This is a rework of a column I wrote in 1987 for PC Magazine. I thought it was worth revisiting as part of the Whatever Happened to… series.

Collecting History

As we enter the fourth decade of personal computing we have to realize that much of the its history is already lost. By this I mean that many of the collectible computers of yore are gone forever. This is our last chance to start a collection of early machines.

The premier machine to collect is the old Apple I which isn’t really a computer, but a hokey card that the computer hobbyist/maniac pieced together and then regretted owning. It’s worth about $1000 or more already.

The early days of microcomputerdom produced many interesting machines and tons of weird subsystems. I expect that like antique autos many of these things will never be seen again and only vaguely remembered by old-timers who will say, “Yeah, yeah! I remember THAT!”

We now have a last ditch opportunity to grab one or more of the old machines for our collection. Ideally it should be in working condition. My pick to click is the old SOL-20 computer (circa 1977), a machine that should have knocked Apple off the block except for one or two things. One: it wasn’t in color. Two: the company was poorly managed.

The best add-on for the SOL-20 was a Northstar 5 1/4-inch floppy. Northstar was the first company to use the 5 1/4-inch floppy for a small computer. The thing required hard sectored diskettes that had ten holes in them. The storage capacity of a Northstar disk was 70 kilobytes. A double density controller released a few years later provided 140 K!

The real collectors item, though, to go along with a SOL-20, is an old Helios 8-inch floppy add-on. I don’t know if any ever worked. If you can’t get a SOL, then look for the famous Exidy Sorcerer (circa 1978). It was SOL compatible.

Many old-timers think that the old Altairs (the original personal computer) and IMSAIs (the original clone) are high on the collectibles list. They were really card cages with a microprocessor (an 8080) and a so-called front panel. You had to toggle switches to get it to boot. Both are very collectible.

I’d recommend looking for some of the oddball machines of those days. The Digital Group computers (the original not-invented-here-“we do it our way”-and go broke micro firm), the Equinox with its octal front panel in a world of hexadecimal, and, above all, the Sphere. The Sphere was highly promoted with its 6800 microprocessor it started a fad of dead end 6800 machines. Even Altair made a short-lived 6800 machine. The 6800 machines were such duds that it allowed Motorola to design the 68000 without worrying about backward compatibility — something Intel wishes it did.

Nobody should overlook a vintage Osborne 1, an Apple III, a John Deere (yes!), the old IMSAI VDP-80 and VDP-40’s, the IBM 5100 (the world’s slowest BASIC computer also ran APL from ROM), a Polymorphic (preferably with the three floppy drives), a Southwest Technical Products Computer, the original Heath machines, or any other pre-1980 machine. Also look for an old Jupiter. The company made so few of these that they shipped them to reviewers wire wrapped and unsoldered. One gullible reviewer thought this was the greatest thing he’d ever seen because of the “space age” wire wrapped connections.

When I reminisce about old dead machines and wonder which are the most collectible I have to fall back on the peculiar Byte-8 — a machine made by the Byte Computer Stores. Known for its mediocre power supply the machine sold poorly and was only on the market for six months or so. I think it’s the ultimate collectible. I think the more recent Computerland Computer may find the same fate. I don’t think any were sold. I had a review copy of a Computerland machine and they demanded I return it even when I offered to buy it.

That’s what you learn from old machines. While this business hasn’t been around long — history is already repeating itself. It’s a short cycle and people have short memories. Now’s the time to buy.

Whatever Happened to… Archive

  1. David Block says:

    I got an Equinox 100 with 4K Ram and cassette interfaces sitting in my garage…

  2. MacMark says:

    I’ve got a H-89 w/Z80 processor(s), 64k RAM and 100k disk drive with disk’s! Built in 1980, with HDOS and C/PM!! Programmed it with assembler, PASCAL and (of course) MBASIC! (interpreter and compiler) Haven’t tried to run it in the last few years, but it did run around 2000, when the world was supposed to end (Y2K)…..

  3. Old Compute says:

    Timex Sinclair! Now that was a machine…

  4. tom says:

    Still have a heath h8 (updated to a z80) with 256k of memory that ran my original bbs. I last booted it up from its external hdos 80mb hard drive a couple of years ago.


