Computer history under the hammer
Friday, 12 November 2010

The sale of  Valuable Printed Books and Manuscripts that will take place at Christie's London auction room on 23rd November also includes two items listed as Scientific Instruments - an Apple I computer and an Enigma machine.





The Apple Computer is described in the sale catalogue as:

A SUPERB EXAMPLE with the original packaging, manuals, cassette interface and basic tape, early documentation and provenance, and a COMMERCIALLY RARE LETTER FROM STEVE JOBS.



Only around 200 such Apple I kits were ever produced  and few of these have survived. This one, number 82, is all the more valuable by having its original cardboard box, complete with the return address to the garage of Steve Job's parents house, where it was famously built, on a typed label and the inclusion of  the "customer welcome  letter" signed by Steve Jobs. Originally purchased for $666.66 it is expected to be sold for £100-150,000.

The Enigma machine is also an example of a limited number of the German electronic cipher machines widely used in World War. The one on sale is a three-rotor Enigma machine, number A-9457, with "some restoration" and a modern power supply. Its estimate is £30-50,000.

Computer historians will also be interested in the manuscripts included in the sale.

For example Lot 57, which is expected to fetch £10-15,000 is an offprint of a seminal work by Charles Babbage:

BABBAGE, Charles (1791-1871). 'On a method of expressing by signs the action of machinery'. Offprint from: Philosophical Transactions vol. 116, pt 3. London: W. Nicol for the Royal Society, 1826.

Lot 61 brings us into the C20th and is a first edition of the manual for the Havard Mark 1:

AIKEN, Howard Hathaway (1900-1973) and Grace Murray HOPPER (1906-1992). A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator by the Staff of the Computation Laboratory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946.

From the Franklin Institute Library this volume which includes 17 numbered plates is in its original dark-blue cloth binding which is now showing wear and tear. It is expected to fetch around £1,500.

In its original buff wrapper that are now pretty dog-eared Lot 62 is a listed as a reproduced typescript:

VON NEUMANN, John (1903-1957), Arthur W. BURKS (1915-2008) and Herman H. GOLDSTINE (1913-2004). Preliminary discussion of the logical design of an electronic computing instrument. [Princeton, N.J.: Institute for Advanced Study,] 1947.

However as this document represents the first published formal conceptual paper on the stored-program computer iit is expected to fetch £3-5,000

An even higher estimate (£6-9,000) is put on Lot 63, another document of historical note:

ENIAC -- ECKERT-MAUCHLY COMPUTER CORPORATION. Patent Specification for: Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Dates of application and acceptance being 28 June 1948 and 26 May 1954 (no. 709,407). London: The Patent Office.

The same estimate (£6-9,000) applies to Lot 64:

WILKES, Maurice V. (b.1913), David J. WHEELER (1927-2004) and Stanley GILL (1926-1975). The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer with special reference to the EDSAC and the use of a library of subroutines. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley Press, Inc., 1951.

described as:

First edition of the first book on computer programming written by the earliest pioneers of subroutines.

In addition this lot also includes a first edition of:

NEUMANN, John von (1903-1957) and Oskar MORGENSTERN (1902-1977). Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,


However, the most expensive of the computer-related lots is Lot 61 with an estimate of £300-500,000:

A collection of Alan Turing's offprints formed by Prof. Maxwell Herman Alexander Newman

which is described as:

an unparalleled collection of the writings of the founder of modern computing science, and one that is unlikely to be replicated

So if you decide to bid, in person or online, for either the hardware or the documentation, you will need deep pockets.

Equally if you have some vintage computer hardware in your attic or some early documentation gathering dust may be it's time to discover their worth.

Further reading:

Steve Jobs and Apple

Howard Aiken and the Harvard Mark I

Von Neumann

Eckert & Mauchley and ENIAC

Maurice Wilkes and EDSAC

Appeal launched for Bletchley Park to buy Turing Papers

Alan Turing's ACE



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