Bid now for a piece of computer history

Christie's to auction lots and lots of lots

If you ever wanted to own a contemporary sketch of Charles Babbage's analytical engine - the forerunner to modern-day computers - or get your hands on the first business plan devised to sell computers, or even the original Arpanet documents written by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn - then now's your chance.

But it won't be cheap.

Later this month, a remarkable collection of documents following the evolution of computing from the 1600s to the 1970s will be on auction at Christie's in New York. And the 255 lots, containing 1141 items, are expected to make their owner at least $2m.

That owner, one Jeremy M. Norman, has been collecting computing books and documents since 1971 and his life's work, The Origins of Cyberspace Library, will be up for grabs on 23 February, following a few exhibitions and speaking engagements.

Among the multitude of original and fascinating documents are those that cover the first programmable computer, the first electronic computer, the first software, mathematical theories covering all aspects of telecommunications, the history of the whole computer business and the odd children's game or two.

Norman's initial fascination was with Babbage himself, a genius who lived most of the 1800s and as a mathematician in Cambridge created all the main elements of the digital computer. He loved fire, hated music and had it away with Ada Lovelace, Byron's daughter, not to mention nearly bankrupted himself by betting on the horses so extensively because he was convinced he had a devised a perfect system to pick winners.

As such, a good amount of Babbage's work is up for sale, including a sketch of his legendary Analytical Engine - yours for only $30,000 to $40,000.

But you want to know though is the most expensive item, right? It is the business plan for the worl'd first computer company written by J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly. Titled "Outline of plans for development of electronic computers", you can see this scrappy looking document in good details here. But if you want to hold it, you'd better dig deep because the expected price is $50,000 to $70,000.

In comparison, the first documents for Arpanet and the TCP/IP protocol that is the foundation of the internet, are a steal at $2,000 to $3,000. You could even track down the authors to sign it for you. Vint Cerf is currently chairman of ICANN in Los Angeles and Bob Kahn is CEO of CNRI in Virginia.

If you can't quite afford that either but want a piece of computing history, the cheapest lots start at $400. For that you can get a presentation on computer networks by Joseph Licklider or a book of machine translation, or various other assorted goods.

Of what you could do is buy a book that contains detailed notes and pictures of every single item of Norman's collection. In fact, you can get "Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing and Computer-Related Telecommunications" on Amazon.com right now. It will cost you $500 and Amazon only has one left, so be quick.

But, for the rest of us, more concerned about eating, drinking and living in a warm house to go spending thousands of pounds on old bits of paper, there remains the internet. And being a computer-head, Norman has very thoughtfully stuck huge wodges of his library up on the web for all to see. So pay it a visit at www.historyofscience.com.

If you are seriously thinking about bidding, or you're just curious, Christie's has a section on the auction here, and you can get more in-depth details on each lot by clicking here.

Related links

Collection's homesite
Christie's auction

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