Christies in New York will auction more than 1,000 items dating as far back as the early 17th century, all of it tracing the history of cyberspace. " /> Christies in New York will auction more than 1,000 items dating as far back as the early 17th century, all of it tracing the history of cyberspace. " />

Jessica Helfand | Essays

The New Paper Chase: Cyberspace on The Auction Block

People who collect things are typically drawn to social history — the idea, for example, that an entire era can somehow be encapsulated in a single artifact. Collections of artifacts testify therefore to the notion that history really did happen: people really did wear spats or listen to gramophones or sit, God help them, on flagpoles. Collectors of ephemera — the term broadly given to things that are purportedly ephemeral (read "paper") are especially wedded to this notion, often amassing great quantities of two-dimensional evidence that collectively offer surprisingly cogent testimony to the idea that life not only happened, but might, in fact, be worth a second look.

As an ephemera collector from way back, I am particular vexed by the suggestion that history holds negligible value in a culture dominated by technological excess. (My students know that I award extra credit for any bibliographic source that pre-dates, say, 1990.) Indeed, the very history of that technology — much of it on paper — tells a rather different story.

And on February 23rd in New York, that story will be auctioned to the public.

The very idea of computational history seems, at first glance, like an oxymoron: how can something so intrinsically futuristic have any historical value? Consider the Think-a-Tron: like the Braniac Brain Kit (featured above), the Think-a-Tron was introduced by Hasbro in the 1960s as a child's computer (an odd concept since the age of personal computing wouldn't dawn for another twenty years or so) and marketed with the goofball tagline: "The Machine That Thinks Like A Man." The toy itself consisted of a large, ziggurat-shaped lump of moulded plastic that housed a punch-card system, its perforated cards hand-fed by a series of cranks which, when turned, would cause the toy to momentarily light up, as if to suggest that the "machine" was actually, well, thinking. Loosely modeled on the aesthetics of the Eniac, the Think-a-Tron remains a triumph of cold-war toy design — and therein lies its peculiar charm.

Today, your best chance of locating a Think-a-Tron is probably eBay, but what about the Eniac? The world's first electronic digital computer, initially housed in an enormous room at the University of Pennsylvania, was developed by Army Ordinance to compute World War II ballistic firing tables. What about the Analytical Engine, arguably the first modern computational device, conceived of by the eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage? An early account of this project was published in 1843, and is estimated to bring between $30,000 and $40,000 when it is auctioned later this month at Christies in New York, along with more than 1,000 items dating as far back as the early 17th century, all of it tracing the history of cyberspace — on paper.

The term "cyberspace" itself was initially coined by William Gibson in his novel, Neuromancer in 1984 — the same year Apple introduced the Macintosh — and roughly a century after the invention of such ubiquitous technologies as the lightbulb, the telephone and the internal combustion engine, all of which turn out to be critical to any serious scholarship on the history of computation. What's perhaps less immediately evident is the degree to which so much of this history is so stunningly visual, and the extent to which the visual evidence of such scholarship provides, in a very real sense, its own history.

The materials being auctioned at Christies were collected by Jeremy Norman, a Northern California book dealer, and include manuals, sketches, journal entries, correspondence and memoranda, publications, punch cards and a host of related miscellany. (Unbound sheet music, published in 1931 and featuring the IBM "rally song" Ever Onward, can be yours for an estimated $4,000 — $6,000, along with an additional assortment of other early IBM incunabula.) There are documents pertaining to the 1866 laying of the Atlantic telegraph, illustrated booklets celebrating the "art of wireless" (in 1929 this meant two-way television) and written proceedings from a 1936 meeting of the London Mathematical Society which include Alan Turing's concept of the "universal machine" — an imaginary (!) computing device designed to replicate the mathematical "states of mind" and symbol-manipulating abilities of the human computer. There are documents on cybernetics and studies on code-writing, as well as numerous diagrams — richly reworked in multiple layers of pencil, making them resemble collage studies by Joseph Beuys — as well as extensive promotional footage of both the Eniac and the Univac. There are toys and games, a first edition of Karel Capek's play on robotic servitude, and a series of engravings that sooner liken computation to celestial cartography than to serious science.

