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Vintage Tech Could be Worth Big Bucks

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Note -- this news article is more than a year old.


Forgotten items sitting in the dark corner of garages or hidden away in attics are often just old clothes and household items. But on the rare occasion, there could something worth tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

David Clark of Surrey, England had his magazine collection stored under his floorboards, with one issue that fetched $10,000 from Intel. In 2005, Intel set a bounty on the April 19, 1965 issue of Electronics magazine, notable for containing what's known today as Moore's Law. Unique discoveries such as these capture the attention of the public. Clark's story with the 1965 magazine was featured on the front page of BBC News, above a headline about Prime Minister Tony Blair.

More recently, news hit of a San Francisco woman who disposed of an original Apple 1 computer at a recycling center. That particular Apple 1 went to a collector for $200,000, but other examples of the computer made by Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak have sold for as much as $905,000.

Even though these tech artifacts are only decades old, their relevance to computing history are significant, making them highly sought after by museums and collectors.

Now a decade after Clark collected his prize money, the self-identified "electronics hoarder" reveals how his collection started, and his possession of another antique computer, a magnetic tape-drive IBM 729 Mark II, that might find its way to a museum someday.

Q: What was it about Electronics magazine that compelled you to collect so many? Was it an interest in electronics in general, or was it something special about the publication?

David Clark: Having studied physics on a scholarship to Oxford, I was accepted at Imperial College London to do a Ph.D. in particle physics. But just after starting, I discovered that the grant situation meant that I had to do a Ph.D. in solid state quantum physics instead.

I did this for nearly three years, but it did not work out, so I applied to Philips Research Labs (PRL) in the U.K., and was accepted. Starting in January 1974, I was doing work on early digital consumer systems such as Teletext and early personal computers and electronic games. The Philips CD-i was a major project I was heavily involved in.

PRL had an extensive library, but space was naturally limited, so they constantly disposed of old journals and books by allowing personnel to take them away free. I made full use of this to build up my own home library, including some 10 years of Electronics magazines, IEEE Spectrum, early home computer mags, etc.

Not having a car, I would carry bags of books or magazines on the back of my bicycle, which on one occasion got me in some hot water with a PRL security guard, who wondered what company secrets I was disappearing with in the dark.

Q: Wow. Did these magazines all go under your floorboards, where you found the 1965 issue of Electronics?

DC: All these acquisitions were stored in our loft (we have an 1888 house with a reasonable sized loft). But in 2005 we were in the middle of converting our loft to extra living space, so its contents had to be stored elsewhere.

The Electronics magazines were relocated under a trapdoor in the floor of our front room, waiting for me to search through them on that memorable day.

Q: How did people react upon learning about your reward and how you used the money?

DC: People's reactions to the money were what you might expect, with quite a lot of laughter and leg-pulling - pack-rats were referred to.

Though my wife Freda was horrified that it gave me some excuse for hoarding, male friends started wondering if they had anything hoarded of similar value.

Q: Do you still "collect" things?

DC: Furnistore, a charity founded by [my wife] Freda, had a warehouse. We were able to use one corner of it to store my 'hoard'.

By then this consisted of over a hundred boxes and bags of souvenirs, technical papers and electronics kit from my various Philips projects. Much of this related to CD-i, where I was responsible for the video chapter of the CD-i specification.

In 2010, I retired and bought a second small house to rent out to augment my pension. The house came with a lockup garage, and this became my main storage place. Everything was moved here from the Furnistore warehouse.

In 2011, we had an extension built at the back of our house, and the front room was converted for Freda's 95 year old aunt to live in. This meant covering over the trapdoor (though it is still there), so the magazines were also moved to the garage.

Q: Besides the 1965 copy of Electronics, are there any other notable items from your collection?

DC: There is one other thing that I acquired that you may be interested in - the craziest thing of all. In 1973, while on my Ph.D. course, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a sale of surplus electronics kit, and got a bit carried away.

I could not resist one of those gorgeous magnetic tape units that you see whirring away in old movies - an IBM 729 Mark II! We lived in a small flat at the time, and when it was delivered it sank into the tarmac of the pavement outside.

It was too heavy to move, so I took it to pieces, and when we moved to this house the pieces went with us. I still have them all, apart from the square section tubular frame that everything was mounted on. That frame was used by our children as a climbing frame, and eventually scrapped.

The 729 Mark II was the first of that series to use transistors rather than valves, and I think there are not many of them left.

I have all the working parts, so they may be capable of being reassembled. I am planning to contact a suitable computer museum this year, to see if anyone is interested.

Q: Do you regret parting with that famed copy of Electronics that contained Moore's Law?

DC: Well, it's always nice to have a 'complete set' of anything, but the one I lost has gone to a very good home. I believe it is currently in an Intel museum in California, so probably I could visit it some day and see how it's doing.

Coincidentally, we were recently contacted by someone else looking for original Electronics articles. James Biard of Texas Instruments, inventor of the GaAs LED, published articles in 1959, 1965 and 1967 issues of Electronics. He will be 84 in May, and his grandson contacted us to ask if we could find these magazines, as he wished to give them to him as a surprise birthday present.

After much searching, we were able to find the 65 and 67 issues, but my collection doesn't go back to 59. Currently they are winging their way across the Atlantic on their way to Texas.

So, the collection is once again restoring old memories to people who made important steps in electronics development.

Who could be sad about that?!

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