Almost 30 years ago I came to possess a little piece of computer history. At the time, it seemed to me a fairly straightforward handwritten letter acknowledging my request to terminate an apartment lease, with instructions on how I could recover my security deposit. What I did not know then was that my landlord, a fellow with the unforgettable name of J. Presper Eckert, was a pioneer of the digital era, a co-inventor of one of the first operational electronic computers.
The idea that this note might qualify as a historical artifact dawned on me a couple of weeks ago as I examined the 254 lots in the "History of Cyberspace" collection auctioned at Christie's on Feb. 23. The earliest items were from the brilliant minds of the pre-computer age like Charles Babbage, the 19th-century visionary who designed a programmable machine called "the Difference Engine." But the meat of the collection consisted of documents from the vacuum-tube cowboys who made the early giant computers, especially my landlord Pres Eckert. His key papers were up for grabs, including the first business plan ever written for a computer company. Other items included his badge for that company (which became Sperry Rand UNIVAC), and his letters, though none concerning an apartment building on Wayne Avenue in Philadelphia.
Jeremy Norman, the California bookseller who built the collection, was thrilled that the auction garnered unprecedented advance publicity. But on the morning of the auction, he seemed nervous that the big money might not show up. Indeed, a disappointed Norman afterward conceded that the results were "mixed." Though some of the most desirable items, like a letter from Lady Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first programs for Babbage's never-built machine (she was also Lord Byron's daughter), went for prices in the high five figures, barely half the lots were sold.
Specifically, the auction lacked spirited bidding wars between moguls who made billions in computers and cyberspace. The only PC legend in attendance seemed to be Lotus founder and venture capitalist Mitch Kapor. If Bill Gates (who once paid $30 million for a Leonardo da Vinci codex) or Larry Ellison had been taking him on, we might have seen some fireworks. But without such competition, Kapor effortlessly snared some of the auction's biggest treasures, including the UNIVAC business plan (his bid was $60,000 plus a 20 percent fee), and computer scientist Norbert Wiener's own annotated copy of his classic "Cybernetics" (a steal at $12K). When asked why he was interested in these historical documents when his peers were not, Kapor joked, "I'm just ahead of my time."
Another, more ominous possibility is that cyberspace is itself a step toward making such collections obsolete. When all our documents are generated by digital means, the nature of what consists of an "original" becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. (Is it the first copy from the printer? The electrons on the hard disk?) And if search companies like Google succeed in their mission to get all human knowledge online, available to everyone, we'll have the power to peruse existing documents like those in the Christie's auction from the comfort of our dens. Why drop $72,000 for Eckert's business plan, with the worry that you'll spill coffee on it, when you can flip through it on screen free of charge?
But accessing documents only electronically means that we lose the thrill of viewing and touching the actual papers handled by the geniuses and artists who created them. Actual contact with the physical objects that helped shape an industry that will forever shape us is, well, priceless. And that letter from my brainy landlord? Not for sale, thanks.