Spring cleaning old science and computer books

On February 24, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Kenneth Gloss

We will soon be able to say that “Spring has finally sprung!” As this season renews our energy it also reminds of us of the need to cleanup and clear out, especially if shelf-space is getting tight. But don’t dump those books – you’d be surprised that there’s a market not only for books that are very old but also for new fields of endeavor that change so fast that a 50 year-old book can be more valuable than a 150-year old book. For example, science and computer books engage collectors whether from the 1500s or from the 1950s.

A lot of book dealers are uncomfortable dealing with science books because the subject matter is foreign to them. I have a degree in chemistry, so I feel more comfortable with this topic than most dealers do. Actually, I considered getting a graduate degree in chemistry, but decided to enter the family business instead, so science books are second nature to me.

In my career as an antiquarian book dealer I’ve been fortunate to be able to hold in my hands and peruse many rare and wonderful books. I’d have to say the one that has impressed me the most was a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Matematica, the document in which Newton wrote down the three laws of motion. During an appraisal event I did at a university I was able to hold this book in my hands, and it was just amazing. Isaac Newton actually touched this same book and wrote corrections in it. Today it sells for a few million dollars.

One of the great areas to collect in science books is computers and related technologies. It is a wide-open area for people to collect and it’s still relatively cheap compared to collecting books on natural science. Works penned by scientists like Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday was celebrated a few years ago sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and Isaac Newton’s work for hundreds of thousands. You don’t have to spend that much on computer books. That said, in 50 or 100 years you won’t be able to get many of the computer books you can today because they will be really expensive.

Computers and other technological devices have been bringing about a new revolution and the knowledge of computing pioneers will be as important to computers as Gutenberg was to books. Charles Babbadge invented the first mechanical computer and wrote a book about computing in the 1800s. It is now a collector’s item that sells for hundreds of dollars. It is rare to find any other computer science books that date before World War II, because that is when transistors were first made and the computer revolution really began. William Bradford Shockley, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, wrote the first book on transistors, which now costs several hundred to a few thousand dollars. John von Neumann wrote a book on theory and probability, which led into the mathematics that in turn led into computers. Another writer in this area whose work is very interesting to collectors is Norbert Weiner, a leader in the field of cybernetics. He worked at MIT and wrote about artificial intelligence.

Computer science books tend to be collected by a limited group of computer scientists and like-minded people because they are so technical. Demand is causing their prices to increase, but these books are very, very technical for a general reader, which limits the demand to some degree. Prices on some of the earliest books from the Harvard Science Computing Library range from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another way to get into collecting in the computer arena is to collect sales brochures and other documentation for new Macs, old Macs, IBM Selectrics, and other models. Sales materials tend to be highly pictorial, so consumers can see what they are about to buy. From the technical aspect it can be really fun to see how these machines have changed over the years.

Go to stores and ask for all the sales brochures they have on the models they sell. Ask them to check the back room for brochures from outdated models they no longer carry. It’s a cheap and easy way to get started with a computer literature collection. One person I know is collecting every e-book there is. This collection isn’t just composed of books online, but all the ways people have been trying to meld books with computers. The technology and styles in this area change and go out of date very quickly. Fifteen years ago computers were still very large, with a large floppy disk. Today, mini-iPads are the thing. Such quick-paced change really holds your interest while collecting. At some point in the future this could be a museum quality collection, providing a look back at how computing was done in the beginning.

It will be easy to track the technological advances because the collection is really comprehensive, including the instruction books and how-to manuals that came with each machine. After reading these books the collector made notes about them, citing things like which model is easiest to use. He’s also keeping a journal about the process of collecting these things that will make an interesting side note. It’s really fascinating how this person is forming a collection as the items are being produced, rather than collecting things from yesteryear, which is usually how it is done. It isn’t exactly cheap to collect like this, though, especially when it comes to buying the new items. It isn’t always easy, either, because the minute a model is obsolete, it’s gone from the market, and you may not be able to find it for sale. Even though some book dealers tend to shy away from science books they are really quite collectible, especially if your interest is in computer science and technology.

Right now these books aren’t all that rare and collectors can find a deal even if they only want to spend a few hundred dollars. Computer books bought today and passed down a few generations may wind up being worth a great deal more than was paid for them. From sales brochures to early computer theory, there is a computer science book to match the interest and budget of any technology enthusiast.

Ken Gloss is the owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookstores in America. 2013 is the 64th year of ownership by the Gloss family. Visit their Website at: www.brattlebookshop.com or to inquire about selling your books call 1-800-447-99595. Ken has been a guest appraiser on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow numerous times.


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