Geek Chic: Old Computers As Collectibles

Collectors are taking a second look at obsolete computers such as Thomas Ballos's Apple IIc.
Collectors are taking a second look at obsolete computers such as Thomas Ballos's Apple IIc. (By Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The year was 1986 and Bud Ballos was an eighth-grader, a proud owner of a brand-new computer with what was to him "a weird thing" called a mouse.

Remember the Apple II? It was a fixture -- in the library, next to the card-catalogue filing cabinet -- in many a middle school beginning in the 1980s.

"This was the start of the new computer, and at the time, I didn't really know what it was," Ballos says of his very first desktop, its screen no bigger than 7 inches by 5 inches, its color off-white, the kind of plastic that starts to yellow after a while. In the early years, not too many families actually had a computer at home. "I thought it was cool. My friends thought it was cool. We'd look at it and go, 'Wow, all right.' "

Ballos is 33 now and goes by Thomas rather than Bud. He's a novice collector and a random one at that: coins from the United States and Canada, belt plates from the Civil War, Native American spearheads and arrowheads, some of them 1,300 to 3,000 years old. They're all kept in the garage of his Ashburn home, where the showpiece -- "I did my homework on it; I played Donkey Kong on it; I brought it with me to college," he explains -- is his Apple IIc.

You'd think Ballos would have trashed or recycled his childhood Apple, but these days people are holding on to their first (and second, and third) desktops and laptops. Some keep them for nostalgia's sake, others for the kitsch value. Whatever the motivation, the urge to hang on has turned yesteryear's outmoded computers into today's historic artifacts -- giving them a growing value in the ever-so-hungry collectibles market.

From an early 1975 Altair 8800, named after a planet in a "Star Trek" episode, to a 1981 IBM Personal Computer that a young Bill Gates helped develop, what's on the collectibles menu covers a broadening taste. Some of these computers are rare. Some are actually quite common and may be sitting in people's basements right now.

Pepe Tozzo, author of the upcoming book "Retro Electro: Collecting Technology From Atari to Walkman," puts the price of the Altair, depending on its condition, between $930 and $2,785. But that's chump change compared with the $72,000 that Lot 238 -- the eight-page typed "Outline of Plans for Development of Electronic Computers," written in 1946 and regarded as the "founding document of the computer industry" -- brought at Christie's in New York in February.

Ten years ago, the mantra was that old computers were worthless -- smushed, forgotten, unbought in roadside yard sales. Today, the chances of scoring undiscovered gems at Sunday flea markets, or thrift shops on Nowhere Boulevard, or computer recycling centers on Faraway Street, are still pretty good, but even casual collectors spend a great deal of time shopping and researching online. There's Classic Tech ( ) and the Obsolete Technology Website ( ), to name just two sites, and of course there's eBay, where on any given day dozens of vintage IBMs, Ataris, Amigas, Apples, Commodores, you name it, are up for bidding.

On a recent Wednesday, with 4 days 7 hours left on a listing, the top bid for an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer circa 1977 -- Matthew Broderick, in the 1983 film "War Games," almost started global thermonuclear war with one -- is $1,025. "I built it from kit and used for several years," writes the eBay seller. The bid started at $450.

Tony Romando, editor in chief of Sync, the men's magazine for the gadget-obsessed, says there's a one-word reason why people collect old hard- and software: cool.

"Who keeps an Apple II laying around? The hipster who owns a Treo cell and a PowerBook G4 and an iPod but last month went out and bought a rotary phone for his living room and sometimes walks around with a Walkman for street cred," says Romando. He keeps his circa-1999 iBook -- the one that looks like a toilet seat -- in the basement, next to one of those tiki lamps that repel mosquitoes. "Nobody's buying these old computers for the technology. They're buying it for style. For a lot of people it's artwork."

Sync runs a column in which a resident expert prices readers' electronic treasures. To Ritesh Dulal of Lexington, Ky., who wrote in asking about "a box full of Bell & Howell Apple II dinosaurs," Sync suggested that instead of cashing in for an estimated $300 ("with appropriate manuals"), he should hang on: "You never know when that Mac-crazed hottie from work is going to drop by for drinks. You'll score with this super-hip antique on your desk."

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