Interest on the rise for early computers

By Greg Bates

With a laptop in front of him, aptly enough, Craig Solomonson reminisces about his former massive computer collection.

Two Decades of Acquiring Computers

Craig Solomonson with early Apple computer

Craig Solomonson with the only computer remaining from his extensive collection. It is running an early version of The Oregon Trail program (All photos submitted)

The stories that Solomonson tells can certainly excite any technology lover. Solomonson – who built his collection over a steady stream of 20 years of picking one-of-a-kind pieces – had three Apple I’s, rare microcomputers, mainframe computers, circuit boards, magnetic tapes, software, vintage computer manuals and everything in between. It was a collection so unique that when mega computer collector Lonnie Mimms (see sidebar, page 23) showed interest in buying the entire lot, Solomonson threw out a number and Mimms was quick to accept the figure.

“My interests had shifted,” Solomonson said about selling his collection. “It was like, I don’t think I’m going to do anything with it.”

Solomonson put his due diligence into his collection with a lot of sweat and hard work. The 67-year-old had plenty of fun filling a shed with computer-related material for years at his Cambridge, Minn., residence.

Accidental Collecting Passion

Solomonson’s journey into collecting computers started almost by accident. When he accepted a job as a math teacher at Cambridge High School in 1975, he was told he had to teach a computer class, too. The classroom had just one terminal hooked up for all the students.

Students started bringing in computer items – magnetic tapes, circuit boards and portions of mainframe computers – that their parents obtained at various computer companies where they worked. That’s when Solomonson became interested in collecting, it was around 1977.

By 1979, Solomonson convinced the high school administrators to put in an Apple lab: 24 Apple II’s, which came out two years earlier. They were the newest addition to the school’s growing technology area. He was even part of a small group of educators trying to form a computer museum in Minnesota.

’70s Hamfests Inspire

Back in the early ’80s, electronic swap meets didn’t exist to pick up computer-related items, but

Univac 8008

1972 Univac 8008 Computer – one of the earliest microcomputers ever assembled.

hamfests were popular. Solomonson loved hitting up meets when he could. He had an eye for what were unique computer items, but he didn’t have any idea what the stuff would eventually be worth.

“There was no pricing at that time,” Solomonson said. “It was more or less what you offered. I think I bought three Apple Lisa’s at one hamfest. I think I got all three of them for $20 apiece.”

Solomonson said the best piece he ever acquired came from a hamfest held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in 1980. A guy, who worked for Univac, pulled up in his van and displayed three items: one Univac 8-bit microcomputer, one Altair 8800 with the serial number 220005A and one Sol-20 computer.

“They were all working, and he wanted $100 apiece for them,” Solomonson recalled. “I had a couple hundred bucks, so I got (the Univac and Altair 8800). … If I had another $100, I would have had a Sol-20.”

Early Examples Offer An Education

The Univac 8-bit, built in 1972, was one of the very first 8-bit computers to be operational and demonstrated to various Univac clients. Solomonson found out later it was the prototype, which makes it virtually priceless since it’s the only one that exists in the world. The Altair 8800 was also extremely rare. Altair offered the first commercially available kit in 1977, represented by serial numbers with the letter K for the suffix. Serial numbers with A at the end were factory assembled.

After some digging, Solomonson also discovered Altair started its serial numbers at 220001, so he had purchased the fifth unit ever built and it was factory assembled. That low serial number made it considerably more valuable.

“I had no clue,” Solomonson said. “I just knew they were kind of cool, so I bought it.”

According to Solomonson, the only known lower serial that is accounted for is the 220003A, which is now housed in a European museum.

Delving Deeper Through Software Job

In 1982, Solomonson took a job as a software designer at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). The company produced educational software for schools around the United States. MECC designed programs such as The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers.

At a MECC conference in downtown Minneapolis on Dec. 1, 1982, one of the two keynote speakers was Apple computers chairman of the board Steve Jobs. He spoke with the attendees about the creation of the Apple I. Solomonson documented the speech the computer marvel rattled off that day. One chunk of the speech still catches Solomonson’s attention even 35 years later.

“Our goal down the road is we want to put a computer in a book, about the size of a book, and sell it for $500,” Jobs told the conference-goers. “It’s very, very powerful so that anyone can learn how to use it in a half an hour. We can’t do that today. It’s technically not possible.”

Solomonson believes that “book” Jobs referred to was the iPad. When the iPad was released in 2009, the starting price was $499.

Memorable Meeting With Jobs

Steve Jobs circa 1982

Newspaper clipping of Steve Jobs at the 1982 MECC Conference sharing the story of building the Apple 1 during his keynote address.

After the conference, MECC held a reception in a private suite, in which Jobs attended. Solomonson approached Jobs about getting his hands on an Apple I.

“I said to him, ‘I’d really like to get one of those,’” Solomonson said. “He said, ‘No, you’re never going to get one. I don’t even have one, mine got stolen. There’s none left, forget it.’”

Solomonson struck up a conversation with the head of marketing at Apple, Michael Murray, who had accompanied Jobs to the conference. He put Solomonson in touch with Frank Anderson, an electric shop owner from Great Falls, Mont. Anderson purchased an Apple I a few years earlier for his business, but quickly discovered it didn’t do what he wanted. It went back into the original shipping box and onto a shelf.

