Lexikon's History of Computing

Collecting Vintage Computers

Return to Title Page

One of the most fascinating new hobbies that has been growing rapidly during the last 20 years is that of collecting vintage computers and vintage computing memorabilia. The field of "modern" computing can be traced back at least to the first machines of Konrad Zuze in late 1930's and the very early one-of-a-kind machines of the 1940's. Business computing can be traced back to 1951 with the advent of the UNIVAC, the first mass produced business computer. The mass production of microcomputers came into being in the mid 1970's and has been on an accelerated growth path ever since.

The field of computer history stretches back about 50 to 60 years, and much further still if one takes into account mechanical adding machines and mechanical calculators.

This provides a wealth of potential material for research, study and collecting. With obvious exceptions for the most rare items, the hardware and software items in the realm of vintage computing are still affordable for most people. In addition, there are enough variations in the field of computing that one can specialize in a variety of categories and still find enough material or items of interest to make the activity both interesting and educational.

Some people collect handheld pocket calculators, which are some of the smallest digital computing devices. Others collect large historic pieces because of a personal or intellectual fascination with them. I have heard of people who had DEC minicomputers in their garage, or even old cardpunch equipment. I have heard of or met people who have entire garage or workshops full of early microcomputers. Others have a combination of all types of systems.

One of the things that makes vintage computer collecting so attractive is the wide variety of machines that have come into existence in the past 30 years. Many models and many companies have come and gone in the computer industry, in a relatively short amount of time. By comparison, the handful of U.S. auto manufacturers that exist today have been in existence for 80 to 90 years. With several notable exceptions, most of the companies in the computer business today were not the same names you heard of 30 years ago. The computer industry has seen many mergers, acquisitions, name changes and business restructuring that has significantly changed the face of the computer industry.

On July 5, 1911, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) was founded. by Charles Flint, from a group of smaller companies including the "Tabulating Machine Company" (founded by Herman Hollerith and sold in 1911), the "Dayton Scale Company" (Dayton, Ohio), the "International Time Recording Company" (Endicott, New York) and the Bundy Manufacturing Company (Endicott, New York). In 1924, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording company changed its name to IBM. Since 1911, many companies have been absorbed into the IBM corporation. UNISYS was created in 1986 through the merger of Burroughs and Sperry (see UNISYS article).

Many other computer companies came and went during the early years of the microcomputer explosion. Prior to the "standardization" of the IBM PC, and Microsoft's PC DOS and MS DOS, the market gave rise to a wide variety of microcomputer companies with strange names like Cromemco, Polymorphic, Altos, Exidy, IMSAI, Smoke Signal Broadcasting, and many others. Many of the systems produced by these early companies are still around today. Many collectors have their favorite make or model that they collect and still use. You might be surprised to find how many Commodore 64 users there still are!

 

For a fascinating look at the chronologies of early microcomputing as well as a general look at the whole computer field, see the Table of Contents

 

The hobby (or obsession) with collecting vintage computers is still a very new one. There is a shortage of good books on the subject of vintage computer collecting, and a new one needs to be written. Dr. Thomas Haddock's book "Personal Computers and Pocket Calculators," (Nostalgia Publishing) is a very good start, but needs to be updated. For those who love pocket calculators, there is "The Complete Collector's Guide to Pocket Calculators," by Guy Ball and Bruce Flamm (Wilson/Barnett Publishing, 1997) which is excellent.

There are few if any publicized price guides for the current values of vintage computers and vintage computer memorabilia. One good source for buying and selling items, however, is the online auction at eBay.com. The prices that vintage computer items bring varies vary widely. The hobby is slowly maturing, however, and there may be more reference sources available for estimated pricing in the future. Included in this section is a very small list of some of the estimated values of vintage computers and items, based on historical data of what I have seen over the past 3 years or so. This is an area subject to rapid change, however, and the value of vintage computers will undoubtedly rise as more people discover this fascinating hobby. This section also contains some tips on how to describe the condition of vintage computers you may want to sell or trade, and some things to watch for.

I hope you find the material in this section helpful, as well as find the entire subject of computer history a fascinating and educational experience.

 

 

  

Examples of How to Describe Vintage Computer Systems Being Sold or Traded

Category

Description

Excellent Condition – Working

The machine has all original parts, not missing knobs, keys, no major physical flaws, no cracks, dents, operates normally. Any deviation from "Excellent Condition" should be specifically mentioned.

Excellent Condition – NonWorking

Same as above, except the system will not boot up, or boots up with errors.

Good Condition – Working

Good overall condition, no major parts missing, may have some dents, scratches, signs of wear, loose external handles or covers, etc. Boots up and runs fine however. Any deviations from "Good Condition" should be specifically mentioned.

Good Condition – Not Working

Same as above, except does not boot up, or boots up with errors.

Fair Condition – Working

Borderline condition. May look ok, but on closer examination has major cracks, dents, missing pieces, missing keys, disk slot handles missing, etc. Runs ok when booted up. Serious flaws should be mentioned specifically.

Fair Condition – Not Working

Same as above, but not working or works partially with obvious problems.

Fair- As-Is – Unknown

This is a system which is being sold without an evaluation or description of its true physical condition or technical operating status. Almost like buying something ‘sight unseen." These are sometimes worth buying for parts, if you are sure it still has the parts you want. Condition varies greatly, so it is good to give or get as much description as possible.

Display Model – Display Quality

System is nice to look at, relatively complete. Good example of vintage technology but may be missing internal parts and/or may not boot up at all. Quite often these are DOA machines, but if rare enough, make good collectible items. For example, the Telcon Zorba Portable PCs are rare enough to be collectible, working or not. Same for Altairs and other very early or rare systems of course.

 

 

Peripherals Checklist

Things to ask for or mention when buying or selling vintage computer equipment, especially microcomputers.

Check X

Monitor

 

Keyboard

 

External disk drives

 

Plastic cover or other cover

 

Power cord (especially if of a unique type)

 

Monitor to PC cable (especially if of a unique type)

 

External cables to drives, modems, etc.

 

AC Adapter if applicable

 

Batteries (especially if of a unique type)

Even old dead batteries may be of collectible value if they are unique to the system. This is especially true of hand held devices and calculators.

 

Original Owner’s Manual

 

Original Boot Software Disks & Operating System Disks

 

Other original documentation, catalogs, etc.

 

Related software specific to that model, with/without manuals

 

Original serial number available on the hardware

 

Original box it came in

 

Attachments or other special items specific to this machine

 

 

 

 

 

What is Collectible?

Factors that Can Make a Computer System, Computer Component

or Related Item Collectible, and Examples

 

Early or First example of a technology, - e.g..,

 

First fully-functional, microcomputer on the market

First 5-1/4 inch disk machine

First portable machine

First hard disk computer

First computer from a particular manufacturer, first in series

First and only computer of a company that went defunct

First smallest and most affordable (e.g., Timex/Sinclair)

Uniqueness and Popularity (e.g., Osborne 1 Portable)

Rarity and Scarcity (e.g., Altair or first Apple)

Obsolete technology (e.g., 8 inch floppy disks)

Unique types of components (e.g., 24 inch wide disk from IBM 1602)

Connection to a famous person, event, movie or location

Magazine or Newspaper articles featuring new computer technology or item

Letters from computer pioneers to their peers, media or others

Historical document, thesis, white paper, etc.

Early card punch technology or publications

Early large scale computer technology books (e.g., pre-1970)

Early microcomputer magazines (e.g., pre 1986)

Early computer vacuum tubes, transistors or punched cards

Early promotional items associated with particular companies or computer systems (e.g., early UNIVAC, IBM, NCR, Apple, etc.)

 

 

 

 

 

Examples of Prices for Vintage Computers and Components
(Values likely to rise each year)

Computer System Name or
Computer Component Name

(all items in good or better condition)

Estimated Market Value Range

(as of October 1999)

UNIVAC original magnetic tape reels from 1950's

$30 - $100

UNIVAC original circuit boards from 1950's

$30 - $120

UNIVAC original vacuum tubes from 1950's

$10 - $60

UNIVAC original tapes, boards, etc, 1960 onwards

$10 - $60

UNIVAC front panels, pre 1969

$50 - $200

Punched Paper Tape Reel from pre 1969

$20 - $60

DEC PDP front panels, pre 1969

$30 - $80

IBM original vacuum tube circuits, or pluggable units

$30 - $75

Misc. early hard disk drives or components from 1961 or earlier

$30 - $120

Early UNIVAC manuals from pre-1969

$35 - $95

Early IBM, Honeywell, Sperry, etc. manuals from pre-1969

$20 - $75

Altair 8800 microcomputer

$1,200 - $1,500

Commodore PET (1977)

$175- $350

Commodore CBM (after 1977)

$95 - $150

IBM PC (original)

$50 - $200

Osborne 1 (1981)

$85 - $200

Osborne Executive

$85 - $150

Timex/Sinclair 1000

$45 - $75

Polymorphic

$50 - $155

Telcon Zorba Portable

$100 - $200

Compaq Portable (first models)

$50 - $100

IBM PC Jr. (will all components & software)

$80 - $125

Kaypro (first model)

$50 - $85

Commodore SX-64 Portable

$75 - $200

Commodore 64

$60 - $150

Franklin Ace 1000

$50 - $65

HP 85 Computer

$50 - $90

Early Heathkit Computers

$50 - $150

Atari 400 home computer 

$40 - $80

Atari 800 home computer

$40 - $80

Atari 2600 home computer

$40 - $75

Apple Lisa

$200 - $500

Other Microcomputers pre-1982

$50-$300

 

Copyright © 1982-2002, Lexikon Services "History of Computing" ISBN 0-944601-78-2