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Vintage Computer Festival

Finding Vintage Computers
A Primer

by Sellam Ismail (sellam@vintage.org)
Vintage Computer Festival

May 15, 2000
1st Edition

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I recently received an e-mail from a VCF fan who lamented about being born in the wrong place and being "15 years too late" for the hobby of computer collecting.  While I must admit the metropolis of Ontario, Canada (from where this fan hailed) is not necessarily an area know as a hotbed of technology, the fact is people still used computers there from the earliest days, just not in the numbers that they would have in more "modern" (for lack of a better term) areas.

I replied to him that the stuff is still out there, you've just got to dig deeper and farther.  And then I forwarded him a link to the 1st edition of this Primer.  I then decided to read through parts of the primer, something I hadn't done in a long time.  I then thought I should go through it to see how applicable my suggestions still were, and to update the article to reflect a more contemporary setting for the computer collecting hobby.

Here in 2009, the year that something finally gave, the hobby, I think, is at an interesting juncture.  Will it continue along the lines of a homely nerd hobby, where we appreciators of vintage tech quietly elate over our passion; or will it become the domain of the moneyed few?  Or will it evolve into a more dynamic and innovative hobby, where hackers and tinkerers of our generation take the masterpieces (and stinkers) of the giants whose shoulders we stand upon forward with replicas, add-on boards for original machines, and entirely new and original designs,  The success of events such as the Vintage Computer Festival and other regional vintage computing and gaming events, along with the continued vibrancy of the Classic Computers mailing list, have propelled the hobby forward and made it more than just a hobby.  We made it practical.  And I mean in that we took what were essentially old/obsolete computers, and not only did we resurrect them, but we brought them current.  And we incorporated them into our modern computing.  And from that fusion came a fount of creativity that I think is the spirit underlying events such as the Make Festival.  Vintage computing hobbyists are born Makers, as well as historians, archivist, and warehouse managers.

So this update is dedicated to all the vintage computer collectors out there who have helped to build this hobby to what it is today.  May you find that holy grail hidden in plain sight.

New comments are embedded in the original article in [square brackets like this].  Obsolete sections are omitted without notice.  I also improved some wording in places where I thought ill of my previous writing.

This primer is intended to give you ideas that will help you find vintage computers in and around your general vicinity.  It was written to aid the many frustrated collectors who believe they have exhausted their local sources and still cannot find any old computers.  Well, I assure you this is [probably still] not the case.  Old computers can be found in a lot of places that you might not have considered.

Keep in mind these principles when determining what to pay for old computers:

* some people are just happy to have their old machine go to a new home [still true]

* the bigger the machine, the less money it generally sells for [not so true anymore]

* for some large machines, people are sometimes willing to pay you to haul it away [still true more or less]

[Where things have changed is in mainframes from the 1970s and earlier era.  These machines, at least up until the panic of '08 and probably not much past the upcoming crash of '09, have started to increase dramatically in value.  I've been appraising machines over the past several years where the value was estimated in the tens of thousands.  This was for complete mainframe systems with peripherals and cables and software and documentation, but still, a 1950s-1960s era CPU is a rarity these days.  And there are moneyed people out there.  And some of those moneyed people are nerds like us.  Will this trend continue?  It will, certainly, I think.  But in a "democratic" way.  The truly old/rare (old these days almost necessarily implies rare) or unique will not only hold their value but I believe will appreciate over time.  I'm talking generations, where they will be revered as family heirlooms.  These will normally be small handhelds and 8-bit consoles, stuff that can migrate easily; or manuals and books or other artifacts either signed by or used in some way by a famous computer scientist or engineer.  These will also be personal items, such as "grandpa Vince's Apple 1" or "great uncle Cameron's Commodore 64".

Larger machines, like mainframes and minicomputers, will eventually start to filter into museums, as families who inherit a 1960s era mainframe might not know what to do with something that is going to consume the space in their garage.  As a result they will become priceless, like rare works of art.  Keep in mind, we're talking generations, here; hundreds of years.]

[To future generations: if I'm wrong, sorry they made you store that damned thing in your garage for all these years.]

Flea Markets/Ham Fests/Car Boot Sales/Radio Rallies

Flea markets/Ham Fests/Car Boot Sales/Radio Rallies/Whatever You Call Them are still great places to find vintage computers, but it just ain't what it used to be, I'm sad to say.  The amount of signal (vintage computers) to noise (household detritus and modern computer and electronics junk) is at a very unfortunate low.

