Tech by VICE

$1.5 Million Worth of Tech History Goes to Auction

Bonhams New York is auctioning off an Apple-1, a Nazi Enigma machine, and a letter from Darwin stating he doesn’t believe in God.

by Noémie Jennifer
Sep 17 2015, 6:20pm

Kenbak-1. Estimate $30,000-50,000. All images courtesy Bonhams.

“You never know how an auction will go,” says Bonhams specialist Cassandra Hatton. “Some things don’t sell; some things go for double the estimate.” Hatton is the Director of the History of Science and Technology department, which she founded last year. The first sale of artifacts in this field, held in October 2014, saw an original Apple-1 go for over $900,000. Last April, a World War II era manuscript by Alan Turing, containing notes on the foundation of mathematics and computer science, went over the one million dollar mark. This Monday, September 21, 78 lots go on offer in the Bonhams New York saleroom, and Hatton is expecting sales to reach about $1.6 million in total.

The auction will save some of the best for last, with rare pieces of computing history making up the three final lots: a prototype Kenbak-1 computer from 1971, dubbed “the world’s first personal computer”; another fully functional Apple-1 computer, the most expensive item at auction, with an estimate of $300,000–500,000; and the only existing Cray-4 supercomputer, which was electronics engineer Seymour Cray’s final project before he died in 1996.

The Apple-1 is composed solely of a motherboard—users were expected to add and build out the additional parts themselves. Two batches of the computer were produced: in 1976, Steve Jobs got the Byte Shop in Mountain View, California to place an order for 50 boards. He and Wozniak then took the cash from that sale and built out another 200 or so. “The boards that collectors want are the first 50, and you want one that is fully operational,” explains Hatton. The motherboard that goes on sale Monday meets both those criteria. The original owner used it once or twice, wasn’t happy with it, and decided to trade it in for something else at a computer shop in Florida. The store owner stuck it on a shelf and forgot all about it, until he saw the Apple-1 that sold at Bonhams last year. He immediately got on a plane to New York to talk to Hatton, motherboard in tow, and will most likely be taking home a hefty check next week.

Very rare George III mahogany and engraved brass orrery. Estimate $200,000-250,000.

The objects on sale were culled over months of research and travel, according to Hatton. “In this field, I have two layers of collectors,” she adds. “I have more established collectors who are really only looking for the rarest, earliest, most important science books, manuscripts and objects, and don’t buy a lot of 20th century material. Then I have younger collectors just entering the market, who buy more recent technology.” This makes for an extremely varied set of items spanning several centuries.

A Rare Early 3-Rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machines (aka Heeres Enigma), Berlin, early 1930s. Estimate $160,000-180,000.

A signed letter from Charles Darwin, pointedly stating that he does not believe in the Bible, is expected to fetch a high price, as is the 1934 Nobel Prize medal awarded to George Minot for his life-saving work on anemia. The sale also includes a rare 18th century orrery (a mechanical model of the solar system) and a functioning Enigma machine used by the Nazis. One overlooked find is a small portrait of Ada Lovelace, the under-recognized 19th century English countess who wrote the first-ever computer algorithm.

The World’s First Computer Programmer. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852). Estimate $12,000-18,000.

Ambroise Paré (1510?-1590), Les Oeuvres. Paris: Gabriel Buon, 1579. Estimate $5,000-7,000.

White's Physiological Manikin. New York, James T. White & Co., Publishers, 1886. Estimate $800-1,200.

Many other scientific artifacts and works on paper, dating back to the 16th century, are on sale. See them all here, or if you are in New York, check them out in person this Friday, Saturday and Sunday during public viewing hours.


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