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THE CUTTING EDGE

A Byte of History : Techies Taking a Scroll Down Memory Lane

August 12, 1996|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The nerds are getting nostalgic.

Barely 20 years into the personal computer revolution, techies across the country are growing increasingly sentimental about the machines and programs that changed their lives and ushered in the Information Age.

For them, booting up a vintage Commodore PET computer can conjure misty-eyed memories. Toggling the switches of an Altair 8800 is better than gripping the gearshift of a first car. And a shrink-wrapped copy of VisiCalc software beats a mint-condition Mickey Mantle baseball card any day.

This is the memorabilia of the PC generation, and after spending much of the last decade or two collecting dust in suburban garages from Silicon Valley to Boston's Route 128, it's starting to make a comeback.

Virtual museums of vintage hardware and software are sprouting up all over the Internet's World Wide Web, as are online classified ads placed by collectors desperate to reacquire the technological wonders of their youth. Some rare PCs are fetching much higher prices now than they did when they were brand-new, and even revered institutions such as the Smithsonian are bolstering their computer collections.

"The amount of activity that I see is amazing," said Kip Crosby, president of the Computer History Assn. of California in Palo Alto. "People are always asking me: 'Can you find me an Altair? Can you find this or that?' I get 10 to 20 phone calls and e-mails a month, twice as many as a year ago."

Most of these early machines and programs, which didn't work very well when they were new, are even more troublesome to maintain now--and have been rendered obsolete by wave after wave of new equipment.

But like certain cars or baseball cards, high-tech relics are somehow enhanced by the passage of time. Collectors see them as the symbols of a more colorful computer age populated by legendary personalities who became billionaires--or, in some cases, went bust.

"That's why I'm interested in computer history," said Co Ho, 30, an Internet administrator at Fullerton College. "Many people could have made it big, but they fell asleep and ended up having somebody else eating their cake."

Ho collects vintage software, especially programs that changed the computing landscape but somehow faltered. One of his favorite pieces is CP/M, an early operating system created by Digital Research.

CP/M might have become the operating system had Digital Research's founder, the late Gary Kildall, been more hospitable when IBM came calling to license his software. In a legendary blunder, Kildall and his wife refused to sign IBM's confidentiality agreement, and IBM executives took their business to a then-tiny company known as Microsoft.

"CP/M missed the boat because of casual behavior," Ho said. "It's really a sad story."

Ho has collected about a dozen titles, including VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet program, mostly by scrounging through the bargain bins at software stores. The collection isn't worth much, at least not yet, but it catches the attention of almost every nerd who walks into his office.

"My next piece is going to be Netscape 1.1 shrink-wrapped," Ho said. "I have a feeling a couple years from now Microsoft will kill off Netscape."

Ho is one of the few people who collect software. More collect hardware, and one of the most sought-after machines is the Altair 8800, introduced by MITS Inc. of Albuquerque in 1975. It didn't have a keyboard or a monitor, only rows of switches on the front of the box.

The Altair kit sold for $395 when it was new, but one in good condition today can fetch as much as $1,500 because of the exalted position it holds in computer history. Widely regarded as the first mass-market personal computer, it launched a craze when it appeared on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. Bill Gates even dropped out of Harvard to develop an early version of the Basic programming language for the Altair.

The Altair "established Bill Gates in business," said Gwen Bell, founder of the Computer Museum, a Boston mecca for computer lovers. "One of our prize treasures is the original Basic tape that Bill Gates developed on the Altair."

Collectors tend to pass over some of the most popular early machines, such as the original IBM PC and the 1984 Apple Macintosh, because there are just too many of them. Scarcity counts, which helps explain why the most valuable collectible is the Apple I.

Introduced by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak in 1976, the Apple I was nothing more than a circuit board. It had no keyboard, no monitor, not even a case. It sold for $666, and only a few hundred were produced.

A well-preserved Apple I can fetch as much as $12,000 today, sometimes more. An Apple I signed by Jobs and Wozniak sold for $22,000 at a fund-raiser auction for the Computer Museum several months ago, Bell said.

That kind of appreciation has attracted the attention of even non-techie collectors.

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