'Origins Of Cyberspace' To Be Auctioned By Christie's

Christie's New York auction house is offering more than 200 papers from the early days of computing. The collection spans the seminal work of England's Charles Babbage up to, and including, papers concerning the origins of the Internet.

W. David Gardner, Contributor

February 17, 2005

4 Min Read

Christie's New York auction house is offering more than 200 papers from the early days of computing. The collection spans the seminal work of England's Charles Babbage up to, and including, papers concerning the origins of the Internet. About the only missing items are Bill Gates' baby pictures.

A sketch and description of Babbage's "analytical machine" is expected to fetch between $20,000 and $30,000, according to Christie's. Although Babbage never finished building his wood and metal contraption after years of effort, his mid-19th century analytical engine contained the fundamental concepts of the automated electronic computer that took the world by storm more than 100 years later.

The "Origins of Cyberspace" auction will be offered on Wednesday, February 23, 2005.

The description was written by Augusta Ada King, daughter of the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose mathematical skill and ability to translate Babbage's work into plain English have prompted many to declare her the world's first software programmer. Indeed, the Ada software language is named after her.

Material from Edmund Callis Berkeley, who founded the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), and who was an early publisher on computing, is expected to bring between $20,000 and $30,000. His first publication was "Computers and Automation." One of his early employees was an MIT student named Patrick McGovern, now head of the International Data Group publishing and investment empire.

There's one lone item from John Atanasoff, the Iowa State professor who many others credit with the invention of the automated electronic computer. There's linkage in the Christie's auction documents: Atanasoff said he was influenced by Babbage's work. John Mauchly, who co-designed the path-finding ENIAC computer, interviewed Atanasoff and examined his work before proceeding with the ENIAC.

There are several items available that are centered on ENIAC, considered the world's first working automatic electronic computer. Mauchly and his partner at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, J. Presper Eckert, went on to found early computer companies. Much of that material is available at the auction, too. A substantial archive from Eckert is estimated to sell for between $60,000 and $80,000.

Mitchell Kapor, the founder of the Lotus Development Corp., told the New York Times that he was interested in bidding on one Eckert-Mauchly business plan that is estimated at $70,000.

Many items involve academic studies, although many of them were carried out with funding by companies. Mathematician John von Neuman's "Preliminary Discussion of the Logical Design of an Electronic Computing Instrument" is figured to garner between $30,000 and $40,000. Von Neuman was famed also for his work in game theory and his atomic bomb connection--he used Harvard's Mark machine (see below) to work out the calculations for the Nagasaki bomb. He is also considered the father of the mutually-assured destruction (MAD) weapons concept.

There are also documents from Harvard's Howard Aiken and Grace Murray Hopper. Aiken built the famous Mark I machines for IBM, and Hopper was the programmer. There are documents from MIT's Vannevar Bush concerning his "Differential Analyzer," a hybrid electro-mechanical device. Also available are documents from former MIT professor Jay Forrester, whose Whirlwind computers were later developed to form the basis of Digital Equipment Corp.

Artificial intelligence gets its due in a series of papers and documents from many pioneers in that field, starting with key papers from Alan Turing. Considered one the greatest mathematicians of all time, Turing is credited by many as a founder of AI. His personal life was controversial at the time. He was a world class marathoner who broke many of the most famous Nazi military codes during World War II. But he was persecuted for his homosexuality. (His life has been the subject of plays ("Breaking the Code") and books. He killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. Other AI figures whose papers are available include Frank Rosenblatt, whose "perceptron" continues to intrigue artificial-intelligence scientists and developers. Other AI papers in the collection include material from John McCarthy and Joseph Liklider. There's even a copy of Leonard Kleinrock's MIT thesis, which some argue formed an important piece of the origins of the Internet. Manuals for early IBM machines are expected to attract several hundred dollars. These include manuals for electro-mechanical tabulating machines, as well as for IBM's first computer, the 701.

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