A piece of Net history on the auction block

Famed auction house Christie's is set to offer rare documents that trace the origins of computers and the Internet. Photos: Images from computing's history

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
3 min read
Famed New York auction house Christie's is preparing to offer up a collection of rare documents and publications that trace the origins of computers and the Internet.

Slated to go up for auction on Feb. 23, the collection is being identified as "The Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing, Networking & Telecommunications." The assortment of reference materials, letters and scientific journals was originally gathered by Jeremy Norman, a collector and dealer of rare books and manuscripts.

"There is so much lore in these documents," Norman said. "This is the part of computing that people don't think about anymore."

Norman previously chronicled the contents of the library in a reference book that outlines the history of computing and its roots from 1613 to 1970. It also bears the name "The Origins of Cyberspace."

Among the items offered in the auction are documents detailing the development of the first programmable computer, the first known software, the mathematical theory of data communications and the origins of telecommunications. One of the pieces that will likely garner the highest bidding of the lot is J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly's "Outline of plans for development of electronic computers," which Christie's expects to sell for between $50,000 and $70,000.

The original copy of the eight-page manuscript, written in 1946, is considered to be the first business plan written specifically for the computer industry by the two creators of the BINAC, the first operational electronic computer produced in America.

Other notable items available in the auction include Edmund C. Berkeley's "Giant brains or machines that think," Alan Mathison Turing's "On computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem" and an original booklet of short code used to run the historic UNIVAC computer. The auction also includes personal letters penned by Charles Babbage, credited by many experts as the "Father of Computing" for his work on the basic design of computers in the form of his "analytical machine."

Norman said he began collecting the materials in the early 1970s to feed his own interest in computing and to create reference bibliographies of the documents, but always with an eye toward selling the anthology. He said the timing of the auction coincides with completion of his work on two additional reference publications, the first of which is a history of information technology that he hopes to publish sometime later this year.

The antiquarian said he feels there is demand for such materials by universities, businesses and hobbyists focused intently on the history and continued development of the Internet and information technology.

"When you look back to the 1960s and 1970s, you see the beginnings of the exponential growth of the computing industry," Norman said. "But during the eras before that time, there was such remarkable scientific development, and much of that work is reflected in this library."

A portion of the collection will be on display at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Feb. 8 and 9, and at Stanford University on Feb. 14 and 15.