Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006
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Notes from a differently wired island
by Christine Finn
If you thought computer collecting was universal, think again. At least in terms of what is thought to be collectable.
This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when Sellam Ismail came to Oxford to give an academic paper at my institution. The serious stuff done, I took him off to a charity store - OK, a thrift shop - which specialised in books. Sellam's eyes lit up at the stuff he just couldn't get in America…not rare fiction, but piles of old tech manuals for the old BBC Micros on which I was schooled (circa 1985) and a host of old stuff long turfed out to the bargain bin by the store (Hey, who on earth would buy a manual for a Commodore Pet?) I need hardly add that Sellam gathered up dozens of volumes and shipped them back to the US; an actual BBC Micro followed him shortly after.
What this taught me was simple enough in terms of cultural history. These 'foreign' goods had a value in America way beyond their value in the UK. In Oxford, they were redundant manuals for machines that were being thrown in the dumpster. In America they were fascinating imports which would be plucked from a dumpster and elevated to collectable status. Does it work this other way?
Only the other day I was reminded of the gulf between the concept of collecting in the UK and America. In this case, I am not including computer collectors per se, but flagging up the very idea of computer collecting. The popular BBC show, Antiques Roadshow, is synonymous with furniture, vases and trinkets which those who bring them to be valued regard publicly as valued at, say $100, but privately, say $1,000. The set smile says it all. Anyway, onto this programme wandered a woman from Cambridge who had a Sinclair calculator in its box, and in pristine condition. The calculator looked like a TV remote control. The woman said she's worked for Sinclair and had bought it as one of the perks of the job. The valuer looked askance. He could understand the personal history of the object, but its value? Hmm. He suggested she put it in the attic in case some day it was a collectable.
In the US it seems a different story. For all that we in the UK love our heritage, the history of the computer age is not yet seen as rarified enough. I have battled long and hard over the past five years to get my own research into Silicon Valley's "archaeology," that is, its pre-historic technological past, taken seriously. 'People actually collect computers? That's crazy!' I haven't yet worked out why there is this differing attitude across the Pond. We all use computer technology and both the UK and US have played major roles in its development. But it is only in a few savvy places in the UK - the Science Museums in London and Manchester, Bletchley Park for instance - that the savants genuinely understand the value of old tech. An article I wrote for the liberally renowned UK broadsheet newspaper, the Guardian, a year ago - see http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,906984,0.html - was not the norm, but a piece of cultural curiosity. Who were these geeks who operated on the fringes? And yet years ago Wired magazine was extolling the fab shiny surfaces of the early machines at the nascent Computer Museum in Mountain View.
I have met UK computer collectors and they seem no different to those in the US. I have talked with them at the Vintage Computer Festivals in Munich, and tried to see if they tick at a different rate to the diehards in the US. Again, the same passion is there, if a different currency traded. The appreciation for European machines, it seems, is locked into a collector set. Outside that, the average punter does not get what the collecting scene is all about.
And yet, there I was a couple of years ago in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a quintessential an English places as you could imagine. And I was reading Ada Lovelace's original letters to Charles Babbage and thinking, this is such a piece of technology history in my hands, and how much of it is appreciated here. Ada has been immortalised in film, by an American, but the wonder of her life is largely lost on Brits. A fabulous play "Breaking the Code" about Alan Turing, made the hair on my neck stand on end a decade or so ago, but Turing's role in technology is little known outside the circle of enthusiasts in the UK. Two centuries ago, Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire was as celebrated as Silicon Valley in terms of innovation. Today it is best known as a heritage site which the average person would not link with the story of technological evolution to the chips in their homes. It has a science museum and a library, but in truth the history of technology is not as well understood here as the history of other phenomena which may have had a lesser impact on our culture.
So, will the tide turn in Britain? Will the growing number of computer collectors be able to marshal enough enthusiasm and interest - and funding - to enable the setting up of regional computer museums, small-time collections that would at least engender an interest in the evolution of British machines? I would hope so. Magnificent as it is to refer those interested to the legion of American sites, it would be interesting to have more cross-cultural discussion on the whys and wherefores of computer collecting. What technology travels, what machines do people quite literally cross oceans for? How is the development and take up of tech related to cultural norms in the US and the UK. And do more wired societies such as coastal America necessarily pay more attention to wired history?
I'd welcome your feedback, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, excuse me while I extract this Acorn from the dumpster...