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