Groundbreaking tech of yesteryear goes under the hammer
By Paul Ridden
May 17, 2013
There's nothing quite like an auction room to bring the past into sharp focus. Where collectors and bargain hunters might once have had to trudge wearily from showroom to showroom for a pre-sale peek, the interweb now makes it possible to have a virtual look at items of interest before making a bid. An online auction later this month offers students of technology the opportunity to snag some bleeding edge gadgetry from what old blokes like me might refer to as the good old days, though many of the hundreds of lots up for sale go back much, much further. Gizmag takes a quick look through the antique innovation window and picks out a few favorites.
Germany's Auction Team Breker will be hosting this sale of technology world firsts from the 17th century right up to just a few years ago. As well as celebrating all manner of gadgetry advances, from telephones to typewriters and calculators to computers, the collection also features many olde worlde toys, music players and office equipment. Some of the items on offer are replicas, but there's a very healthy splattering of originals – all going to the highest bidder later this month.
In 1973, Nat Wadsworth and Bob Findley founded SCELBI Computer Consulting. They sold a US$500 kit computer called the SCELBI-8H mini computer that was built around an Intel 8-bit microprocessor and made up of circuit boards, a power supply, banks of switches and LED lights. It's safe to say that the great American public didn't take to this particular introduction to a braver, newer world and only 200 units were produced. Of those, only three are reported to have survived and Team Breker has one for sale. Bids for Lot 21 start at €11,500 (about $14,750).
While the 8H relied on DIP switches for input and its output was displayed on LEDs, users could tap on a keyboard to operate the much more personal-computer-like Apple 1, while viewing the output on a black and white monitor. One of the six working originals from 1976 was sold by Team Breker last year for an incredible €491,868 ($640,000), a far cry from its original $666.66 price tag. Now there's another one up for sale.
Lot 14 is a fully-operational Apple 1 computer signed by its creator Steve Wozniak. Bids start at €90,000 (roughly $115,000).
If that's a bit rich for your taste, but you'd still like to indulge in some early Apple goodness, then Lot 15 could be just what you're looking for. It's an Apple Lisa-1 from 1983, and reported to be in good working order. The computer – which boots from an external 5 MB (yes, megabyte) Apple Profile hard disk into the LOS 1.0 graphical OS – comes with a manual, a Lisa-1 mouse, the HDD and some Twiggy diskettes containing the operating system.
Team Breker says that only about 30 to 100 of these machines exist today, this one is estimated to attract up to €30,000 ($38,000). You can see Lisa in action below.
Flying back a few centuries, French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal ended three years of development and testing of multiple prototypes with a mechanical calculator called, rather plainly, Pascal's calculator. Subsequently known as the Pascaline (a lot better), only a handful were built and only nine are known to still exist.
The model on offer in this sale is not one of those, but an early 20th century working reproduction (Lot 12) that's reported to be historically accurate, with only a few minor differences from the original design. These include a larger font for the engraving on the upper plate, the use of screws first introduced in 1919 and a handwritten facsimile of the label on old paper. An opening bid of €18,000 ($23,000) has been set.
Skipping forward again, English inventor James Watt patented a portable copying machine in 1780. This was before typewriters had been invented, so the device was only able to make copies of hand-written letters or diagrams. A hinged mahogany box with brass fixtures opened up to reveal a fold-out writing pad on the inside of the lid where the documents were created using special ink. The other side was home to a pair of hand-cranked brass rollers, through which the copying plate containing the original document topped by moistened copying paper was fed. The copy was mirrored of course and could only be read on the reverse side of the page.
The design was a commercial success, and continued to be used for some years to come. American Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are reported to be among its list of users. The model offered for auction has the damping bath inside the box, as opposed to later versions which had a damping box drawer.
Music being close to my heart, I've been spending quite a bit of time looking through early audio recording and output devices. There are quite a few Edison Phonograph's available at this auction, including Models A and B, and the Concert from 1901, but this Phénix French model is the one that caught my eye.
Spinning forward again to the 20th century and the world is at war for the second time. Thanks to the mighty Enigma encryption device, the Allies are unable to crack the coded messages being sent and received by Germany's military machine. Gizmag has already detailed the success in breaking the Enigma advantage, and Team Breker is offering the chance to grab a fully working three-rotor mechanical cipher machine.
Of course, no auction would be complete without its share of odd, bizarre and curious items. To close this short catalog of highlights, we present a rather special gramophone that ticks all three boxes. The detachable loudspeaker of the Buddha Phonographes Artistiques is actually a seated Buddha. You can see this rare music player in the video below.
The "Auction of Firsts" is set to take place on May 25.
Source: Auction Team Breker