Early memories linger -- on shelf

Keepsake: Unlike a long-lost love, an old computer can exist beyond its owner's reveries - and might still work.

February 06, 2003|By Phil Patton | Phil Patton,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the back of a closet sits my first computer, an Osborne 1 luggable, bought in 1982 for $1,780. I could no more bring myself to part with that ugly thing, the size of a sewing machine, than I could forget the codes for the program it ran (WordStar), which reside in my brain along with the odd line or two of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the counties of North Carolina memorized under duress in grade school.

I am not alone. A lot of people have a hard time saying goodbye to their first computers. Some have even been known to collect early computers and cart them to shows. Now there is a guidebook for them, Collectible Microcomputers (Schiffer Books, $19.95), by Michael Nadeau.

The attraction to machine does not lie in beauty. The Osborne's crudely molded plastic body bears an unpleasant pebbly texture. Its name and logo are printed on what is essentially a bumper sticker. Old computers that live forever suggest a rule: Any technology in its adolescence looks as geeky and gawky as its human equivalent.

When it is amazing enough that something works at all, who notices that it is not yet sleek or made of titanium? Consider the piles of vacuum tubes of the first radios or the first televisions sets with screens no bigger than potholders.

Twenty years have lent even more fascination to old Osbornes, Kaypros and Radio Shacks, along with Ataris, Amigas, Commodores - names that evoke the early days, when Radio Shack sold more computers than IBM. As for Eagle, Leading Edge and Mindset, they might have turned into Dells and Gateways but never did.

They are all there, from Altair to Zilog, in Nadeau's black-and-white paperback, which looks and more like an owner's manual than one of those coffeetable books on collectibles.

Nadeau, who lives in Salem, N.H., is the publisher of Classic Tech, a newsletter devoted to collectible PCs (www.classictechpub.com). He owns only a handful himself.

He says that old computers show up on eBay and at garage sales or are listed at online bulletin boards. Most cost no more than $20 to $50.

"You've got a class of people who don't consider themselves collectors," Nadeau said. "They use old computers. `These machines do everything I need,' they reason, so why bother with Windows? Part of the appeal is, `I can keep it going myself.'

"It's much the same as with cars," he said. "You can do your own work on the old ones but not on today's models."

First there were mainframes, then minicomputers and, beginning in the 1980s, microcomputers, now known as PCs.

Nadeau is more interested in their lore than in prices and rarity. He tells of the Eagle computer, a promising IBM compatible of the 1980s. Dennis Barnhart, president of the company, was killed in a car crash the day it went public.

First-generation PCs were personal: Adam Osborne gave the Vixen, an early luggable, the pet name he gave a girlfriend. Steve Jobs named Apple's Lisa after his daughter.

The largest collection Nadeau knows of, he said, numbers 1,200 and belongs to Sellam Ismail, who runs a vintage computer exhibition and flea market in Silicon Valley (www.vintage.org).

Many collectors specialize: Ataris and Amigas are favorites. Nadeau is especially fond of old Radio Shack TRS-80s, once derided as Trash 80s.

Design buffs are drawn to the GRiD Compass of 1981 (the first laptop), and the Mindset, a "near IBM compatible," as it was advertised, designed by Robert Brunner before he went to Apple. Both are in the Museum of Modern Art's design collection in New York.

Some models have changed remarkably little. IBM's ThinkPad laptop just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The holy grail of computer collectors is the Apple I - only about two dozen exist. The bare circuit board required the owner to provide his own case. They have sold for $12,000 to $25,000.

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