Computer History Under the Hammer
Written by Sue Gee   
Sunday, 01 November 2020

If you crave for a slice of computer history, an online auction from Bonhams salerooms in Los Angeles on November 5th provides plenty of choice. If you don't have deep enough pockets, just browsing the catalogue is a treat.

The sale in question is Bonhams History of Science and Technology auction, 2020 edition, which due to this year's unusual circumstances has an online-only format with fully integrated online bidding. Also due to the pandemic the Air and Space auction is part of the same sale for the first time, meaning that the catalog has plenty on offer for anyone interested in the history of the lunar landings. According to Adam Stackhouse, Bonhams Specialist in charge of this sale, the star lot of this, the second, part of the sale is an original Gemini 133P Trainer Console used by the Gemini astronauts at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

To go back to the main sale. it starts with several lots relating to Charles Darwin and then moves onto materials about Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. However the items that fascinate me the most come from the the Computer History Collection of Serge Roubé. The first lots from this source are the oldest items in the auction, publications from the 1620s authored by John Napier, the inventor of logarithms: 



If you want to know more about Napier's bones, the machine he invented to calculate the products and quotients of numbers, see our article on the Pre-History of Computing.


The next item in the sale is also discussed in the same article. It is a replica Pascaline, considered to be the first mechanical calculator to add and subtract. The invention was made by Blaise Pascal in 1642 when he was only 19 year old in order to assist his father in his work as a tax collector. It is thought that only 20 were ever produced of which only 9 are now known to exist which accounts for it high price estimate of between $6,000  and $9,000.

With an almost equally high estimate, $6,000 to $8,000 comes an item described by the Catalog as:



While this might resemble a photograph, or an engraving it you were to see the real thing up close, it is in fact more like a tapestry. To quote the catalog entry it is:

A La Mémoire de J.M. Jacquard. [Lyon]: Didier Petit et Cie, 1839. Fine woven silk portrait, approximately 790 x 630 mm, framed to 1040 x 840 mm, being the portrait view of Jacquard after Claude Bonnefond seated in a workshop interior, model of his loom with loose punch cards, tools and measuring drums arranged on racks behind, view through the musket-ball broken window of a town. 

So what is the connection between this elderly C19th gentleman and computing? It is explained the recent I Programmer article by Mike James, The Computer - What's The Big Idea? and here is Bonham's version: 

Jacquard’s loom, a mechanical loom that used a series of punched cards that corresponded to an intended design, would go on to revolutionize not only the textile industry but, with its programmable nature, would go on to have a major influence on computing, directly influencing Charles Babbage who used Jacquard punched cards in the design of his Analytical Engine. Ada Lovelace had pointed out: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

What adds to the appeal of this artifact is that it was created using a Jaquard loom and 24,000 punched cards. 

Fast forward a century and we have a landmark computer - the Harvard Mark 1, largest and most controversial electro-mechanical computer. Designed by Howard Aiken it started operating in 1944 and its role in the history of computing is covered in Howard Aiken and the Harvard Mark I. 


No the machine itself is not in the sale - it was disassembled in 1959, although portions of it are on displayed as part of the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. but a copy of its manual, authored by Grace Hopper is, with an estimate of $800 to $1200. Its significance is that of being the first computer manual and it consists of descriptions of the Mark I's components, its architecture, and the operational codes required to solve typical problems - in other words how to program it. The sale catalog quotes computer historian Paul Ceruzzi who states:

The Manual is one of the first places where sequences of arithmetic operations for the solution of numeric problems by machine were explicitly spelled out. It is furthermore the first extended analysis of what is now known as computer programming since Charles Babbage's and Lady Lovelace's writings a century earlier. The instruction sequences, which one finds scattered throughout this volume, are thus among the earliest examples anywhere of digital computer programs"

The Altair 8800 is a landmark computer on a completely different scale and the example for sale is in good condition, with an estimate of between $2,000 and $3,000, although given that one put up for sale German auction house Breker in 2013 fetched $11,000, this could be on the low side. 

Originally sold in kit form for $439, at a time, when a minicomputer cost $50,000 it was the machine that initiated the home computer craze and propelled Bill Gates and Paul Allen into writing a BASIC interpreter for it and founding Microsoft. See Altair - The First PC and Bill Gates - Before He Was Famous.


My final selection from this sale has a source other that Serge Roubé's collection. Instead it has comes from a private individual and is a souvenir the early days of the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It is an original, first iteration "blue box" device built by Woz in 1972 intended for phone phreaking, and as detailed in Steve Wozniak - Electronics Genius was the first collaboration between Jobs and Wozniak. According to Steve Jobs:

"If it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes, there would have been no Apple. I'm 100% sure of that."

While $4,000 - $6,000 might seem an optimistic estimate for a clunky piece of electronics made less than half a century ago, the catalog explains:

Very few of the Wozniak originals have survived and even fewer of these first iteration boards as Wozniak soon changed the circuit board layout to accommodate a less expensive membrane keypad. The early models would have been made by Wozniak himself.  

One lesson to be drawn from this sale is - don't throw away any yellowing typescripts you find in the bottom drawer or tucked into a bookcase left to you by your forefathers. For example, a pre-publication of the Fortran Introductory Programmer's Manual, dated March 26, 1957 is expected to sell for $800 - $1200. And certainly don't discard the C20th home computers from your youth. Within a few years they may well be collector's items.



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Last Updated ( Monday, 02 November 2020 )