In a world where NFTs are sold for millions of dollars, an idea to invest in an vintage computer does not sound too far-fetched. As it turns out, some decades-old vintage computers are a significantly valued item in any collector’s set. The more legendary the device, the better.
Interest in retro computing is generally powered by an interest in old technologies and nostalgia. With every passing year, old Ataris, Commodores, and TRSs look cooler as the number of devices dwindles.
While some of the devices were extremely expensive at the time of their release, others, made in small numbers, are valuable to this day. And limited availability and legendary status spell value.
For example, the first Apple computer auctions for over a million dollars, while the first commercial computer might get you over $40,000.
We’ve compiled a list of computers that would earn its owner a fair sum of cash, given a device lurks hidden in an attic or a garage.
Apple I ($1,500,000)
Released in 1976, the first Apple computer cost $666.66 or a tad over $3,000 in today’s money. Designed by Steve Wozniak and sold by Steve Jobs, the Apple I was the basis for Apple’s trillion-dollar company.
Equipped with 1 MHz MOS 6502 CPU, 4 KB of memory, and 456 kb of storage, Apple I became a collectors’ item, not because of its impressive computing capabilities. Apple made around 500 devices, and less than 100 remain to this day, out of which less than ten are operational.
Among the most expensive pieces, one was sold in an auction in 2014 to the Henry Ford Museum with a hefty price tag of $905,000. The copy museum received was among the first 50 computers made. This is truly a historic piece of equipment, given it was among the first pre-assembled devices ever sold.
Not working Apple I devices may go for several times the price Henry Ford Museum paid. However, it’s unlikely to buy one for less than a six-digit sum of money.
Introduced in 1971, Kenbak-1 is considered to be the first commercially available personal computer in the world. Released six years ahead of Apple I, the device went for $750 at the time of its release or close to $5,000 in 2021.
The device is truly an oddball, as it was released before the first microprocessor was introduced. Thus Kenbak-1 operated on integrated circuit chips. Moreover, the device packed 256 bytes of RAM. Bytes, not kilobytes.
As only 50 of the machines were made, it has become somewhat of a rarity among enthusiasts. One was sold for over $31,000 in 2015. Sellmymobile.com found a device that was sold for over $41,000. Not bad for a device that was meant to be used for educational purposes only.
Xerox Alto ($30,000)
Even though Xerox Alto was never commercially successful, the device has its rightful place in the Olympus of collectibles. Manufactured in 1973, it was the first computer to support an operating system based on a graphic user interface (GUI).
In essence, it was the first computer most of us would recognize as such. The Alto was so ahead of its time that the term ‘desktop’ was first used to describe an interface for a Xerox Alto machine.
The device’s GUI caught the eye of Steve Jobs, and the GUI approach to human-machine communication greatly influenced engineers at Apple. So much so, Xerox Alto served as a basis for Apple Lisa and Macintosh systems.
The Alto was equipped with a mouse, a keyboard, a custom 16-bit processor, and 128K of RAM. For its time, it was a powerhouse.
Since it was released in 1973, Xerox Alto came with a cabinet to fit its innards and preventing it from being a home computer. Xerox made around 2,000 Alto’s, mainly for Xerox office management and educational institutions.
Since the device was not released commercially at the time, the exact price is not entirely clear. However, it is estimated that the computer would have sold at an astronomical price of $32,000 in 1972.
In 2010, however, a non-functional Alto was sold for $30,000. A working device would undoubtedly be several times more expensive.
The more ‘firsts’ a device can cram into its description, the more it’s likely to be valuable over time. And Scelbi-8h has at least two. Since Scelbi Computer Consulting advertised their device on the radio, the computer is sometimes credited as the first computer to be offered to the general public.
Released in 1974, Scelbi-8H is also credited as the first computer kit equipped with a microprocessor. The device had a CPU based on Intel’s 8008 processor, offered users 1K of RAM, and was capable of addressing 16Kb of memory. A $500-computer at its release, the device can be sold for over $13,000 in 2021.
DEC PDP-8 ($10,000)
Released in 1965, PDP-8 is the oldest entry on the list. Made by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), PDP-8 is considered the first commercially successful minicomputer.
‘Minicomputer’ in the ’60s meant that the device was only as large as a modern refrigerator, unlike room-fitting mainframes. PDP-8’s marketing campaign included the device fitted on the back seat of a convertible Volkswagen Beetle.
Even though the PDP-8 sold at $18,000 in 1965, it was considered a low-price computer. At the time, it was the first computer to be sold for under $20,000. Relatively low prices allowed broader applicability, mainly to control other machines.
Most recently, working PDP-8s were sold for close to $10,000, with devices equipped with original peripherals going up as high as three times that.
MITS Altair 8800 ($9,000)
Released in 1975, Altair 8800 is credited with igniting the microcomputer revolution that started in 1977. The key reason behind the credit is that Altair 8800 showed that commercially sold computers could be profitable.
Even though the manufacturer of the device, MITS, aimed to sell around 200 machines, there were 4,000 orders within three months of the device's release. Altair 8800 was sold with a 2 MHz Intell 8080 CPU, and the computer also used Microsoft's key product, the BASIC programming language.
With a price tag of $439 at its release, Altair sold several thousand units, primarily by mail orders in hobbyist magazines. The company’s success caught the eye of John Roach, the vice president of manufacturing at Tandy Corporation, which led to Tandy developing the TRS-80, one of the first commercial hits in personal computing.
Since there were thousands of 8080s made, they are not as expensive as previous entries. However, today fully functioning Altair 8800s are sold for over $4,000, and original models can go as high as $9,000.
IMSAI 8080 ($2,100)
An arch-nemesis of the Altair, IMSAI 8080, was released a year later and to this day is credited to be the first ‘clone’ computer. Learning from MITS’s mistakes, IMSAI worked a little longer on their device's design, and customers were quick to notice as close to 20,000 units of IMSAI 8080 were shipped.
Even though IMSAI 8080 was released in 1976, the device became a minor celebrity in 1983, when it appeared in a popular motion picture WarGames. In the film, the protagonist hacker used IMSAI 8080 to hack into the Pentagon.
Sold for $439 as a kit and $620 assembled, IMSAI 8080 can be auctioned for over $2,100 in present times. Coincidentally, $439 in 1976 adjusted for inflation stands around $2,000 in 2021, which means that IMSAI 8080 retained its original value over 45 years.
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