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Net history buffs find bargains at Christie's

Much-hyped sale of early computer-geek history falls short of expectations at Christie's auction house in New York. Photos: Images from computing's history

NEW YORK--Despite frenzied media attention, the auction of rare documents and artifacts related to the evolution of computers and the Internet failed to bring in big bucks Wednesday at auction house Christie's.

The collection, known as "The Origins of Cyberspace: A Library on the History of Computing, Networking & Telecommunications," was the first of its kind to be sold at Christie's. It was expected to bring in more than $1.2 million. But the actual results fell short of that goal with only a handful of bidders spending a total of $714,060. Many of the 1,000 or so items were left unsold.

"It was a very uneven sale," said Jeremy Norman, the rare-books collector who assembled the collection. "The buyers were very selective, and some items people just weren't interested in bidding on. Judging from all the media attention, I think it's a subject people are interested in, but I think it failed to catch on with buyers."

A spokeswoman for Christie's said the auction house was pleased with the collection's performance.

"The first sale of a new type of collection is always a little bit of an experiment," said Bendetta J.F. Roux, assistant vice president of public relations at Christie's. "We still view this as a very positive sale. We saw some interest, and we think it opens up a new area of collecting."

Among the items offered in the auction were 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 most coveted pieces in the collection was what many believe to be the first business plan for a computer company written by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly in 1946. Eckert and Mauchly had developed the first commercially available computer, BINAC, and founded the world's first electric-computer company several years before IBM ventured into the computing business.

The eight-page manuscript, titled "Outline of plans for development of electronic computers," went to a worthy bidder. Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Development and now an advocate for open-source computing, walked away with the document for $72,000. The document was estimated to be worth between $50,000 and $70,000. In the early 1980s, Kapor designed Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet application that helped make the personal computer a must-have for businesses in the 1980s.

Kapor also bought several other pieces from the collection, including the galleys and proof pages of Edmund Berkeley's "Giant Brains or machines that think" for $16,000. Kapor spent $2,400 for a first-edition presentation copy by William Ross Ashby titled "Design for a brain" presented in 1952. The copy contains an inscription to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, a discipline that combines electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, neurophysiology, anthropology and psychology.

"Most of the things I bought have special, personal significance to me," Kapor said. "I was a cybernetics major at Yale when no one had even heard of cybernetics. And Norbert Wiener grew up on the same street in Cambridge where I once owned a house."

Kapor said he plans to display some of his new treasures at the San Francisco offices of the Open Source Applications Foundation, where he is president. Other pieces will be loaned to public institutions for display.

Kapor said he wasn't too surprised with the lackluster turnout for the auction. But he expects interest in such documents to grow during the next five to 10 years.

"I think I'm probably ahead of my time," he said. "The computer industry doesn't have much memory. It's always forward-looking. But I think that there is something lost in never looking back, because a lot of the problems we face today are simply dressed up from an earlier time."