Bonhams auctions remarkable collection of technology antiques – the Michael Bennett-Levy Early Technology Sale
By Mike Hanlon
September 28, 2009
The freight train progress of technology during the last century has masked the true value of landmark specimens of mankind’s technological triumphs. First-of-a-kind devices were quickly superseded and hence soon regarded as useless in comparison to newer, better equipment.
Accordingly, we believe an auction to be held in London this week represents some of the finest medium term investments we have ever seen, with a likelihood of their value increasing dramatically once historical perspective is restored. The auction includes 758 examples of almost all forms of early technology including many firsts – and the largest privately held collection of early televisions in the world.
This coming Wednesday, September 30, 2009, Bonhams Knightsbridge will host the sale of an extraordinary collection of technology antiques.
Viewing the collection last Friday, I felt that I was in “Aladdin’s Cave", being accompanied by the remarkably knowledgeable owner, Michael Bennett-Levy, who was able to detail the significance of each of the items he had brought together due to their rare or pioneering status.
Indeed, so large was the collection that it was overwhelming in its breadth. As we walked amongst the collection, Bennett-Levy would pick items up, quickly outline their significance and history, then rush onwards to the next item, effusing enthusiasm and reverence for the technological achievements of yesteryear he had accumulated.
I’ve written about technology of all flavors for three decades, yet his knowledge far surpassed mine, and from one minute to the next I was confronted with pioneering items of quite diverse ilk: a rare 18th century Nairne-pattern electro-static friction generator with insulating table; an eight-plate Wimshurst X-ray generator machine circa 1900; a Cuthbert reflecting microscope which resolved the problem of chromatic aberration circa 1830, plus several examples of very early achromatic microscopes; a movable scale station barometer by Newman circa 1840; some of the earliest man-made magnetic devices; a Sinclair C5 three-wheeled electric scooter, a device far ahead of its time; the producer’s working papers for the world’s first public television program broadcast by the BBC on November 2, 1936; a comprehensive collective of early 19th century experimental vacuum glassware discharge tubes and some of the earliest Braum tubes; an early Geiger counter; early x-ray tubes; an early astronomical heliostat; a rare Henry Negretti table planetarium; a complete technology chain of audio recording devices from wire through to tape; very early video recorders and the first commercially available video camera … it truly was an enlightening experience as my brain was dragged back and forth through scientific experiment and technological innovation across three centuries.
And on it went … calculators, video cameras, computers, clocks, barometers, toys, typewriters, microscopes, gramophones, cameras, octants, sextants, telescopes, musical snuffboxes, inclinometers, compasses, theodolites, pantographs, dendrometers, spectrometers, galvanometers, batteries, a voltaic pile, gasometers, polariscopes, telegraph stock tickers and receivers, burglar alarms, pencil sharpeners … I couldn’t help but think that for the outlay of a million pounds, an entire museum of technology could be assembled which would keep almost any visitor with an inquisitive mind occupied for a month.
Michael Bennett-Levy’s collection started thirty years ago in Edinburgh and this passion has extended throughout the gamut of early technology across the centuries. “It’s not a collection,” he admonishes me, “it’s my stock.”
Bennett-Levy’s business for three decades has been as a dealer in early technology items – he has scoured the world to build a range of sources for his trade in technology antiques, and he tells me his job is really that of a “finder.” “You tell me what you want, and I’ll find it for you, no matter where or what it is.”
Interestingly, Bennett-Levy does not intend to get out of the business, and the reason for him selling this magnificent collection (sorry Michael), is that he and his wife are relocating to France where they have been rebuilding a medieval ruin over the last few years. Once he’s settled into his new abode, he’ll begin accumulating scientific apparatus and dealing once more.
No area of human endeavor and progress seems ignored in the collection. In the home he has early sewing machines, kettles, irons, a range of spits, including clockwork-driven varieties, and a 17th century Spanish food processor that might well be one of the earliest examples of a multi-purpose kitchen appliance incorporating potato cutters, graters, borers, et cetera.
As we moved among Bonhams staff busy assembling and presenting the devices, we came across more and more new areas such as bleeding tools, medical shock machines and a broad variety of the earliest medical and dental devices, reminding me how brutal and frightening medical attention must have been not very long ago.
Then a wire-guided WW2 anti-tank missile caught my eye, and no sooner had Bennett-Levy begun regaling me with detailed information about the weapon than he was shepherding me towards a collection of boxes. “Do you know what this is?” he enthused, “It’s a prototype of the cruise missile system built secretly during WW2 by RCA."
“In the final stages of WW2, the United States devised a television system to be mounted in the nose of a B17 bomber, filled with explosives, so that it could be remotely guided from a nearby plane and crashed onto important targets.
“This goes in the nose of the B17, this goes in the mother ship behind, this is the missile aimer. Over the British coast, the crew bails out and the plane is controlled by the plane behind until it is crashed into a submarine pen or some other target.
“It ran on 4500 volts, which didn’t go well with all those explosive. Former US President John F Kennedy’s elder brother Joe was blown up while testing one of these systems,” he adds.
“Do you use a computer?” I ask him. “Well, I do, but my family tells me I use it more like a typewriter,” he laughs, then as if to demonstrate that he’s far from computer illiterate, he scurries off and picks up a huge rack from a table covered in what look like ancient computer parts, and asks me if I can identify what it is. I have not a clue. “It’s one BYTE of RAM from the world’s first commercially available computer.”
Interestingly, when I heard Michael speaking, my brain registered the word kilobyte, but when I checked the recorder for writing this story, I boggled to hear him say "BYTE" - my brain, which felt like it was being information-slapped, and was dropping frames trying to keep up with Bennett-Levy's verbal information flow, had not considered that something so big, could carry such little information - perhaps a reflection on the quantum leap in bang-per-square-inch that transistors and microchips have subsequently delivered.
The table he hovers over is strewn with parts and ephemera from LEO II, the computer sold as the Lyons Electronic Office (hence LEO) in May 1958, and was sold to steel makers Stuart & Lloyds. It was the third commercially-produced computer in the world, and one of just 13 LEO IIs manufactured. LEO I was a prototype.
It's not the whole computer, just the main bits. The entire computer filled a room 80 ft x 32 ft, most of which was racks like the one he holds. It was the second computer purchased in the world, says Bennett-Levy, as he begins to list the other thirteen.
“Lyons kept the first, W.H.O. Wills, the tobacco company got the second. The third, this one, went to Stuart and Lloyd and the fourth went to Ford UK. Bennett-Levy pauses for a moment, adding, "it’s interesting to note that Ford UK had a computer before the parent company did in the United States."
Then he resumes warp speed.
“This was not the first sold, but it was switched on before the Wills computer, so it was the first commercially purchased computer to be switched on in the world. It was decommissioned thirteen years later in 1971, after printing eight million pay slips, 125 million postcards, three million invoices, and its last task was to print a farewell message which comes with it.”
He points at the last message, framed above it on then wall, then picks up a wad of papers including instructions, newspaper clippings, circuit diagrams, and points out a book on the computer, “The LEO story” which also comes with the sale. There are numerous other parts included, such as the control desk, numerous memory units ... and a pile of other stuff you'd send to the dump if you found them in a shed. To collect, sell, deal, make a living from this area, as broad as all human endeavour itself, you'd need a cyclotron for a brain, and Bennett-Levy appears to have just that.
I ponder the significance of the medieval ruins of the machine - it's like walking in Rome and surveying a few bits of what was once a magnificent architectural achievement and trying to imagine what once was. In a world where we’re nearing 75% of all humans carrying more powerful computers in their pocket just 50 years later, this was the first.
"How much will it go for?", I ask, before being told it is expected to reach GBP2,000. Surely it’s worth more than that, I say, and Bennett-Levy, who studied commerce at University smiles, and replies, “no-one will know the true value of many of these items until the hammer falls, but that is what is expected.”
I can’t help but feel that at some point in our lifetime, when museums and collectors realize the computer has catalyzed an equally significant effect on mankind as the wheel, this priceless computer should be worth two, maybe three, perhaps even four orders of magnitude more than it will sell for on Wednesday.
"Oh", says Bennett-Levy, "I’ve also got the world’s first computer manual from 1947."
"This is the Guttenberg of computer manuals", and he opens a glass cabinet and produces a pristine manual with a stamp showing it was once housed in the UK Ministry of Supply (now Defense).
“Look at this”, he exclaims, like a child in a toy shop, pointing out a note from a librarian inside the front cover asking that it should not be disposed of "without due thought." It’s the “Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator by the Staff of the Computation Library, volume 1”, dated 1946.
And on and on it goes. He points out the first electricity meter from 1881, a hot air conditioning fan from the early 1920s - no fan guard like the machines we know today, just lightweight blades flaying in the air, pulling cold air across a set of elements that look for all the world like an aircooled internal combustion engine ... but he's now two objects ahead of me and he's pointing out the world’s first gasometer … almost every object in the room is the first or an extremely early example of something of the utmost technological significance. These are the first examples of items that are now commonplace, but not very long ago, they simply didn’t exist.
Two massive exhibition rooms at Bonhams hold all this paraphernalia, but the greatest monetary value in the collection fills another even bigger room downstairs where Bennett-Levy’s unequaled collection of 26 pre-war televisions exists, including two low definition 30 line sets, is housed. This is the most comprehensive private collection in the world and, of the estimated 500 sets still surviving, represents just over five precent - a considerable proportion. It is the third or possibly the fourth, largest single collection of unduplicated models from this early period - the larger collections are all in museums or foundations.
I’m going along on Wednesday to witness the event and in some ways I feel like I'm going to a funeral, and my story will be the soliloquy. I'm hoping beyond hope that someone reads this article who has foresight and a lazy million or two, so they can keep the whole collection intact.
Anyway, the prices each of these priceless technology antiques fetched will be documented on the official Bonhams auction page and a year or ten from now, people will read the page and weep at the lost opportunity.