Genius on the Block

The foundations of the computing age go up for auction

5 min read
Photo of  a signed, unpublished manuscript written by Joseph Marie Jacquard.

Looming Influence: A signed, unpublished manuscript written by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1809 details the development, operation, and uses of the Jacquard attachment for a loom, which allowed automatic control of all the actions required to weave complex patterned fabrics. Such modified looms could be programmed with chains of punch cards. Apart from its significant impact on the 19th-century textile industry, the idea of programming devices with punch cards influenced computer pioneers.


In the beginning, there was paper. A whole lot of it. Today’s electronic, cybernetic, digital world had its genesis in books and journals, reports and memos, and even some hand-typed pages, many of them dating from the decades between 1930 and 1960.

This past February, the biggest private collection of this paper went up for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York City. From the early mechanical calculators of the 17th century through the birth of electronic computing during World War II up to the founding of the Internet in the 1970s, some of the most important documents in the history of computing and telecommunications went under the gavel.

Before the auction, the general public could visit the collection and even handle many of the items—albeit under the watchful eyes of Christie’s staff. Visitors could leaf through an unpublished 1809 manuscript on the influential Jacquard loom (punch cards were used to program the loom to weave patterns) written by Joseph Marie Jacquard himself [ See Figure]; a signed first edition of Karel Capek’s R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, the 1920 play that coined the term robot; or Norbert Wiener’s own first-edition copy of his 1948 book [Cybernetics], heavily annotated by Wiener with corrections for the second edition.

The auction itself found the collection’s owner and seller, , a bespectacled bookseller based in Novato, Calif., sitting nervously in front of the auctioneer’s podium. Norman is an oddity: a professional rare-book dealer, with a history degree, who can sift through circuit schematics and faded equations and discern the work of genius.

“No other individual has ever tried to collect the origins of electronic computing,” Norman says, and indeed, February’s auction was the first high-profile sale of a significant amount of such literature. Although Norman knew little about technology, he explained that he was inspired to start collecting related items when in “1970 or 1971, I was in New York, and at the time IBM had an office on Park Avenue with a history wall on display.”

The history wall, a mosaic of reproduced documents and images, inspired Norman to purchase some rare mathematical tables printed on an early calculating machine for US $22.50. As the years went by, Norman continued buying computing-related items, mostly from the 19th century and earlier. Eventually, when this first collection grew to about 150 pieces, he sold it, in 1994.

But Norman still had the computer bug, and in 1998 he decided to start over, building up a huge library of some 1000 items. Now he was back in New York City, with his collection divided up into 255 lots. The auction had attracted considerable international publicity, especially among the digerati, but Norman knew the potential bidders that were filtering in to take their seats were going to be a tough crowd.

It was a chicken-and-egg situation: rare-book dealers and collectors didn’t usually buy computer-related material, because without a market for it already in existence, there was no way to gauge its value. Norman was hoping to break the logjam.

“The book business in general is one of ‘follow the leader,’” Norman says. “Collectors and dealers are always chasing the same titles. The only books on computing you normally see are books by John Napier that were published in the 17th century. That’s how backward the market is,” explains Norman. The technical nature of the collection was Norman’s biggest problem. How could he get collectors who weren’t computer engineers to understand, say, the value of Claude E. Shannon’s 1937 master’s thesis, which proved that electronic circuits could be used to do logical and mathematical operations, thereby laying the cornerstone of electronic computing?

Norman’s answer was to write and self-publish, with his business associate Diana Hook, Origins of Cyberspace, a book that cataloged his library and explained each item’s significance. “Since most other collectors are following the leader, I thought to write a bibliography and create a framework for other people,” says Norman. Released in 2002 at $500 per copy, the book wasn’t exactly Book-of-the-Month Club material, but Norman hoped it might guide other collectors, and he decided it was time to start trying to sell the collection and get a return on the money spent accumulating it. (Norman wouldn’t say how much he had spent purchasing items for the collection.)

Now, on this cold, bright morning, it was the moment of truth. Bidders were given white paddles with three-digit numbers printed on them. Bidders who could not attend in person or who desired maximum privacy were connected to the auction through a squadron of sharply dressed Christie’s employees glued to banks of phones along the walls.

Despite Norman’s carefully planned strategy, the bidders in the room seemed a little nonplussed by the collection. The first two items failed to sell. Finally, a 17th-century book about a mechanical calculator went for $4800, about twice the valuation in the auction catalog (prices quoted include Christie’s 20 percent surcharge). Other items from the 17th and 18th centuries quickly sold, but the 19th century threw a wrench into the works, with the debut publication of the designer of the first real computer, Charles Babbage, left unsold. Then another work by Babbage fetched $38 400—three times the catalog estimate.

The auction continued in much the same hot-and-cold fashion. A confidential 1948 Progress Report on the Automatic Computing Engine that included source code for programs written by Alan Turing—one of the founders of computer science—failed to sell, while volume 57 of Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from 1938, which published Shannon’s master’s thesis, sold for $15 600. (The American Institute of Electrical Engineers was a predecessor of the IEEE.)

But when it came to the auction’s star attraction, the booksellers were brushed aside. Lot 238 comprised eight sheets of dog-eared typewritten paper with a typo in the title: “Outline of Plans for Development of Electronic Computors [ sic].” Written in 1946 by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, coinventors of the seminal ENIAC computer, the “Outline” is the founding document of the commercial computer industry. It is the business plan for the first computer company, the Electronic Control Co., and includes a list of potential customers and uses for computers. The ECC was later bought up by Remington Rand Inc. and would go on to produce the influential Univac computer, which brought computing into businesses and governments around the world.

As the bidding kicked off on , one person repeatedly raised a paddle, quickly outbidding everyone in the room. The dealers and collectors who had been bidding throughout the auction, and who generally recognized each other, twisted in their seats trying to make out an unfamiliar man and woman sitting together near the back. “Who are those people?” muttered one. But any computer historian would have recognized the man: Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp., cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and currently chair of the nonprofit Open Source Applications Foundation. Kapor is one of the original computer-software millionaires minted in the 1980s, now given to philanthropy.

Soon Kapor was bidding against only one other, a phone-in bidder known as 851. But Kapor was not to be beaten. Bidder 851 folded, and the software magnate snapped up the “Outline”—for a princely $72 000, or $9000 per page. Afterward, Kapor stated he simply had a list of lots he liked, with the criterion being that “each item had some personal resonance.” It wasn’t too surprising to find Eckert and Mauchly’s plan on a wish list belonging to the founder of a famously successful computer software company. Asked what he thought of the business merits of the “Outline,” Kapor told IEEE Spectrum that Eckert and Mauchly “underestimated both the budget and the time to market pretty dramatically. But they nailed the idea there was a large market for computing devices. The plan was quite farsighted.”

For now, Kapor plans to put high-quality scans of the entire “Outline” online and is considering displaying it in the offices of the Open Source Applications Foundation, in San Francisco.

When the auction ended soon after, Norman shook Kapor’s hand and congratulated him on his “good taste.” The auction had fetched $714 000. Norman was philosophical about the outcome—only about half the items had sold, but those that were bought did well. “It’s a spotty result, but the highs were very good. Whenever you do something new, you don’t know what to expect.” Norman hopes that, now that he has shown there’s some life in the market, collectors may come forward individually to purchase unsold items from him. Having become something of an expert on the history of computers through his collecting, he plans to release a book on the subject targeted at a much more general audience than his first $500 tome.

“I did this as an adventure,” said Norman, “and it’s sent me down interesting paths.”

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions