SLIDESHOW

The Most Collectible PCs of All Time

Is that computer in your attic a treasure...or trash? Here's the scoop on 19 historic digital antiques, worth from $10 to $10,000 and beyond.

By Harry McCracken

First the bad news: Meaningful though it may have been to you, your trusty old ThinkPad running Windows 98 has little monetary value and no historical significance. But personal computers have been around long enough that certain models--mostly dating from the 1970s and early 1980s--have gone from newfangled gadget to prized relic. We compiled this list after consulting with tech historians and collectors, including Bryan Blackburn, Digibarn's Bruce Damer, the Vintage Computer Festival's Sellam Ismail, and Erik Klein of Vintage-Computer.com. (Klein provided most of the estimates of original production runs and current market values.) Our roster includes everything from still-plentiful bestsellers to rarities that hardly ever change hands; if perusing the list leaves you wanting to own any of them, check out eBay--or, better yet, attend a specialized event such as one of the Vintage Computer Festivals held in the United States and Europe. Click on the above images to see our picks, in alphabetical order...

Altair 8800 (MITS, 1975). Estimated units sold: tens of thousands; original price: $621 (assembled); current market value: $2000+

Cover-featured in a famous issue of Popular Electronics magazine as a do-it-yourself project, the Intel 8080-based Altair wasn't the first microcomputer, but it was the first one that truly caught on, spawning an entire industry of clones, add-on developers, and software suppliers. (You may have heard of the system's first software developer--a little company that originally spelled its name Micro-Soft.) The Altair also gave birth, in an indirect fashion, to PC World: Our founder, David Bunnell, got his start in the tech publishing world as the guy in charge of the machine's documentation. Altairs sold well enough that they're not among the top tier of valuable antique PCs--but if you happen to own one, you can certainly find someone willing to pay you handsomely to take it off your hands. (Photo courtesy of Vintage-Computer.com.)

Alto (Xerox, 1973). Estimated units manufactured: a few thousand; original price: never sold; current market value: at least $5000 to $10,000

After 34 years, the entire computer industry is still feasting on ideas that Xerox's PARC research arm came up with for the Alto. It had a sophisticated graphical-user interface, a mouse, ethernet, and a laser printer, all of which took a decade or more to go mainstream in other companies' products. Altos were never sold--they were used internally, and donated to universities--but in 1981 Xerox commercialized many of the machine's innovations into a $16,595 system called the 8010 Star Information System. The pricey device failed to catapult the company into a leadership position in small computers, but like the Alto, it's highly collectible today. (Photo courtesy of Digibarn Computer Museum.)

Apple 1 (Apple Computer, 1976). Estimated units sold: a few hundred; original price: $666.66; current market value: $15,000 to $25,000

When Steve Jobs has a computer to sell these days, the world listens. Back in 1976, almost nobody did. Jobs and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak struggled to drum up interest in the Apple 1, which they planned to sell as a bare circuit board that hobbyists would turn into a working computer by soldering in chips themselves. Then Paul Terrell, who ran the Byte Shop in Mountain View, California--one of the first computer stores--placed an order for 50 Apple I systems, contingent on Apple's supplying them as fully assembled boards. "Steve was hungry for an order and knew he could get Woz and some of their buddies to put this order together in their garage. And I knew where they lived--so we did the deal and that got Apple Computer started," Terrell remembers. (He had to hire a local carpenter to provide the computers' wooden cases.) The 1 was only a modest success back in the day. In today's Apple-crazy world, though, it may be the most famous collectible PC. One reportedly sold for $50,000 in 1999, but you can probably get one for about half that-if you can find it at all. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

Apple II (Apple Computer, 1977). Estimated units sold: 5 million to 6 million (all versions); original price: $1298; current market value: $15 to $250

It's important. It's iconic. It's PC World's Greatest PC of All Time. But the Apple II, which was the slickest PC of its era, isn't particularly rare. Plenty of examples are still around; if you want the breakthrough version of the machine, look for the plain-vanilla II model. Later editions such as the II Plus, IIe, and IIc, simply added incremental improvements to the enduring genius of Steve Wozniak's original design. (Photo courtesy of Vintage-Computer.com.)

Commodore 64 (Commodore, 1982). Estimated units sold: 17 million; original price: $595; current market value: $10 to $300

There may be more Commodore 64 PCs tucked away in closets than any other single computer model--with 17 million units sold during its long lifetime, Commodore's mass-market machine has been called the best-selling single computer model of all time. And it still has legions of fans, as witness sites such as C64.com and C64.org. At any given moment, you can probably find a few up for bid on eBay at reasonable prices--in the original box, even. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

Cray-1 (Cray Research, 1976). Estimated units sold: about 80; original price: $5 million and above; current market value: tens of thousands of dollars

If you happen to own a Cray-1, we'd be very, very surprised. It's just as well, though--storing this 5-ton behemoth in your attic could be downright dangerous. Seymour Cray's legendary supercomputer wasn't a PC by any definition, but it's too important to leave off this list of collectible computers. The turbocharged monster ran at a then-blindingly fast 80 MHz, providing awesome computing power for customers such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "The Cray-1 was the fastest computer in the world in the mid-to-late 70s in terms of massive vector calculations--tt was at least double or more the speed of its predecessors," says Digibarn's Bruce Damer, who calls it "the gold standard of computer designs." Examples don't reach the open market, so it's hard to estimate their worth, but the Digibarn collection includes one, along with lots of good stuff about Mr. Cray and his machines. (Photo courtesy of Digibarn Computer Museum.)

IBM PC (IBM, 1981). Estimated units sold: hundreds of thousands; original price: $1565; current market value: $50 to $500

More formally known as the IBM 5150, Big Blue's first PC was a blockbuster that signaled the end of the early, wild-and-woolly days of the computer revolution. (It's no coincidence that nearly all of the most valuable antique PCs predate the 5150.) Lots of original examples are still out there for people who'd like to own the great-granddaddy of today's Windows Vista boxes. But it's also possible to get a taste of the IBM PC experience simply by running ancient software on your current computer (here's VisiCalc). (Photo courtesy of Vintage-Computer.com.)

IMSAI 8080 (IMSAI, 1975). Estimated units sold: 17,000 to 20,0000; original price: $600; current market value: $500

The IMSAI's big selling point was its compatibility with the popular MITS Altair 8800; as Vintage-Computer.com's Erik Klein points out, that made it the first clone PC. A popular machine in its own right, it is perhaps most famous today as the computer used by Matthew Broderick in War Games, a 1983 film made long after the IMSAI's heyday. Oddly enough, a new IMSAI clone known as the IMSAI Series II is still available--but at $995, it goes for twice what you might pay for a vintage model from the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

Kenbak-1 (Kenbak Corporation, 1971). Estimated units sold: 40; original price: $750; current market value: $12,000+

In 1987, the Boston Computer Museum declared that the Kenbak-1 was the very first personal computer. Sold through ads in Scientific American to schools as a teaching aid, the Kenbak didn't have a microprocessor--which made sense, since microprocessors weren't commercially available yet. It did sport 256 bytes of memory; to program the machine, you flipped switches, and lights served as its display. Today, 14 units of this historic PC are known to survive; inventor John Blankenbaker presides over a site dedicated to his brainchild. (Photo courtesy of Vintage-Computer.com.)

KIM-1 (MOS Technology, 1975). Estimated units sold: tens of thousands; original price: $245 (kit); current market value: $100 to $500

Think of the KIM-1 as an early cheap, bare-bones PC. Even fully assembled, it was barely more than a board with a 6502 CPU and 1KB of RAM. (The computer came from MOS Technology, inventor of the 6502.) In 1975, that was enough to help tech enthusiasts learn about the world of computers, and the KIM-1 sold well; owners expanded them into full-blown systems with keyboards, tape storage, printers, and video displays. The KIM-1 also became the first Commodore computer when that company acquired MOS Technology in 1976. Systems crop up on eBay, but if you can't find one, check out these instructions for building one from scratch. And here's a KIM-1 emulator that runs on Palm PDAs. (Photo courtesy of H.A. Layer.)

Lisa (Apple Computer, 1983). Estimated units sold: a few thousand; original price: $10,000+; current market value: $10,000+

The Lisa was a proto-Macintosh, with a fancy graphical-user interface and a mouse back when those features felt like a sneak preview of the future. "The machine was brilliant, but it was also pricey and somewhat temperamental," says Vintage-Computer.com's Erik Klein, who reports that only a few thousand were sold, of which only several dozen may survive. The system's initial market failure, its historical importance, and its Apple connection contribute to making it one of the most valuable computer collectibles. In 1987, Apple famously buried some 2700 unsold Lisas in a Utah landfill: Maybe someone should dig them up and put 'em on eBay. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

Mark-8 (Jonathan Titus, 1974). Estimated units sold: 400; original price: $50 (circuit boards); current market value: $5000 to $12,000

Many people believe that the PC revolution began with the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, which spotlighted the MITS Altair. But six months earlier, Radio-Electronics magazine had cover-featured the Mark-8, a "Personal Minicomputer" designed by technical whiz Jonathan Titus. Readers had to build the Intel 8008-based machine themselves from scratch, but they ended up with something that sure looked like a computer, with circuit boards sticking out of a metal box with toggle switches. Unlike the Altair, the Mark-8 was at best a modest success; Erik Klein of Vintage-Computer.com says that no more than a hundred examples remain extant. Bryan Blackburn has one of them, which he bought in pieces on eBay and spent two years lovingly restoring to working condition. (Photo courtesy of Bryan's Old Computers.)

