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         The Why and How of HOC collecting

Aristo 670 mileage calculator     Officially, I became a History of Computing collector in 2001, when I used a long vacation to create an exhibition of computing history for my workplace. But informally, I’ve been doing it for most of my life. Evidently, it resonated with my way of looking at technology... and I suppose this explains why I find it so enjoyable.
   Here are some tips and insights about this hobby, in case you want to give it a try yourself.

Why collect HOC artifacts?

    Why collect anything? Because it’s fun, primarily; and because if done right, it can be intellectually stimulating. This hobby gave me occasion to deepen my knowledge in an area that fascinates me, learn many interesting stories, make new friends...
    It’s amazing how the sight of an old slide rule can excite people. The reaction of people of all ages to the HOC exhibit I made for Intel is always the same: they glance at the items idly until their eye catches some artifact that they had in their youth, or that their father had, or that their grandfather showed them as children... and then they grow all excited and start explaining it to anyone around them with great animation!
    As it happens, I like to share knowledge, which is why I often volunteer to teach courses and lecture to visitors in the course of my work. Since starting this collection I’ve worked artifacts and anecdotes from the history of computers into many of these lectures, and this never fails to fascinate the audience. If you start collecting, I encourage you to share your hobby with others -- exhibit your collection, lecture about it, or show it online as I do here. You will find it very rewarding. In fact, my traveling exhibit and its online version brought me unexpected "fame", to the point that some people I never met before wrote me or even donated items to my collection in gratitude for the pleasure they got from it. You’d never think that collecting old slide rules could help one make friends, would you?...
Intel C1101 - first MOS memory chip

How I got started

    A radio-electronics hobbyist since my teens, I kept collecting what we amateurs affectionately called “junk”, electronic bits and pieces that might come in handy some day. This accumulated slowly in boxes in my basement. Then, during that vacation in 2001, I took some time to rummage through those boxes, and I found that I had a small but varied collection of items representing the development of electronics and computers over the years (I’d always had a fascination for the progress of technology over time, and the “junk” reflected this point of view). From this raw material I distilled an exhibition of computing technology history for Intel, where I worked, which traveled around the world from museum to museum!
    After the Intel exhibit was done I constructed a small showcase at home, and started collecting computing artifacts more explicitly.
Otis King's cylindrical slide rule

What to collect

    As with any collection, there are many answers to this question. Some people will collect any item they can get their hands on; others will specialize in a specific subcategory, such as circular slide rules or crank operated desk calculators; still others specialize in a particular period or country of manufacture.
    In growing my own modest collection I follow primarily my gut feeling, but it seems that I end up obeying (somewhat loosely) the following criteria:
  • I collect items that illustrate the historical progress of innovation. I don’t try to get samples from all the different release years or makes of a given item. Instead I will acquire an item if it differs in some significant way from the ones I already have. My collection has many series that contain “one of each”: One 8-inch floppy disk, one 5-1/4" single sided single density floppy, one 5-1/4" double sided single density, one 5-1/4" double sided double density, one 3.5" single sided ... and so on, reflecting the progress of this storage technology. Or I have one each from every Intel microprocessor from the first one ever made (the 4004) to the present day.
  • I also collect items that are interesting in some way, for example because they have some unusual design feature, or they capture the “zeitgeist” of their era in some way, or are just strange and wonderful. An example would be my early issues of Info 64 magazine, "The first personal computer magazine produced entirely with personal computers" - which capture the excitement and the zeal of those early Commodore hobbyists.
  • I prefer to collect smaller items, like slide rules and handheld calculators, not having enough storage space for larger desktop machines.
  • I try as far as possible to get items in good condition – not mint, which would cost a premium, but more or less “like new”.

   A sample of the collection is presented on this web site, so you can judge for yourself how well it meets these criteria.

Acu-Math 1211 pocket slide rule

Where can one get this stuff?

    There are a number of sources for computer history artifacts:

  1. Friends and Family. Who knows what goodies hide in the attics of your friends and relatives? Go treasure hunting! And always remember, the computer you throw out today may be the collectable of tomorrow -- So if you have an original IBM PC, or a Mac classic, or a Commodore 64 –- just keep it around.
  2. Flea markets, garage sales, antique malls. Much patience is required, but now and then you can get a real find, often at a bargain price.
  3. Serious antique merchants. There are stores that specialize in scientific antiques; few and far between, but in my travels I make a point of locating them... and then I come back whenever I can. For example, an excellent place to look is the Portobello Road Market in London, which guarantees the visitor a wonderful experience in any case.
  4. eBay, of course. The advent of online auctions has opened huge opportunities. Search eBay for slide rule, for mechanical calculator, for adding machine, and for specific items you’re looking for. Lots of calculators can also be found on the German site, (try searching for rechenmaschine or rechenschieber ).

    Of course, it can’t hurt to be in touch with other collectors... a good way to find them is to join the Oughtred Society, which has an online swap sheet for members and a wealth of information.

    Have fun!


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