For years, America Online has bombarded the country with free software disks, slipping them into airline cabins and cereal boxes, flash-frozen Omaha Steaks and the Sunday funnies.
And for years, millions of annoyed Americans have promptly trashed them.
But not Peter Engelman. The 61-year-old Pikesville, Md., accountant and longtime computer buff knows a good thing when he sees it. Like others collecting digital memorabilia, he's hoping that today's trash will be tomorrow's treasure.
Attracted to AOL's colorful, cartoony packaging, Engelman began stashing the disks away in shoe boxes nearly a decade ago. Over the years, friends and relatives happily passed along their unwanted disks, even though they thought his hobby was a bit weird. The result: Engelman owns what may be the most complete assemblage of old AOL software , with more than 100 varieties, sorted in chronological order.
And the joke, it turns out, is on us. In the wake of AOL's high-profile merger with media giant Time Warner, the unthinkable has happened: Some of the company's free disks are acquiring value. Engelman recently sold two sets of ''vintage'' AOL floppies (circa 1991) for more than $70. No Van Gough, perhaps, but not bad for a couple of freebies that showed up in the mailbox.
''America Online is the icon of the '90s,'' says Engelman, and people are eager for a piece of Internet history.
He may be onto something. A quarter-century after the personal computer revolution began, aging nerds are growing nostalgic, and turning old hardware and software into hot property.
Flush with stock options, they're prowling online auction houses for unopened copies of DOS 1.0 and rare Apple computers, in some cases forking over thousands of dollars above their original prices.
Never mind that most vintage software won't work on modern PCs or that today's electric toothbrushes often have more brains than some 20-year-old computers. ''They want the toys they used to have, or the toys they could never have,'' says George Glastris, director of science and technology at Skinner Inc., a Bolton, Mass., auction house.
Appraisers say computers still have a long way to go before they're as popular as coins or comic books. But interest is growing. For example, next month Skinner will auction off a small piece of ENIAC, one of the world's first digital computers. Designed in 1943 by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, the dead assemblage of iron, wire and vacuum tubes is expected to fetch as much as $12,000.
''This is something we never would have imagined possible five years ago,'' says Skinner spokeswoman Stephanie Lessard.
And Dag Spicer, curator at the Computer Museum History Center in Mountain View, Calif., says the emerging market for digital memorabilia is making it harder for him to add prized electronic antiques to his collection.
In the past, he says, donors were only too happy to drop off their junked equipment for a tax deduction. But recently the owner of a rare, 52-year-old IBM 604 mainframe computer opted to sell it through online auctioneer eBay, thinking he could make money.
He did. ''The prices stuff is going for are pretty out of whack,'' observes Spicer.
Many collectors, however, say they're driven less by profit than nostalgia and the urge to preserve relics otherwise destined for the Dumpster.
''In 25 years, these are going to be the archaeological artifacts people study to see what computers were like in the early days,'' says Sellam Ismail, a 29-year-old computer programmer and collector in Freemont, Calif.
Today Ismail, who admits to an ''obsession'' with vintage technology, owns more than 1,200 obsolete computers plus thousands of diskettes, tapes and manuals. His collection is so vast that he spends $250 a month for a 1,200-square-foot warehouse to store it.
The rarer a machine is, the more it's worth, he says. High on collectors' hot lists these days: the Apple I.
Introduced in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, the computer (such as it was) consisted of a single circuit board. Buyers were expected to provide their own case, keyboard and power supply. Just 200 machines were produced before the more popular Apple II hit the streets. The original price: $666. Last summer a British collector paid $18,000 for one at a San Francisco auction.
Another trophy machine is the Altair 8800, the mail-order microcomputer on which a generation of programmers cut its teeth, including a young Harvard student named Bill Gates. Introduced in 1975 by MITS Inc., the computer originally sold for $395. Today an Altair 8800 in mint condition commands upward of $4,000.
''To me, it's the same as owning a '65 Mustang or '57 Chevrolet,'' says Joe Meyer, a 42-year-old Nashville, Tenn., engineer who collects and refurbishes 8800s. ''That's what I learned on.''
Historic flops are also prized. Alex Dunkel, who specializes in microprocessor memorabilia, says no collection would be complete without specimens from a famously flawed batch of Intel Pentium chips from the early 1990s that couldn't add right.
''If I have kids and grandkids someday, this is something I plan to show them,'' says the 23-year-old network administrator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The popularity of other memorabilia is harder to figure. Case in point: AOL disks.
Given their abundance, AOL disks would seem about as collectible as bottled air. Nevertheless, ''the stuff is getting real expensive, real quick. It's quite paradoxical,'' declares Greg Walter, a 36-year-old bank trust officer in Denver who collects them.
Walter's theory: Although many disks were mailed, few were kept. So older ones are more scarce than it might appear. And Walter complains that some collectors drive prices up by overpaying.
''This is going to sound crazy, but I just spent 102 bucks on a disk,'' confesses Tom Naldzin, a software tester for Unisys in Norristown, Pa., and an AOL buff. His purchase: a shrink-wrapped copy of AOL 2.0.
''People might say, 'They're only disks!' But it's like old 45s or 78s that you can't find anymore.''
And Naldzin treats them as such, storing his collection between acetate covers in three-ring binders. ''I don't have them in any airtight container,'' he says. ''But they're protected from the elements so they're not going to dry out.''
Naldzin, like many collectors of vintage technology, is already eyeing today's gadgets, trying to peg the collector's item of the 21st century.
Some collectors recommend setting aside Sony Walkmans. Others say Palm Pilots. Then there are those cute Apple iMacs. Muses Naldzin, ''Maybe in 10 years you'll see me talking to someone on 'Antiques Roadshow' with a whole slew of these.''
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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