Micral-N (R2E, 1973). Estimated units sold: about 2000; original price: 8500 French francs (about $1300); current market value: at least $5000 to $10,000

Americans may lay claim to having invented the personal computer, but France's Micral-N was the first true microcomputer to be sold as a fully assembled system rather than a kit. Running Intel's 8008 CPU, the Micral-N was programmed by Philippe Kahn, who later emigrated to Silicon Valley and founded 1980s software powerhouse Borland. Most of the small number of Micrals that were sold ended up being used in vertical applications in Europe, making the likelihood that you'll ever come across one for sale even smaller. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

PDP-8 (Digital Equipment Corporation, 1965). Estimated units sold: 50,000; original price: $18,500; current market value: $1500 to $20,000

Was DEC's workhorse PDP-8 minicomputer a personal computer? Yes, compared to the mainframes that dominated the industry in the 1960s. A best-selling bargain in an era when most computers sold for $25,000 and up, the machine was the size of a small refrigerator--which, in those days, meant it was surprisingly trim. The arrival of microcomputers eventually killed the market for minicomputers, but various models in the PDP-8 family persisted on the market until 1990, giving the line one of the longest runs in computer history. Some computer collectors specialize in collecting examples of the PDP-8--they must have lots of storage space--and this tribute site even lets you remote-control a PDP-8 across the Internet via a Java applet. (Photo of the Smithsonian's PDP-8 from Wikipedia.)

PET 2001 (Commodore, 1977). Estimated units sold: 10,000+; original price: $595; current market value: $100 to $500

The "PET" in this computer's name was a reference to the Pet Rock craze, and in 1977, the "2001" made it sound futuristic, not to mention Kubrickesque. Released the same year as the Apple II and TRS-80 Model 1, the PET had an all-in-one case that held a flat, calculator-like keyboard and a tape drive. Later variants ditched the tape drive and added a much better keyboard, making them more practical at the time, and less collectible today. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

Scelbi-8H (Scelbi Computer Consulting, 1973). Estimated units sold: several hundred; original price: $580 (kit); current market value: at least $5000 to $10,000

The Scelbi may have been touted in ads as a "mini-computer," but it was really a microcomputer--by most definitions, the first real one sold in the United States. Marketed as a kit for buyers to assemble themselves, it was based on Intel's 8008 chip and offered 1KB of RAM (expandable to 16KB via a $2760 upgrade option). Unlike the MITS Altair, which came along a couple of years later, the Scelbi wasn't a hit. But the fact that so few were manufactured makes it a far more valuable machine on the collector's market. (Photo courtesy of H.A. Layer.)

TRS-80 Model 1 (Tandy, 1977). Estimated units sold: hundreds of thousands; original price: $599; current market value: $25 to $250

The TRS-80 (please, don't call it the Trash-80) was sold at Tandy's Radio Shack stores, so it was probably the first computer American consumers encountered at their local shopping mall. Ugly and spartan but extremely useful, it spawned an array of add-ons, spinoffs, and successors that made Radio Shack the world's leading computer retailer for a time. Vintage examples don't cost a fortune, but if you're feeling simultaneously nostalgic and cash-strapped, a visit to Ira Goldklang's wonderful TRS-80 Revived site is the next best thing. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)

TRS-80 Model 100 (Tandy, 1983). Estimated units sold: 6 million; original price: $799; current market value: $25 to $200

The Model 100--sold, like all TRS-80s, at Radio Shack--was the first popular notebook computer. (The sales estimate of 6,000,000 quoted above comes from Wikipedia, and sounds high: It may include foreign models marketed by other companies, and/or descendants such as the Model 102 and Model 200.) Sturdy, practical, and portable, the 100 and its offspring gained a loyal following among reporters, some of whom used them into the 1990s, long after DOS-powered laptops had taken over the market. Almost 25 years after the Model 100's introduction, you can still find folks who do real work on them. Rick Hanson of Club 100, caters to people who "use our computers in the most remote place such as the middle of the ocean doing research or as space satellite control units." He sells "pristine" 32KB units for $200; less minty examples often go for $100 or so on eBay. (Photo courtesy of the Obsolete Technology Website.)