Magazine article Newsweek

History Is Going, Going, Gone; We Risk Losing the Thrill of Viewing and Touching the Actual Papers Handled by Geniuses

Magazine article Newsweek

History Is Going, Going, Gone; We Risk Losing the Thrill of Viewing and Touching the Actual Papers Handled by Geniuses

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

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. …

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