodore 64s, one of the most popular computers of the
1980s; every member of the Apple II family; and a PDP-8, a rare creation
from the now-defunct manufacturing giant Digital
"It's worth at least $20,000," he says of his PDP-8, considered by many
to be the first "minicomputer" -- meaning it didn't fill an entire small
room -- of the 1960s.
"Everything is happening so fast -- computers that are only 20 years old
are completely outmoded, and even today computers that are only five
years old are considered outdated, " says Ismail, a self-described
"computer archivist" who seems to keep every detail of every computer
ever built in memory, and that's not an exaggeration. In computer
circles (read: lots of guys who studied engineering in college and cut
their teeth on their first PCs and Apples), he's known as the proprietor
of the world's largest collection of privately owned computers. He
organizes the Vintage Computer Festival, an international Shangri-La for
computer collectors and hobbyists. Now regularly held in Mountain View,
Calif., in the fall, the festival started in 1997. Three years later,
the first European festival was held in Munich, and the inaugural
Midwest Vintage Computer Festival at Purdue University in Indiana will
take place July 30.
For Ismail, another reason for collecting vintage computers is that
computers back in the '60s, '70s and '80s -- the way they looked, the
way they were built -- were much more interesting.
"Most of the PCs that have come up in the past 15 years, there's nothing
special or interesting about them. It's the same box, no matter from
what manufacturer," says Ismail. "What computer collectors tend to focus
on are computers that are unique -- you get to play with architecture
that's completely foreign from what you're used to."
For this reason and others, the Holy Grail of any serious collector is
the first in the Apple line, the Apple I, which was designed by the
Steves -- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak -- and sold in 1976 for the
superstitious price tag of $666.66. It even has its own fan club; the
Apple I Owners Club was born in 1977, the same year production of Apple
I's was discontinued.
"There were 200 made in total," says Ismail. "I've tracked down 35 so
In the past five years, during the festival in Mountain View, Apple I's
have been up for bidding three times. One sold for $16,000 in 2003,
Ismail says, and to his chagrin, he doesn't own one.
The Apple IIc (the "c," by the way, stood for "compact") is not as
scarce as the Apple I -- some 400,000 were produced the first year it
came out. But tinkering around with his Apple, a gift from Mom and Dad,
is always a good time, says Ballos. He shows it off to people; for a
while, his 12-year-old son, Colby, played with it.
Ballos, who works in sales for Covad Communications, an Internet
company, owns three modern computers: two Shuttle XPCs and a Dell
laptop. If he sold his Apple IIc, he'd include the original manuals, and
give away the games -- Flight Simulator; Mickey's Space Adventure;
One-on-One, a basketball match that pits Julius Erving against Larry
Bird -- that are on 5 1/4 -inch floppies, from when a floppy was still
How much would his Apple sell for? He isn't sure.
Ismail estimates no more than $300, if Ballos has all the original
materials; author Nadeau puts it at a more modest $200.
For now, it seems, the Apple IIc that Ballos got for Christmas in 1986
is still a tad too young to be worth real money.
? 2005 The Washington Post Company