How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atari 800

Buying classic computers in online auctions

First Published:
Date Published: 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Savetz

So, you never forgave your parents for hauling your Commodore 64 to the dump. Sure, the IBM PC they bought was supposed to be better, but it just wasn't the same.

Get over it. Because your first computer, whether it was a Commodore 64, an Apple //, or something else, is for sale in an online auction. Buy one and boot it up: you'll be transported back to the days when computers connected to T.V. sets and 48K was more than enough memory. Even if your first experience with a computer was earlier -- for instance, on a MITS Altair, with 256 bytes of memory and an interface that consisted only of blinky lights -- you can score one in an auction.

In fact, a lot of folks have taken to collecting these old machines, these bits of computer history. While common computers, like the Apple //e, Commodore 64, and TRS-80s, can often be purchased for $50 or less, collectors often pay hundreds -- occasionally, thousands -- of dollars for rare models. Recently, a collector bid $1,925 (a sum that could have purchased two brand-new iMacs) for an Intel Intellec-8, circa 1972. It cost just over $2000 new -- I wish my car held its value that well.

Like any collectable, rarer computers will fetch more money than mass-produced ones. The Commodore 64, the first computer to sell over a million units, is still as common as dirt. A Commodore Plus/4, a commercial flop, is somewhat harder to find -- and the original Commodore PET (with built-in cassette drive!) is a rare treat. Some collectors prefer European machines like the ACT "Apricot," others go for early kit-built computers. Software, manuals, and magazines are also sought after.

Playing with any of these old machines will make anyone quickly appreciate how far computers have come, and how fast. Remember 5 1/4-inch -- or even 8-inch -- floppy disks? 300 BPS modems? Painstakingly typing in programs from computer magazines?

Shopping for these old computers is as easy as knowing where to look. eBay has a popular vintage computer category (, as does Yahoo! Auctions ( Haggle Online offers a sparse but occasionally interesting antique computer category. (

If you can't tell a ZX-80 from a QX-10, there are Web sites that offer details about, and pictures of, dozens of old computers. Check out the Obsolete Computer Museum ( and The Machine Room (

So, if you've been thinking back to your first Texas Instruments 99/4A or Timex-Sinclair 1000, pick one up at auction and show your kids what computers used to be, before the days of 10-gigabyte hard drives and $99 scanners. And maybe you can find it in your heart to forgive your parents for trashing the Commodore 64.

Articles by Kevin Savetz