Computer collectors hunt for electronic treasure

It doesn’t have its own monitor. No mouse, no hard drive, no graphic user interface and only 8MB of RAM, but for Evan Koblentz, it’s exactly the type of computer that he wants.

Every year, millions of people upgrade to new computers, ditching their slower hardware for faster and newer models. According to Gartner Dataquest’s statistics, more than two billion computers were sold as of 2007, and pretty soon there will be two billion in continuous operation.

Most people throw away their old Dells and Macs, and some recycle them. But for some lucky computers, there is still life after the upgrade.

Evan Koblentz runs the Mid Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists, an organization of vintage computer collectors specializing in technology before 1982. They use Yahoo groups and Web sites such as eBay and attend twice-annual conventions to exchange, buy or salvage old hardware or software.

What might be of interest to a vintage computer collector?

“If it runs Windows or has a CD drive then its probably of no use to us,” Koblentz said.

Dave Gesswein collects old business computers from the 1970s and said he doesn’t bother explaining what he does to non-collectors. But it’s something that takes him back to his college days, and he finds it both fun and challenging.

Koblentz said that what makes a lot of these computers special is that they represent a time when manufacturers were still experimenting with everything from the circuits to the casing. Users could also patch their own circuits and many of them went to work on their hardware with a soldering iron.

He said it’s hard to tell what could be considered “vintage” but he likened the hobby to classic car enthusiasts, who spend time and money rebuilding and maintaining old cars because of the design, manufacturer or another unique characteristic.

But just because the car is old doesn’t mean it’s worth a lot of money. Just how the 1981 Dodge Dart that sits without tires in the driveway is no ’69 Chevy, the old Apple in the closet might just be an elaborate paperweight.

“Not everything old should be recycled and not everything old has value,” Koblentz said.

What’s next? Old cell phones or the first generations of MP3 players could be the next collectible item.

“Maybe people should be holding on to it now instead of thinking it’s junk,” Koblentz said.