We begin with the most obvious place to find vintage computers, the Flea Market/Ham Fest/Car Boot Sale (I will refer to them as "flea markets").  Flea markets can occur with frequent regularity or just occasionally, from several times a week to perhaps once a year.  Usually they are comprised of people trying to get rid of their old junk.

At the more general flea market, finding old computers is usually a challenge.  Most of what you will find is the sort of junk that you already have stored away in your garage, basement, attic, closet, etc.  But occasionally you will find old computers, and the advantage here is that most collectors won't bother with these sorts of flea markets, so the competition is low.

You will be more likely to find vintage computers at Ham Fests as most radio guys (and gals) are also computer users.  Many Hams were early adopters of microcomputers during the mid- to late-70's and as such are likely targets for finding some of the more interesting early micros such as S-100 bus machines as well as mini-computers.

You can generally expect to pay prices in the range of $5 - $50 for most vintage computers that show up at these events.  Occasionally stuff can be had for free, since the seller just wants to get rid of it, or you can wait until after the event is over and head over to the trash bins where you will find all the stuff the sellers didn't want to take back home with them.

Haggling at flea markets is mandatory.  Never pay more for an old computer than you have to.  Learning how to haggle properly would take a whole other primer.  The way to get good at it is to just go out and do it.

If you don't find any vintage computers at Ham Fests, don't get discouraged.  The fact is they just haven't found you.  It might be well worth your while to rent a space at the next event and put up a table of your own.  Display signs indicating you are interested in old computers.  A lot of the people attending the ham fests as buyers also have old computers that they'd like to get rid of and you will meet many people this way.  The price of a space is usually not very high, perhaps from $10-$50.

To find Flea Markets/Ham Fests/Car Boot sales in your area, look in the classified ads section of your local paper or in the small classified periodicals, or check the upcoming events listings for your local fairgrounds as a lot of times those are venues for large flea markets.  Better yet, hop on over to http://www.openair.org/ which is an excellent online resource for finding flea markets and ham fests in your area worldwide.

Thrift/Charity Shops

Another good place to find vintage computers is at your local Thrift (or Charity) store.  Almost every city has at least one.  The bigger cities will have many.  The most common ones (in the United States anyway) are The Salvation Army, Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul.  In my experience, these are NOT good stores to find old computers.  Usually they take all incoming computers and sell them at special sales.  Or, if old computers do make it into the store, the pieces to it are usually not all together, or in some cases the parts to one computer may have been scattered across multiple stores.

The better thrift stores to look in for old computers are the stand-alone stores or the for-profit chains.  They usually won't sort through and separate the items and so you're more likely to find old computers at these.

Prices vary from ridiculously cheap to just plain ridiculous.  Some stores have no concept of a computer being obsolete.  To them, a computer is an expensive, fancy device that is worth lots of money, and they price them accordingly.  Others don't differentiate between an old computer and an old toaster, and will sell computer items at the same prices they sell the rest of their appliances, in many cases for only a few dollars or less.  Some stores try to price computer items separately but can't tell the difference between modern day PC components and old computer parts, and as a result you'll see vintage machines selling for the same price as the more modern machines.

Some thrift stores will slash the price of their items for every week that it does not sell.  If something is priced too high you might wait until the following week and buy it at half off!  Ask the store what their policy is.  While you're at it, don't be afraid to make an offer on an item you are interested in.  Haggling at thrift stores is OK.

To find thrift stores, look in your local phone book, or check the web.  Many of the larger institutions now have websites that will direct you to the nearest store.  Search for them online.

Electronics Surplus Shops

If you can find them, electronics surplus shops are great places to find vintage computers.  The prices are generally high at these stores but haggling is sometimes acceptable.  It's always best to just ask.

Look in your local phone book to find electronics surplus shops in your area.  You also might want to try looking for general electronics repair shops, as they may have old computers laying about their shop as well.

Colleges/Universities/Schools

Schools are great places to find aging computers.  Oft times an old machine is tucked away in a closet or basement and forgotten.  Many schools have periodic rummage sales to sell off obsolete equipment.  Ask the school administration if they have these sales and mark your calendar for the next one.

You might also want to try contacting the teachers and professors directly as they may have knowledge of old computers that are no longer in use.  The best ones to approach would be in the physical sciences departments: chemistry, physics, biology, etc.  Of course, the Computer Science department would also be a good choice.

Auctions

An auction is sometimes a good place to find vintage computers, especially if it is an auction to liquidate the assets of a company that used computers in its operations.  Look in the classified ads of your local paper to find out about upcoming auctions and estate sales in your area.

Of course you can also try the online auctions.  eBay is, of course, the most popular of the auction sites for finding vintage computers.  However, competition is fierce, and as such prices are generally higher than you would pay at other venues.  Bargains can be found by performing searches that locate items not listed in the categories specifically for old computers.

