This article originally appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on 28 September, 1999 and is reproduced here by their kind permission. The "T & G" retain copyright.
Tuesday, September 28, 1999
By Nancy Sheehan
Telegram & Gazette Staff
They're unlikely ever to share an auction block at Sotheby's, but to Carl Friend all of them are great names in antiques.
Friend, 38, of West Boylston, is part of a circuit of high-tech collectors who monitor everything from the World Wide Web to Dumpsters hoping to net a cache of cast-off computers. When they find antiques of the style and period they are interested in -- such as Friend's beloved 1970s Data General minicomputers -- they are as thrilled as is a more traditional collector who spies an original Currier & Ives print at a Salvation Army store.
The small-but-growing corps of computer collectors is a coolly calculating group. They are ahead of their time, like the machines they so admire. They know the value of the new technological treasures. In what most of us would consider a bunch of blinking, one-eyed clunkers, they immediately see beauty and historical significance.
Passionate collectors, like Friend, also see the soul of the machine.
Companies aren't particularly nostalgic about them, said Friend, a computer systems administrator for Prescient Technologies, a Boston software developer. They don't have any feelings for them. A machine that has been toiling away faithfully for 20 years, they'll say, 'It's obsolete. Throw it out.' Or they sell it for scrap. It really bothers me.
He's not just saying that. He means every bit of it. You could even call him an old computer's best Friend.
I was doing computer field service and I happened to be at a company that was going to throw one out, he said, of the first computer he rescued from the scrap heap back in 1985. I couldn't stand to see the thing go into the Dumpster, so I said 'I'll take it.' They said 'OK. Get it out of here.'
Friend acquired other orphaned machines in the same humble way. Before he knew it, his collection ranked as a major one.
He's very serious, said Paul Pierce of Portland, Ore., widely recognized as the main man in mainframe collecting. He's up in the top 10 or near it somewhere.
Friend is, nevertheless, as excited about an upcoming acquisition, his 28th, as he was about that first fortuitous one.
I have a lead on another machine out in upstate New York that, hopefully, within another three or four weeks I'll be able to move on, he said, with the excitement of a kid during the days-before-Christmas countdown. It's still in service at a company, but they're about to replace it. They said, actually in very loving terms, that they wanted it to go to a good home. I was like 'Hey, I'll be happy to provide it.'
That good home is getting a little crowded, however. The minicomputers Friend collects are small only in relation to the monstrous -- sometimes room sized -- computers that predated them. They are boxy, hulking things compared with the microcomputers most people use today.
Friend and his wife, Diana Engelbart, are thinking of adding onto their six-room house so the computers and the humans can each have their own space. For now, there is an edgy coexistence. A coffee maker sits atop three Data General Novas in the kitchen. A tall stack of Eclipses, a later Data General introduction, blocks the piano in the living room, making access to it easy only for the couple's several cats. The dining room table has become a flashing, humming computer workstation.
While these things might not have much of a street or market value, they're really as important as anything else in history, Engelbart said. They're the foundation of where we are now, so sometimes I think it's really cool. But other times I think 'There's so much clutter in here I can't stand it.'
Pierce's storage problems went beyond clutter. The giant mainframe computers he collects required a home of their own. Pierce, a researcher for Intel Corp., went out and bought an office building in Portland. He rented the first floor out to businesses and stashed his collection on the second floor.
I have 6,000 square feet and it's packed, said Pierce, whose computers are among the oldest and, therefore, largest ever made. I'm not collecting heavily right now. Most of it is still in boxes from the move. I'm sort of picking away at it trying to get it organized.
But why go to the trouble to find, lift, lug and store a bunch of obsolete computers that can weigh 800 pounds or more apiece?
It became clear that all the big computers were being scrapped, Pierce said. I realized if I could save a small number of them that would still be significant because there are so few of them being saved at all.
Not so the microcomputers, which are much more collectible because of their smaller, more portable, shippable and storable size. If you happened to save your little old '70s era Altair, which came in a build-it-yourself kit, your chip has come in.
They're commanding silly amounts of money right now, Friend said. Collecting microcomputers seems to be all the rage at the moment.
For the oldest microcomputers, collectors will pay from $3,000 to $10,000, Pierce said. For the extremely rare Apple I computer, the price is in the tens of thousands.
If it's down in the 'any serious collector can keep it in their house' size range and it's really seriously old or early, it's starting to get some value, Pierce said.
But it's not that kind of make-a-quick-killing appreciation that fueled pioneer collectors like Friend and Pierce.
I decided I should pursue this because otherwise most of them would wind up either in landfills or cut up for the little bit of semiprecious metal that's in them, Friend said. When you do that they're lost. You can't bring them back after that.
The field may be getting a little more crowded now, but it was a lonely pursuit at first.
Until I got access to the Internet in the early '90s I figured for sure I was alone. No one else was nutty enough to do this, Friend said. Then I started asking (on the Net) 'Does anybody out there have any of this stuff?' and, lo and behold, yes, people do.
By 1996, he was a member of the Retrocomputing Society of Rhode Island, a computer history group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of antique computers. He now is a member of the board of directors of the society, which has computers dating back to 1961 in its museum in Providence.
Friend still needs two pieces to complete his collection of old Data General 16-bit computers -- the original Nova, which launched the company back in 1969, and the Supernova, which followed shortly after.
His interest in the line arose for the most basic of reasons. It was the computer he cut his teeth on in high school.
North Attleboro school officials were considerably ahead of the computer-in-the-classroom curve when they bought a Data General Nova 840 for the high school in 1973. When Friend arrived at the school a few years later, he was fascinated by the machine. He worked on it for hours after school, learning programming, studying the then-necessary computer languages the way other students learned French or Spanish.
He remained fairly close to his old teachers. One day he happened to ask one of them How's the old machine doing? The answer nearly floored him.
They said 'We're looking to get rid of it,' Friend said. It was like 'Wow. This is too good to be true.' He told them he'd gladly take the old machine home. The department head charged with getting rid of it helped Friend load it into the back of his car and off he went.
That's the prize, Friend said. I have other machines that are very dear to me, but that one takes it.
© 1999 Worcester Telegram & Gazette