'Ancient' Apple 1 Sells For $213,000

Originally published on November 23, 2010 2:28 pm

Somebody paid a little more than $200,000 today for a computer that's basically "a very fancy calculator," Gizmodo reporter Brian Barrett told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly earlier today.

Of course, it was also an original Apple 1. That's a now-rare 1976 model that at the time it was built, as the Associated Press says, "was the only personal computer to come with a fully assembled motherboard, making it ready to use straight from the box -- provided the user supplied a keyboard, power supply, and display."

It was sold this afternoon in London at Christie's auction house. Barrett says the buyer (Italian businessman and private collector Marco Boglione) is getting a "richly historical device."

"And if you have 213-some-thousand-dollars to spend on something and you're a fan of computer history, this is pretty much as good as it gets in terms of getting a core bit of that legacy," Barrett told Mary Louise.

Here's a bit of what Barrett had to say:

The Mac Observer says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was on hand for the sale. The machine, according to The Wall Street Journal's TechEurope blog, came with its original packaging and a letter signed by the other half of Apple's dynamic duo, Steve Jobs. Christie's claimed the price is a record for a personal computer sold at auction, TechEurope says.

ComputerWord adds that of the 200 Apple 1 machines built (and sold at the time for $666.66), "only about 50 are still known to exist."

Much more from Mary Louise's conversation with Barrett will be on today's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-aired version of their discussion to this post.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

A 35-year-old computer sold today for more than $213,000. Let me say that again. A 35-year-old computer, $213,000. Yeah. The computer in question is an Apple One. That's the fist Apple machine ever made. And it sold to an unidentified buyer at Christie's auction house in London.

Joining us now is Brian Barrett. He's with the tech blog "Gizmodo." And, Brian, welcome to the show.

Mr. BRIAN BARRETT ("Gizmodo"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So tell us what did this unidentified buyer get for his quarter of a million dollars?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, just in terms of purely the guts of it, he got a computer that we wouldn't really recognize as a computer today, probably. Physically, it looked like a large wooden box, almost like you would think of a typewriter from that time period would look - so about the same size. It also had sort of back wooden board that had sort of a hand-carved Apple Computer in it, not the Apple logo that we know today, but sort of very rough, almost elementary schoolish handwriting carved into that back panel.

So you get a very - it's just a fun sense of what an early-stage project this was, very homegrown. But in terms of historical significance, he got really the first fully preassembled computer ever produced, one of only 200 that were made and a really important part of the history of one of the most important tech companies in the world today.

KELLY: You used the word preassembled, and I gather that the innovation of this computer was that the motherboard actually came preassembled. Up to this point, you had actually had to buy the parts and solder them together.

Mr. BARRETT: That's right. It was really a sort of enthusiast activity up until that point, people who were really into the nitty-gritty of making their own motherboards. And it's sort of appropriate that Apple was the first company to usher in this sort of fully preassembled machine because that's always been one of their hallmarks - ease of use for the consumer.

KELLY: Now, the memory on this machine would have been a lowly eight kilobytes, which to put in perspective, you couldn't even store one song on there - forget a movie. What could you do with a computer...

Mr. BARRETT: That's right.

KELLY: ...with that small a memory?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, you know, not very much, especially, you know, given what we are used to being able to do today. I think you can think of it as sort a very fancy calculator at the time. But you also have - it had a cassette interface, so that means that you could record things from the device to a cassette and vice versa. So it did have that capability.

But in terms of what it did, it's a computer and that it literally just computed things. You could, you know, do some light programming but it was -certainly, nothing that we think of in terms of even just word processing or that we do today with our machines.

KELLY: So the allure for computer buffs out there would be, as you suggest, really just owning a piece of computer history?

Mr. BARRETT: I think so. I mean, especially knowing the history of this particular device. Apple was a very small company at the time. It sold out of the garage of Steve Jobs - I believe Steve Jobs' parents. And if you have 213-some thousand dollars to spend on something and you're a fan of computer history, this is pretty much as good as it gets in terms of getting a core bit of that legacy.

KELLY: Well, Brian Barrett, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. BARRETT: Well, thanks again for having me.

KELLY: That's Brian Barrett. He's a reporter with the tech blog "Gizmodo," and he was talking about the sale today in London of a 35-year-old Apple One computer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.