  5. Jack Calaway says:

    I have a Polymorphic, in the original shipping box, its NEVER been opened! Sorry, no disk drives for it.

  6. bb says:

    How about a NorthStar Horizon, rebuilt so many times I’ve lost track, now with 5 – count’em 5 CPU cards each with their own Z80-H (the 8MHz version). The thing ran TurboDOS, and very well at the time – effectively giving a LAN in a box. Each user had their own terminal. Yes, terminal – not a monitor!

  7. George of the city says:

    Still got my timex sinclair. But you need a TV with a uhf tuner to use.

  8. JimS says:

    I still have my old TRS-80 w/ 4k RAM

  9. Miguel says:

    You can google computer museum and you’d be amazed at the sheer number of enthusiasts keeping small (and a few large) collections of computers.

    I slightly disagree with your opinion that the oddball machines are somewhat more interesting. Maybe, but the common, familiar ones are the ones that will take us back to the past.

    I kept my old Sinclair ZX Spectrum of 1983, and many years later started collecting a few computers that, for me, held some sentimental importance. The Sinclair ZX-81, the first microcomputer (as they were then called) I ever programmed, an Apple II europlus (the european version of the IIe, I think), an Apple IIc, a Mac Classic, an Atari 800XL, a Philips Videopac (similar to the Magnavox Odissey II) and a few others. These were wonderful machines in their times. Even we, who used them, will not have so much fun using them today, as we’d be reminded of the ‘bad old days’ of PEEKs, POKEs, and good old BASIC programming, and how hard it all was in reality. But every now and then I like to fire one up and remember how it was like when all that we take for granted today wasn’t even DREAMED about! We are actually living the future, and it’s way better than any of us could have ever, ever imagined!

    john C, keep up your stellar work, your place in this History is guaranteed!

  10. Scamp says:

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one to buy an SD-Systems Z80 Starter System. 2K RAM, 2MHz and a casette interface. Lots of breadboard area to wire-wrap on and an 2 S-100 slots. Many fun hours were had learning assembly and circuit design.

  11. Brenda Helverson says:

    Next time you are in Seattle, check out the computer museum at the downtown location of computer recycler RE-PC. They have a very nice collection of old computers on display.

  12. Smartalix says:

    I still have an old Mac Color Classic, and it might even still work although I haven’t used it for over a decade.

  13. jbellies says:

    My first computer was a Quasar Data Products (of Brecksville, Ohio) QDP-100. S-100 in a mahogany case. A business machine in 64K RAM. I don’t have it… but I know who does!

    But my nomination for the museum is an IBM Thinkpad 701C, butterfly keyboard, from 1994.

  14. dmccomber says:

    Anyone interested in collecting vintage computers should check out the Retrobits Podcast at

  15. Osmodious says:

    I LOVE collecting old computers! My focus has mainly been on Commodore products (being one of the most innovative and influential, yet rarely credited, companies in personal computing), but I have various other machines as well.

    Has anyone else noticed that a lot of our idyllic remembrances of these machines are actually TRUE? I used to think that we spent so much time back then working on these machines rather than using them, but the truth of the matter is that I spend far more time dealing with Stupid Windows Issues than using any wintel box. I’ve had FAR more BSOD’s and GPF’s over the past 12 years than I had Guru Meditation Errors during the same time period of Amiga computing.

    Anyway, I think it is vital to see where we’ve been in order to adequately assess where we are (and where we’re going). It is also incredibly refreshing to look at the sheer VARIETY of options we had Way Back When…whatever your particular focus in computing, there was a machine tailored to you.

    Now if someone could just hook me up with a PowerPC upgrade for one of my Amiga’s, I can bring one of those boxes up to nearly current specs!

  16. joe says:

    Ahhhh… the Exidy Sorcerer! Yes I had two!
    Modified 8 tracks-ROM cartridges, briliant. I had an assembler, basic and a word processor. The word processor cut and paste feature was truly visionary, made Wordstar (released much later) look like a bad hack. Hi-light the work cut and paste! No klunky stuff. Alas they were ruined in a flood 🙁


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