In case you haven't noticed, vintage is hot right now. Vinyl records are making a comeback, vintage clothing stores are booming, and midcentury (1950s and '60s) decor is all the rage (see "Mad Men" on TV).
But vintage geek is even hotter than vintage chic. How do I know? I run a site called The Collectors Weekly, which aggregates the best the Web has to offer in more than 500 antique and vintage categories -- the best expert advice, the best informational Web sites, and the top eBay auctions.
So here's my top geek gift picks for this holiday season in vintage computers, LED watches, slide rules, and calculators. Each link below will take you to a section on my site listing actual items for sale. But be careful: Vintage geek is highly addictive.
Vintage personal computers
Remember that old Mac SE you had? The PC XT you bought despite the Charlie Chaplin ads? Your TRS "Trash" 80 with optional tape storage and 300-baud modem? Not trash anymore, my friend -- they're vintage!
While many of the earliest, prototypical computers (such as the original 1965 DEC PDP-8) ended up in the hands of Microsoft billionaires or institutions like the Computer History Museum, there are still plenty of gems floating around garage sales, online auctions, surplus equipment sales, and maybe your friendly neighborhood dumpster.
[ Know someone who waxes nostalgic over Silicon Valley's early years? Then check out the author's aggregate listings of vintage personal computers on sale now. ]
Keep your eyes open; the secret is knowing how to separate the junk from the treasure. As with many antique and vintage items, displayability is key. With vintage PCs, that means it's in good working condition and has all its accessories. And most important, it looks good in your living room, so you can show it off to your friends.
As I write this, the high bid on a 128KB Mac on eBay is $308, and it'll go higher before it ends. That's because it's the full package: a systems disc dated 1984, Mac Write, Mac Paint, an ImageWriter (with manual and case), an external floppy, the original mouse and keyboard, and no burn-in on the monitor. By comparison, you'd be hard-pressed to sell a nonworking early Mac without any trimmings for $50. That's a doorstop.
Rarity is another factor in vintage PC valuation. The IBM PC (Model 5150, 1981) and the Apple Macintosh (128KB, 1984) were the first large-scale production PCs. Other, lower-volume machines from that era or before can be hard to find in pristine working condition. MITS Altair 8800 (1975) and 680 (1976) kit computers, Apple IIs with low serial numbers (1977), early Commodore 64s (1982), and Apple Lisas (1983) -- all these rare birds can run you up to $1,000. An extreme example: Apple 1 boards, of which only 200 were sold, have sold in the five figures.
If none of the above appeals to you, there are plenty of other vintage PC names to chase: Compaq, Kaypro, Amiga, Sinclair, Franklin, Xerox, Digital Equipment, Atari, Heathkit, or Texas Instruments. Maybe something in an early Silicon Graphics? A PS/2 with Microchannel? Vintage magnetic core memory? A working IBM AT could be a real "get" for your collection. And come to think of it, don't throw away that original ThinkPad 700 (1992).