Gulf News

Old computers are not junk but a goldmine

There is too much history and money to ignore in discarded hardware



n the first purchase of his collection, Sellam Ismail loaded the trunk of his car with old computers he stumbled upon at a flea market for $5 (Dh18.4) apiece. Soon he had filled his three-car garage with what others would consider obsolete junk.

Years later, his collection of early computers, printers, and related parts is piled high across shelves and in chaotic heaps in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse near Silicon Valley. And it is worth real money.

Even as the power and speed of today’s computers make their forerunner­s look ever punier, a growing band of collectors are gathering retro computers, considerin­g them important relics and even good investment­s.

“There has been a real steep upward trend in prices in the last year, year and a half,” said Ismail, 38. “It seems it’s become like the new collectibl­e to moneyed people. Before it was just nerds and hobbyists.”

He states his own affiliatio­n clearly: he wears a black T shirt with the word “nerd” on the front. He recently brought a quartercen­tury old Xerox Star computer back to life to be used as evidence in a patent lawsuit.

The pride of his collection is an Apple Lisa, one of the first computers (introduced in 1983) with a now standard graphical interface. Such items sell for more than $10,000.

In an old barn in Northern California, Bruce Damer, 45, keeps a collection that includes a Cray 1 supercompu­ter, a Xerox Alto (an early microcompu­ter introduced in 1973) and early Apple prototypes. “For me the fascinatio­n with these artifacts are that they are living histories — especially if they can be kept running — and that they are the key innovation­s that affect all of our lives more than anything else here in the 21st Century,” Damer said. “These artifacts also represent the ‘roads not taken’ when you see designs and user interfaces that in some ways are better than we have now, but simply didn’t make it.” Damer’s “Digibarn” is open to the public by appointmen­t.

“I think my wife can be a bit put off by the project if we get visitors who want to come on the weekends but she is remarkably tolerant of this hobby of mine,” said Damer, who is the owner of a company that produces 3D simulation­s for the US space agency, Nasa.

New Jersey-based Evan Koblentz says acquiring old computers is much like some other hobbies. “Antique car collecting is a great analogy,” he said.


“Vintage computers have character. Once the whole Wintel thing came along, all computers pretty much look alike,” he said of newer computers that run Windows software on Intel Corp processors.

“In vintage computers, just because you bought one and plugged it in didn’t mean it would work, didn’t mean the software was available.” As in other hobbies, tech enthusiast­s scour internet sites and eBay for offerings, attend swap meets (where the old machines are sometimes demonstrat­ed) and rely on word of mouth to obtain rare finds. Some celebrate their collection­s on detailed Internet sites, such as Silicon Valley software engineer Erik Klein, 41, at

“I’ve tried collecting stamps and coins and never quite got into it mainly because, for me, you can’t really ‘feel’ the history in the items,” he said.

The pride of his collection is a 1971 Kenbak-1 computing machine that he bought for $2,500 a few years ago. He says it has since appreciate­d five fold.

In Livermore, Ismail says his vast holdings of more than 2,000 computers, thousands of books, monitors and countless electronic odds and ends is worth more than $500,000.

 ?? Reuters ?? Sellam Ismail looks over an old Apple II computer at his warehouse in Livermore, California.
Reuters Sellam Ismail looks over an old Apple II computer at his warehouse in Livermore, California.

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