Finally, there are volvelles — computing scales and circular oddities that seem to all but defy logic and gravity. Some of them — like Palmer's Computing Scale — the first circular slide rule published in America — are a tour-de-force of graphic design, combining the typographic elegance of an illuminated manuscript with the utilitarian splendor of a numerical tool. In the catalogue for the upcoming exhibition, Norman notes that, sadly, Palmer's slide rule enjoyed only a limited success, largely due to poor marketing and the American public's fear that using the device would "tend to weaken the mind, by causing it to rely upon mere mechanism to make its numbered computations."

Palmer's Computing Scale is estimated to bring upwards of $1,500 — substantially more than any mint-condition Think-a-Tron — and while it's unlikely to weaken the mind, it might weaken your checking account a bit. But what's a dent in the wallet in the interest of computational preservation? Consider yourself fortunate: at least you don't have to spend any time sitting on a flagpole.

The Origins of Cyberspace:
A Library on the History of Computing, Networking & Telecommunications

Sale 1484
Christies New York
23 February 2005, 10:00 am
20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Technology

Comments [7]

For extensive annotation on this collection, check out Jeremy Norman's website on the history of science. (Courtesy of Hugh Dubberly).
William Drenttel

Palmer's Computing Scale was exhibited last year at Jessica Helfand's Volvelle exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City. It is really quite beautiful. An image is posted here.
William Drenttel

A terrific post. Thanks.

My first computing experience, long before the telephone-line timeshare in high school, was the Digi-Comp. My younger brother used to enjoy teasing me about the programmable toy computer that couldn't do much more than add, subtract, and multiply in binary. Boy, would he be surprized to learn about the Friends of Digi-Comp online group.
After mouldering in my parent's basement for over 42 years, I couldn't hazard a guess as to its present worth. But it is reassuring to know that people are interested in ephemera other than Uncle Abe's signature, or what my five-year-old calls "The Decoration of Independence."
And in this Antiques Roadshow nation, where everything is collectible (you can still get your near-mint graded copy of Batman #1 for only $285,000), the Christies prices for Mauchly, Eckert, Wiener, and Turing are positively fire sale!
david stairs

Yeah, I was a Digicomp fan too, but I always felt an aesthetic attraction to the technological artifacts. I knew I had something wonderful and of its era. The plastic, the complexity, the bits of soda straws that controlled the logic all screamed 1960s modernity. Tinker Toys were from the age of wood and human power, Erector sets were from the age of steel and motors, Digicomps were from the age of plastic and computers.

As new things arrive and develop there is a desire to preserve the old lest it be forgotten. Henry Ford set up a pre-automobile resort in upper Michigan, IBM once had a fantastic historical collection of computerana (the Eamses produced a book for them), and my friends and I used to haunt Radio Row before they tore it down to build the World Trade Center. (Canal Street just wasn't the same).

Let's face it, technology in use is invisible. Who noticed the old crank operated gum machines in the New York subways before they were replaced? Who is preserving those advertising sign clocks that are still in many stations? (I had a friend who cleaned those clocks as a summer job).

When I was at MIT, I was always amused by the various bits and pieces of technology that one found in the nooks and crannies, just waiting to be cleaned out in the perpetual search for lab and office space. I remember one of the radar labs had a vacuum tube fax machine prototype, there were acres of old discrete component circuit boards with lurid plastic plug ins, and you could find antique jet engines that were no longer useful for teaching if you knew where to look.

I once needed a metal plug box for a project I was doing, and I found that the EE department had its own machine shop, tucked away in apparent disuse, and it had its own staff machinist who helped me refine my design and built the box for me. It was like falling through a trap door back to 1935.
Don't get me started on the one inch video tape libraries one found in the "cages" in certain basements. Some of the tapes were courses, some were testimony, and some were experimental results. At Stanford, they used an old three plus foot round hard disk surface as a coffee table.

One of my favorite artifacts is from the 1970s. It's a video laser disk with one of the first indexed image libraries on it from the slide collection of the Roche library. I remember one graduate student spending weeks building the index file: each slide by location, by style, by designer. I still have the disk, but where is his index for it? The laser disk could only store analog data. The index was digital. Two years later, no one at the library had even heard of the project.

So don't laugh when someone opens the first iPod museum, complete with a simulated iTunes Music Store kiosk to recreate the old fashioned music buying experience. Is there a "podcast" archive being set up anywhere?

We think we live in the future, but we live in the past. It just hasn't become past yet.

Gary Fogelson

Update: the sale brought only $714,000 — less than many people thought it would, but even so. Makes you wonder what the Ipod Shuffle will bring in 2105.
Jessica Helfand

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