Tech Essentials: Exploring why loving old machines is now hip

Eric Bradley

As a collector of vintage typewriters, I am well familiar with the stares and wrinkled noses as people

Pascal s-calculator

Blaise Pascal, a French physicist, developed a gear-based mechanical machine that accomplished simple computations. Dubbed Pascal’s Calculator, this 1920s-era working replica of the 1652 original sold for $41,562 at auction. Photo courtesy Auction Team Breker,

ask: “That’s what you collect?” If I’m not in mixed company, my first response is usually “Take off, Hoser!” But a more appropriate response is to say there are as many types of collectors as there are technical antiques to collect.

I’m proud of my typewriters, darn it. Each 40-pound beast is a technological marvel. It’s also got a growing fan base among mainstream tech collectors. Tom Hanks is perhaps the best-known vintage typewriter collector, and even he’s not afraid to share his passion in the pages of The New York Times. Neither was I when I spoke of the wonders of typing on a portable for an article in The Wall Street Journal. The times are becoming more acceptable for vintage technology collectors, mainly because it’s hip to love machines. I give credit for all of this to changing demographics and Apple Inc.

What does the maker of the first commercially successful (notice I didn’t say first) touch pad computing hardware have to do with vintage technology collectors? Lots, if you stop to think that Apple put cutting-edge technology into homes just as the typewriter companies like Royal or Remington or Smith did in the early 20th century. My theory is that the rapid move away from keyboards with a technology so easy to use and, frankly, a little science fiction-y only make people more nostalgic for the technology like typewriters. They are collected, traded and even snipped apart so their key fronts can be used in jewelry. Truth be told, that’s how my wife and I came up with the closing costs on our first house: hunting down unsalvageable typewriters and selling parts to jewelry makers. That won’t make me popular with purists, but let’s be honest: Factories produced millions of typewriters after WWII and that’s one of the reasons why new collectors can get into the hobby for as little as $5 for common models from the 1950s and 1960s.

Collecting obscure technology, on the other hand, takes serious dollars. Early typewriter inventions, such as the Edison typewriter made by the A.B. Dick Co. in 1892, can run as much as $13,000. The most valuable vintage typewriter sold at auction is an 1867 Malling Hansen typewriter, which changed hands for $123,125. It was sold by my longtime friend Uwe Breker, founder and owner of Auction Team Breker of Cologne, Germany.

Breker says technical mantiques with the broadest appeal tend to be those that constantly attract new generations of collectors: classic cameras, for example, and photographic memorabilia. Early motion-picture equipment, movie posters and props are especially popular. Other areas appeal to collectors who identify with items they remember from their childhood, or from their parents’ or grandparents’ homes.

Demo model of first telephone

Demonstration model of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone, 1976, half-scale reproduction of this historic telephone, 7” x 4” x 6-1/4”, $161.

“Collecting mechanical music instruments such as barrel organs, musical boxes and gramophones, for example, became popular in the 1950s because that generation had a particular link to prewar forms of home entertainment,” he says. “There is always an element of nostalgia involved.”

The ascent of early PC technology is one of the biggest driving changes in the hobby and can be credited with attracting new collectors. An “Apple 1” computer from 1976 reached a world record price of $671,400 in 2013 after a collector in the Far East bought it for his own tech collection. Although these figures seem staggering, the Apple 1 phenomenon has had quite a steady build up. Early model Apple computers have been changing hands privately for many years, but have only recently started to appear at public auctions. One of the main factors behind the record prices has been condition. Both machines sold by Breker were fully operational computers. According to the Apple Registry, there are only 46 Apple 1 units in existence, and of these, just six still work. Combine scarcity, exposure and historical importance and you’ve got a recipe for a six-figure computer.

The Apple I was not outstandingly advanced for its time, but it has a historical importance as one of the first affordable home computers. It is also remembered as the first product of the world’s most successful company, and the life story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as two young college drop-outs turned personal computing millionaires.

Interest in office machines, early television and even the first digital SLR cameras is on the rise, too.

“There was relatively little in print about office antiques such as calculators and typewriters when we started our specialist sales in the mid-1980s,” Breker says. “Personal computers were only just becoming affordable. Now all three areas have been accepted into mainstream collecting. The Internet has also made it easier for collectors to research, publish and share their information.”

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What’s hot on the horizon? Smaller format motion-picture cameras (8mm and 16mm), which, until recently, were largely overlooked in favor of earlier 35mm equipment, Breker says. Also look out for the deluxe singing bird musical boxes produced in Switzerland and Germany, especially those decorated with precious metals, gemstones and enamel. Prices have climbed dramatically over the past 10 years and, judging by recent sales results, they are still rising.

Many collectors are also fascinated by the aesthetic element of technical antiques: the artistry of an automaton from the “La Belle Époque,” or the fine engineering of an 18th century English microscope, Breker says. “We have customers from almost every trade: photographers who collect classic cameras, engineers fascinated by Victorian steam models and doctors with an interest in antique surgical instruments, which today seem curious or even grotesque in comparison to modern technology.”

Values can vary widely from one technological mantique to the next. Generally speaking, the three most important factors are quality, rarity and historical significance. Certain brands command a fierce customer loyalty, whether for their newest or most vintage products. Think Apple computers and the iconic Leica camera.

Another example is the English film manufacturer Ilford, which produced a number of cameras during the postwar years. Its 1952 “Witness” camera was a beautifully engineered, stylish and commercially unsuccessful (only 350 were produced) competitor of Leica, whereas its “Advocate” camera was simpler and produced for a longer period. Today, a Witness could set you back around $17,000, whereas Advocates still regularly change hands for less than $50, Breker says. That’s why, as with all mantiques, it pays to do your homework.

Eric B. About the author:
From tramp art to whiskey nips, Eric Bradley’s mantiques are a constant source of entertainment for his wife, Kelly, and their children, Patrick, Olivia and Megan. He is a public relations associate at Heritage Auctions, the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer, and the editor of the annual Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide, as well as the forthcoming Picker’s Pocket Guide — Toys.