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Collecting Technology

the 19th century, an era of rapidly accelerating scientific discovery and invention. Significant developments in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity, and metallurgy laid the groundwork for the technological advances of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Telling that history through objects that demonstrate that evolutionary link in their design and functionality over time is what great science and technology collections are made of.

Many of the products we were introduced to growing up and now take for granted are based on the vision and inventions of such men and women as Humphry Davy (1809-invents the arc lamp, the first electric light), W.A. Burt (1829 – invents the typographer, the precursor to the typewriter), Cyrus H. McCormick (1831 – invents the first commercially viable reaper), Jacob Perkins (1834 – invents an ether ice machine, a precursor to the modern refrigerator), Samuel Morse (1837 – invents the telegraph), Elias Howe (1845 – invents the modern sewing machine), Alexander Parkes (1862 – creates the first man-made plastic), George Westinghouse (1868 – invests air brakes), and of course, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla, among countless others. They were the catalyst for a new industrial revolution focused on mass manufacturing and commercializing technology for the new 20th-century consumer.

Over the course of the next century, consumer demand for the latest and greatest – and a willingness to pay for it – filled the pipeline with a range of new products, designs, features, and functionality offered at varying price points. Into the 21st century, advancements in everything from battery technology to manufacturing materials, AI, and microchips are now taking these everyday products and making them even smaller, more resilient, smarter, intuitive, personal, and portable in ways the original patent holder might never have imagined.

The speed with which new generations and iterations of popular products hit the market leaves in its wake a tangible, evolutionary footprint for collectors and technology historians who see a story to be told and value to be found in preserving the products thus rendered obsolete.

Consider the camera, typewriter, personal computer, telephone, sewing machine, recorded sound, phonograph, and countless other technology-based products that continue – in one form or another – to be a part of our everyday life. And then consider how many of these products you have discarded or given away with each upgrade over the years.

When it comes to building a technology collection, space has to be taken into consideration. These object-based collections are best appreciated and their stories told when the items are on display to showcase the physical as well as functional evolution of the product category over time.

Technology evolution is a subject that personally appeals to me. I am a collector of 19th & early 20th-century crank and gear tools (my ‘build a better mousetrap’ collection) and someone who had a front-row seat at the birth, launch, and evolution of the cellular telephone industry during its first 25 years. When you consider that the earliest model cellular car telephones consisted of a battery and transceiver in the vehicle trunk weighing close to 65 pounds and a handset with coil attached to a cradle mounted in the center console of the front seat, cellular phones have come a long way since they were first introduced in 1983, thanks to Martin Cooper, considered the Father of the Cellular Phone.

So are old cellular phones, first-generation computers, vintage video game cartridges, electronic games, tablets, movies (VHS, BETA, CDs, Blue Ray…), and other Y2K technologies worth saving/restoring/preserving? That’s a question that’s anyone’s guess but the safest answer is, ‘it depends.’ Early test models, first generations, condition (i.e., factory-sealed), limited releases…all play a role in inciting a frenzy at auction today as fans and collectors hedge their bets on the next hot tech collectible.

Consider the following:

A pristine, 25-year-old Super Mario 64 game fetched a record-setting $1.5M at Heritage Auctions this past February, and a sealed copy of The Legend of Zelda broke the record for the most expensive video game sold at auction with a high bid of $870,000.

When Apple released the first Macintosh computer back in 1984, it revolutionized desktop computing.  Fast forward to today and the original Macintosh is a collector’s dream. This past March, Boston-based RR Auction held a 55-piece auction titled “Steve Jobs and the Apple Computer Revolution” where early computing devices, Jobs mementos, and vintage Apple merchandise sold for astronomical sums. An unopened first-generation iPhone, mint in box, recently sold through LCG Auctions for $63,356,  an early Atari keyboard prototype went for about $61,000, and a 1980s Bill Gates computer sold for $25,000. And, if you have an original Motorola DynaTAC 8000X portable phones (the “brick”) stashed away in your closet, it could be worth more than $2,000 on average!

“Old gadgets hold as much nostalgia as a baseball card or comic book, perhaps even more to some people,” Vincent Zurzolo, the president of Metropolis Collectibles auction house in New York in a recent article in Lifewire entitled, “Old Gadgets can be Worth Big Money – Here’s why you Should Hang on to Yours.”

“Gadgets are things we use every day and oftentimes all day for a period of our lives. Often disposable and hardly ever kept in sealed or mint condition, people wax nostalgically for the good old days when enough time goes by. Early cell phones, computers, video game consoles, and the like become cherished by people who grew up or grew older using them.”

Can’t the same be said for all the things from our past we love to collect?