Gordon Bell, 70, is a legendary figure in the computer industry. In 1960, he became one of the earliest employees of Digital Equipment Corp. and was vice-president for engineering at the pioneering Maynard (Mass.)-based minicomputer company from 1972 to 1983. He was later involved in a number of startup tech companies, headed the National Science Foundation's Information Superhighway Initiative in the late 1980s, and in 1995 joined Microsoft, where he remains a senior researcher based in San Francisco.
Since the 1970s, Bell also has collected computer-related historical documents and memorabilia. He and his wife Gwen donated their collection to the Computer History Museum (computerhistory.org) in Mountain View, Calif., and he is now involved with the museum. Bell recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online Contributing Editor Thane Peterson about the ins and outs of collecting tech historical material and the Origins of Cyberspace auction Christie's is planning to hold in New York City on Feb. 23. Here are edited excerpts of their talk:
Q: How did you get involved in collecting this type of material?
A: Well, there really wasn't any good place to put things. I had been to the Smithsonian and felt that they weren't really interested in the history of computing. The problem is that the Smithsonian has to collect everything. So, we started a museum in a DEC building in 1979, and it became public in 1981 or 1982 or so and was later moved to California, where it became the Computer History Museum. In a sense, my collecting has all been aimed at starting a public museum.
Q: You went all the way back to the early days of calculation and mathematics. Why?
A: I didn't feel the museum could afford to go out and get early books and things like that, so I bought them and gave them -- well, I haven't given them yet. They're on loan, so Christie's is helping me enormously.
A: Basically, when you're collecting and you give something to a public institution, the IRS requires that you substantiate the value of your gifts. What this auction will do is help establish value for all collectors.
Q: Assuming the sale is successful?
A: Yes. Until you actually make the sale and money transfer, you have no established value, so the results are still to come.
Q: In your collection, which purchases really got your blood moving?
A: I was very much interested in physical objects. The first object I got was back in 1975 -- the Millionaire, a six-digit calculator made in Switzerland on which you could do multiplication and division fairly rapidly. There were about 4,600 of them made from 1894 to 1935. I paid $575 for it. I had it evaluated recently, and it's worth on the order of $10,000. Then there was the Thomas Arithmometer, a calculator introduced in 1820. I paid $376 for that. It's probably worth more than the Millionaire.
Q: It seems to me that there are almost two strains of collector: the ones who collect historical books and documents and tinkerers who collect the actual computers and like to get them working. Have you seen that?
A: Yes, I think that's basically right. There are the document and book collectors, and I don't know how they view themselves when it comes to collecting the reprints of articles in the Christie's sale. Will those collectors want to collect articles, or do they just want books?
But there's another distinction. There are also people who collect old scientific instruments. Their orientation is different from the tinkerers, as you call them, who collect computers.
Q: What is your orientation?
A: In a way, I'm a radical at the computer museum. I'm a cyberguy. I want everything to be in cyberspace.
Q: Meaning what?
A: I want the content to be in pure bit form in a computer where it will last forever. Take Edmund Berkeley's Giant Brains, or Machines That Think [published in 1949, the first book on digital electronic computers, a first edition of which is included in the Christie's sale at an estimated price of $2,000 to $3,000]. There's a market for it. I gave my copy to the museum, which has two or three copies. But, for historical research, we really want the information to be available on the Web because there's just too damned much information you need to get at.
Q: If it were up to you, the museum wouldn't even have a building?
A: I had proposed that at one time. I believe in preserving artifacts, too. But books, magazines, business plans, and manuals are really just bits. I want all that also to be available in cyberspace, where computers can help us understand and manage the information.
Q: What is the advantage of collecting old computers?
A: The museum has the world's best collection of vintage computers. It's like the loom collection at the Science Museum in London. You can look at how technology has progressed over time. That's the argument for preserving the artifacts themselves. People are sort of amazed in the same way they are when they look at the dinosaurs and see their evolution.
Q: What about individuals who collect computers? It seems kind of excessive in a way. At your suggestion, I spoke with Paul Pierce, a retired Intel engineer in Portland, Ore., whose personal collection is so big he had to buy a warehouse.
A: Paul falls at the extreme of the camp that likes to keep the machines running. He delights in doing that. We've got a number of people working at the museum who also delight in doing that.
Q: Why bother? I could go out and buy a $500 Mac or Dell computer, and it would be a lot more useful.
A: I don't see it as being any different from antique-car collecting -- people who collect old cars and keep them running. To us, computers are far more alive and interesting than old cars. This brings up -- why collect anything such as art, coins, stamps, or shells? Thereis something thatis a human urge to organize and preserve. Thatis why I founded the museum in the first place.
Q: What would be your advice for people who want to collect computers or computer memorabilia?
A: You've really got to know why you're doing it. For example, there's a guy whose collection we at the museum covet who has collected all of the Apple Macs.
Q: Can you tell me his name?
A: No. Better not. But he was just interested in being very thorough in that area. Which leads to some advice. If you're going to collect, you can pick an area you might be good at and understand what it is that turns you on about it.
Q: Is this stuff going to increase in value?
A: I think the Christie's sale is going to be an interesting test -- to see what the values come in at. My feeling is that this is the last hurrah for books. The question at the Christie's sale will be, Will people pay for paper, even if it's autographed by important historical figures? It's difficult for me to see how printed bits will be as valuable in the future as they are now.
Q: What about early computers, which are not included in the Christie's sale? Will they continue to rise in value?
A: Oh, they'll go up in value because there are a small number of them. The museum has a couple of Apple 1s -- introduced in 1976 -- that are very valuable, even though they have virtually no functionality. They fall into the same category as sculpture. For instance, DEC PDP "Straight 8" minicomputers -- introduced in 1965 -- are not only rare but very nice-looking machines. And all of the Cray supercomputers from the 1970s and 1980s are quite beautiful.
Q: I've heard of people getting a Cray supercomputer, which originally cost millions of dollars, almost for free at this point.
A: Oh, yes. At the museum, we have them offered to us frequently, so it's good to be able to let other museums and collectors keep them. I hope that in a few hundred years, people will be able to see a PDP-8 or Cray 1.