Decoding Design

Early computer memorabilia: now precious design objects

Posting in Design

A recent Sotheby's auction of a rare Apple 1 computer is the latest example of how yesterday's gadgets are quickly becoming tomorrow's valuable, museum-worthy objects.

Hang on to your outdated Apple gadgets--and related design documentation, if you happen to own any. Early computers are increasingly fetching prices that rival those of contemporary art, at auction houses like Sotheby's. So, too, are original notes that detail the design of video games and other tech-related products from decades ago.

Of course most examples of this phenomenon are those that relate to the work of Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple. But it's likely that early computer-era objects associated with other tech-world luminaries will continue to become historical design collectibles as well.

On June 15, as part of a "Fine Books and Manuscripts" sale at Sotheby's, a rare Apple 1 computer --a revolutionary product as it was the "first ready-made personal computer" (as Sotheby's described it in the auction catelogue)--sold for $347,000. The sum much higher than the estimate of $120,000-180,000. The model sold is believed to be one of only six such working Apple 1 machines in existence, according to Sotheby's. Less than 50 Apple 1 computers probably have survived since the device made its debut in 1976.

Also sold at the same event: a four-page, hand-written design memo written in 1974 by a then 19-year-old Steve Jobs for the video game maker Atari, where he worked at night. In the memo, Jobs outlined how he believed the Atari arcade game World Cup could be improved.

The Jobs memorabilia was sold in a diverse auction. For context, the sale also included an autographed letter from the thirteenth President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, sold for $28,500, and an unpublished manuscript by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which sold for $194,500.

The contract that founded Apple sold for $1.6 million at Sotheby's in December of last year. Even before the Jobs memorabilia became the subject of bidding frenzies, though, collectors were beginning to pay attention to early tech-world artifacts. In 2005, for instance, Christie's offered a computer memorabilia sale.

And perhaps the most striking example of how high-tech is gaining a high-culture aura can be found in the the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curators there have acquired over the years a Programma 101 Electronic Desktop Computer from 1965 and an IBM ThinkPad 701 laptop from 1995--as well as numerous Apple machines. They're all in MoMA's permanent collection...yes, along with classic works of art such as the Pablo Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Claude Monet's Water Lilies.

Images: Ed Uthman, Wikimedia Commons; Sotheby's

[Via CNET, BBC.com, Sotheby's]

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure