| LIVERMORE, California
LIVERMORE, California In the first purchase of
his collection, Sellam Ismail loaded the trunk of his car with
old computers he stumbled upon at a flea market for $5 apiece.
Soon he had filled his three-car garage with what others would
consider obsolete junk.
Years later, his collection of early computers, printers,
and related parts is piled high across shelves and in chaotic
heaps in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse near Silicon Valley. And
it is worth real money.
Even as the power and speed of today's computers make their
forerunners look ever punier, a growing band of collectors are
gathering retro computers, considering them important relics
and even good investments.
"There has been a real steep upward trend in prices in the
last year, year and a half," said Ismail, 38. "It seems it's
become like the new collectible to moneyed people. Before it
was just nerds and hobbyists."
He states his own affiliation clearly: he wears a black T
shirt with the word "nerd" on the front. He recently brought a
quarter-century old Xerox Star computer back to life to be used
as evidence in a patent lawsuit.
The pride of his collection is an Apple Lisa, one of the
first computers (introduced in 1983) with a now standard
graphical interface. Such items sell for more than $10,000.
In an old barn in Northern California that also houses
pigs, Bruce Damer, 45, keeps a collection that includes a Cray
1 supercomputer, a Xerox Alto (an early microcomputer
introduced in 1973) and early Apple prototypes.
"For me the fascination with these artifacts are that they
are living histories -- especially if they can be kept running
-- and that they are the key innovations that affect all of our
lives more than anything else here in the 21st Century," Damer
"These artifacts also represent the 'roads not taken' when
you see designs and user interfaces that in some ways are
better than we have now, but simply didn't make it."
Damer's "Digibarn" is open to the public by appointment.
"I think my wife can be a bit put off by the project if we
get visitors who want to come on the weekends but she is
remarkably tolerant of this hobby of mine," said Damer, who is
the owner of a company that produces 3D simulations for the
U.S. space agency, NASA.
New Jersey-based Evan Koblentz says acquiring old computers
is much like some other hobbies.
"Antique car collecting is a great analogy," he said. "No
one is saying that a '34 Ford is better than a 2004 Ford in
terms of reliable technology, but it's funner."
"Vintage computers have character. Once the whole Wintel
thing came along, all computers pretty much look alike," he
said of newer computers that run Windows software on Intel
"In vintage computers, just because you bought one and
plugged it in didn't mean it would work, didn't mean the
software was available."
"FEEL" THE HISTORY
As in other hobbies, tech enthusiasts scour Internet sites
and eBay for offerings, attend swap meets (where the old
machines are sometimes demonstrated) and rely on word of mouth
to obtain rare finds. Some items cost just a few dollars;
jewels go for thousands of dollars.
Private demand is also making it more difficult for museums
to obtain certain models. "It's tough; now they are becoming
much more valuable," said John Toole, executive director of the
Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
Some celebrate their collections on detailed Internet
sites, such as Silicon Valley software engineer Erik Klein, 41,
"I've tried collecting stamps and coins and never quite got
into it mainly because, for me, you can't really 'feel' the
history in the items," he said.
The pride of his collection is a 1971 Kenbak-1 computing
machine that he bought for $2,500 a few years ago. He says it
has since appreciated five fold.
In Livermore, Ismail says his vast holdings of more than
2,000 computers, thousands of books, monitors and countless
electronic odds and ends is worth more than $500,000. But he
emphasizes that the real value is historical not financial, and
hopes to one day convert his disorganized warehouse into a
"Historically there is a lot of stuff that is significant
in here," Ismail said. "People are going to understand why I