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 (www.classictechpub.com) and the Obsolete Technology Website (www.oldcomputers.net), 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."
Apart from the hipness factor, Michael Nadeau, author of "Collectible Microcomputers," a field guide of sorts for collectors, says holding on to a vintage computer is about taking a stroll down memory chip lane.
"If you grew up in the late '70s, for example, and you used this computer, the computer meant something to you," says Nadeau, who founded the Classic Tech site. He has a soft spot for Radio Shack TRS-80s, affectionately known as Trash 80s. "I think cars make for a good analogy: If you grew up in the '70s, the Corvettes, the Mustangs, the Camaros meant something to you. Maybe you didn't own one of those cars, but you wish you had."
For uber-collector Sellam Ismail, storing his more than 2,000 computers locked in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse in Livermore, Calif., is akin to storing history. If the warehouse weren't so messy, he says, he'd fit more. He owns Commodore 64s, one of the most popular computers of the 1980s; every member of the Apple II family; and a PDP-8, a rare creation from the now-defunct manufacturing giant Digital Equipment Corp.
"It's worth at least $20,000," he says of his PDP-8, considered by many to be the first "minicomputer" -- meaning it didn't fill an entire small room -- of the 1960s.
"Everything is happening so fast -- computers that are only 20 years old are completely outmoded, and even today computers that are only five years old are considered outdated, " says Ismail, a self-described "computer archivist" who seems to keep every detail of every computer ever built in memory, and that's not an exaggeration. In computer circles (read: lots of guys who studied engineering in college and cut their teeth on their first PCs and Apples), he's known as the proprietor of the world's largest collection of privately owned computers. He organizes the Vintage Computer Festival, an international Shangri-La for computer collectors and hobbyists. Now regularly held in Mountain View, Calif., in the fall, the festival started in 1997. Three years later, the first European festival was held in Munich, and the inaugural Midwest Vintage Computer Festival at Purdue University in Indiana will take place July 30.
For Ismail, another reason for collecting vintage computers is that computers back in the '60s, '70s and '80s -- the way they looked, the way they were built -- were much more interesting.
"Most of the PCs that have come up in the past 15 years, there's nothing special or interesting about them. It's the same box, no matter from what manufacturer," says Ismail. "What computer collectors tend to focus on are computers that are unique -- you get to play with architecture that's completely foreign from what you're used to."
For this reason and others, the Holy Grail of any serious collector is the first in the Apple line, the Apple I, which was designed by the Steves -- Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak -- and sold in 1976 for the superstitious price tag of $666.66. It even has its own fan club; the Apple I Owners Club was born in 1977, the same year production of Apple I's was discontinued.
"There were 200 made in total," says Ismail. "I've tracked down 35 so far."
In the past five years, during the festival in Mountain View, Apple I's have been up for bidding three times. One sold for $16,000 in 2003, Ismail says, and to his chagrin, he doesn't own one.
The Apple IIc (the "c," by the way, stood for "compact") is not as scarce as the Apple I -- some 400,000 were produced the first year it came out. But tinkering around with his Apple, a gift from Mom and Dad, is always a good time, says Ballos. He shows it off to people; for a while, his 12-year-old son, Colby, played with it.
Ballos, who works in sales for Covad Communications, an Internet company, owns three modern computers: two Shuttle XPCs and a Dell laptop. If he sold his Apple IIc, he'd include the original manuals, and give away the games -- Flight Simulator; Mickey's Space Adventure; One-on-One, a basketball match that pits Julius Erving against Larry Bird -- that are on 51/4-inch floppies, from when a floppy was still floppy.
How much would his Apple sell for? He isn't sure.
Ismail estimates no more than $300, if Ballos has all the original materials; author Nadeau puts it at a more modest $200.
For now, it seems, the Apple IIc that Ballos got for Christmas in 1986 is still a tad too young to be worth real money.