Steven Levy: When Computers Are History

Roundup: Talking About History

Steven Levy, in Newsweek" (3-14-05):

Almost 30 years ago I came to possess a little piece of computer history. At the time, it seemed to me a fairly straightforward handwritten letter acknowledging my request to terminate an apartment lease, with instructions on how I could recover my security deposit. What I did not know then was that my landlord, a fellow with the unforgettable name of J. Presper Eckert, was a pioneer of the digital era, a co-inventor of one of the first operational electronic computers.

The idea that this note might qualify as a historical artifact dawned on me a couple of weeks ago as I examined the 254 lots in the "History of Cyberspace" collection auctioned at Christie's on Feb. 23. The earliest items were from the brilliant minds of the pre-computer age like Charles Babbage, the 19th-century visionary who designed a programmable machine called "the Difference Engine." But the meat of the collection consisted of documents from the vacuum-tube cowboys who made the early giant computers, especially my landlord Pres Eckert. ...

the auction lacked spirited bidding wars between moguls who made billions in computers and cyberspace. The only PC legend in attendance seemed to be Lotus founder and venture capitalist Mitch Kapor. If Bill Gates (who once paid $30 million for a Leonardo da Vinci codex) or Larry Ellison had been taking him on, we might have seen some fireworks. But without such competition, Kapor effortlessly snared some of the auction's biggest treasures, including the UNIVAC business plan (his bid was $60,000 plus a 20 percent fee), and computer scientist Norbert Wiener's own annotated copy of his classic "Cybernetics" (a steal at $12K). When asked why he was interested in these historical documents when his peers were not, Kapor joked, "I'm just ahead of my time."

Another, more ominous possibility is that cyberspace is itself a step toward making such collections obsolete. When all our documents are generated by digital means, the nature of what consists of an "original" becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. (Is it the first copy from the printer? The electrons on the hard disk?) ...

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