Scrap/Salvage Yards

If you're looking for "Old Iron", your most likely chance of finding it are in scrap yards.  The precious metal content of big mainframes unfortunately sends many old computers to a frightful end.  Try to find scrap yards in your area and ask the owner if they ever get old computers in.  If they do, try to strike up a deal with them.  Tell them you will pay them some amount over scrap value (for instance 10%) for any old machines they haul in.  This will make it worth their while to work with you.  Be forewarned: many scrap yard owners can be mean & nasty, and legends abound of various ones destroying perfectly good vintage equipment of all sorts either because you offered too low a price or just because you look funny.  They are notoriously rude and generally just unstable people.  Of course these are just generalizations, and your situation may vary.

Classified Ads

Of course you can always try searching the classified ads of your local paper, as some vintage computers do occasionally show up in the listings.  Of course, don't neglect the Usenet for-sale newsgroups.  Better yet, check for items listed for sale in the many newsgroups dedicated to specific computer platforms.

Garage Sales

Ah, the good old fashioned garage sale.  You can find one almost every weekend somewhere, but you'll rarely find anything of interest to a computer collector.  Occasionally you'll come across something good, but in general it is so hit and miss as to not be worth the effort.  However, if you're ever driving down the street and you happen upon a garage sale, it wouldn't hurt to spend a minute to stop and check it out.

Pawn Shops

Every pawn shop I've gone into looking for vintage computers didn't have any.  The most likely reason is that no pawn shop dealer is going to lend out money for a computer he knows is older than a year or so because that computer will be close to worthless in months.

Also, every pawn shop I've ever been in charges ridiculous prices for their merchandise, sometimes greater than retail!

My recommendation: don't bother.

Let Them Come to You

One way to find vintage computers is to let them find you.  Try placing an ad in the classifieds section of your local paper.  Be sure to specify exactly what you are looking for to avoid getting a flood of false leads.  In the very least, include a cut-off year indicating you are not interested in any computers manufactured after that year.

Better yet, try posting an ad in one of the many Usenet newsgroups dedicated to older platforms.  Or you can try posting an ad in one of your local for-sale newsgroups.

The Traveling Nerd

If you take frequent business trips to other areas, try scheduling time during your trip to search out old computers.  The areas you visit may be fertile, untapped grounds for finding vintage machines.  Upon arrival, check the phone book for any of the various sources listed above.  You may also want to try to time your trips to coincide with any large flea markets or ham fests in the area and arrange to stay during the weekend so you can attend the event.

Once you've acquired vintage computers whilst away from home, you'll soon realize you have to get them home somehow.  This is not a problem.  Most airlines allow two check-in bags (up to 65 pounds each) and two carry-on bags per passenger.  Find a sturdy box and some packaging material and pack your findings, then check them in at the airport as your baggage.  You can find boxes and packaging materials at a local mailing center, or at moving vehicle rental locations such as U-Haul.  Pack your box well!  Luggage is designed to absorb the abuse that the luggage handlers inflict upon it.  Boxes are generally not.  Use as much packing material as possible and pack it tight.

If taking items back with you on the plane is not feasible, you can always just have the stuff shipped back to you at home by using your preferred shipping carrier (i.e. UPS, Fedex, etc.)

Dumpster Diving (Skip Surfing)

Unfortunately, many old computers wind up in the trash bin after they've reached their "useful" life (at least according to the owner).  Checking the trash bins at businesses and schools on a regular basis may someday turn up a nice machine to add to your collection.  Be aware that in some areas this is considered trespassing.

Where Else?

Finally, some other resources to try in your quest for vintage computers include:

- Hi-tech companies in your local area, especially ones that have been around for a while and may have accumulated old machines

- Local utilities (power, water, telephone) sometimes have surplus sales, and also have rather large dumpsters (skips) that are worth checking occasionally

- Other collectors who are retiring from the hobby

- Family, friends and neighbors and their family, friends and neighbors...tell everyone you know you collect old computers!

Finally, if you live in an area where all of the above resources are either lacking or have consistently turned up nary a floppy drive, it might be worth your while to plan a weekend road trip to a major city nearby.  Try to do research in advance to find out where all the thrift stores, flea markets and surplus shops are, and plot out an efficient route.  Bring along a sizable vehicle, lots of money, and preferably a companion to keep you occupied during the boring long stretches.

Above all, remember this: collecting vintage computers is an exercise in resourcefulness!

Happy Collecting!

Copyright (c) 2000 Vintage Computer Festival


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