Solomonson purchased the Apple I from Anderson in 1983 for $2,750. His first Apple I was a gem.

Eye on Apple I

The computer was actually sold by Jobs out of his parents’ house in Palo Alto, Calif. It included the original shipping box, the invoice ($666.66 for the computer and $75 for the Apple cassette interface for a total of $741.66), manuals and the cassette interface with a cassette tape.

“This was probably the finest example of Apple I ever found,” said Solomonson, who can be contacted at computers@solomonson.net.

Solomonson reached out to Jobs in 1996 to see if he was interested in buying the computer. He told Jobs, who was then working at NeXT Computer, that at a UC-Davis show earlier that year the Apple I was estimated to be worth in excess of $40,000. Solomonson also cited someone advertised selling just the board for $50,000.

Jobs promptly responded to Solomonson’s email inquiry.

“Craig,
“I hate to the bearer of bad news, but I think your view of what an Apple I is worth is way north of reality. I don’t think anyone has actually bought one for more than around $10,000.
Sorry,
Steve.”

Flipping Finds

Later that year, Solomonson sold that computer to a collector for California for $25,000. That collector later sold it on eBay for $50,000. It was later sold through Christie’s auction house in London for over $200,000 in 2010. It is now on display in a museum in Turin, Italy.

There were 200 Apple I’s built, 75 of which received serial numbers handwritten on the back by the Byte Shop. Currently, there are 66 known Apple I’s in the world, and Solomonson once owned three.

“It makes me feel terrible knowing what they’re worth now and what I sold them for,” Solomonson said. “I just sold too early.”

The second Apple I Solomonson acquired was in 1985. He traded an Apple II, a printer and a bunch of software with an Apple I enthusiast in Indiana. The computer had the serial number 01-0005, representing it was the fifth board sold by the Byte Shop. Solomonson sold that Apple I to a vice president at Apple in 1988. The Solomonson family used the money to purchase a van. Solomonson found it ironic that Jobs and Steve Wozniak sold their van to finance the Apple I and Solomonson sold his Apple I to finance his van.

Ahead of Time

The final Apple I that Solomonson got his hands on was in 1993. He found an online advertisement

Altair 8800

The fifth Altair 8800 computer built in 1975.

from a hobbyist in Indiana, who owned four Apple I’s, who wanted $2,500. The computer was mounted and framed for display. Solomonson purchased the piece and later sold it to an Austrian collector. That Apple I later fetched an astonishing $645,000 through Breker auction house in Cologne, Germany in 2013.

The highest anyone has ever paid for an Apple I is $905,000 when the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit purchased one in October 2014. In Solomonson’s opinion, the first Apple I he owned could catch over $1 million today, because it was in the original shipping box with all the materials, including a personal letter from Jobs and was in working condition.

Solomonson also stumbled upon some other interesting items in 1982 to add to his collection. He was taking a college class on the history of computers from the director of the Charles Babbage Institute located at the University of Minnesota. The institute is the national archive for computer manuals and literature. They were archiving materials and had boxes and boxes of manuals.

Awareness Opens Doors

“One day after class, (the instructor) knew I was interested in these kinds of things. He invited me over and took me to a back room and it was just full of boxes of manuals,” Solomonson said. “‘They are all duplicate manuals and they’re going to the garbage. If there are any you want that will save us (from having) to pay for people to come and get them.’”

Over a couple week span, Solomonson took about 20 boxes of manuals. He soon discovered some very early manuals from the 1950s and ’60s that belonged to famous computer programmers Grace Hopper and Robert Bemer. There was even a signed COBOL manual from Hopper, who was known as the Mother of COBOL.

Solomonson collected computer-related items until about 1999 when MECC was shut down. His computer collection was just one of his many interests over the years. He’s collected coins, stamps, baseball cards, gasoline engines, automobilia and petroliana.

He decided it was time to sell his computer items.

Moving Computers on to the Museum

He contacted some of the major computer museums, but they were only interested in a few of the items and wanted them to be donated.

When Mimms heard about the collection and expressed interest in buying the entire lot, Solomonson jumped on it. Solomonson and his wife, Barb, took down two trailer loads and one car load of items – about 2,500 pieces – to Roswell, Ga., last summer.

Mimms loved getting his hands on Solomonson’s impressive collection.

“He has a wonderful, wonderful vision,” Mimms said. “The pieces that were in the collection for the most part are all very, very good examples, and he had some of the best versions of the machines that I had seen. Very good in that regard. He obviously also had the eye for the educational, which is a big part of the mission for us.”

Solomonson kept just one computer-related item: an Apple IIe.

“I’ve got all the Apple II software that I developed at MECC and just want something to run it on,” Solomonson said.

The true collector in him will never truly go away.

“GregAbout our contributor: is a national freelance journalist. He writes mostly about sports, but dabbles in antiques and is fascinated by the Civil War. His work frequently appears in Sports Collectors Digest, and he’s also written for USA TODAY Sports Weekly, The Associated Press, TeamUSA.org and USAHockey.com. He can be reached at gregabates@gmail.com.
.

COMMENT