The Rare Books of Cyberspace

by The bookworm on January 26, 2012 · Rare Science Books

Comuter design by Babbage

About this time seven years ago, Christie’s auctioneers at Rockefeller Plaza in New York,  sold a number of rare books, manuscripts, documents, offprint  papers, etc.,  having as common denominator the topic of computer science.  The event was titled “The Origins of Cyberspace”  and it consisted of 133 lots and earned a total of 714,060 USD.  While the term “Cyberspace” became a synonym for the internet and the World Wide Web during the 1990’s, Christie’s claimed that some of the origins were tied back to works from a few centuries prior.   Various documents by Blaise Pascal, Thomas Bayes from 1600-1700’s; Charles Babbage, Luigi Federico Manabrea from the 1800’s ;  Kurt Gödel, John McCarthy, and John Von Neumann from the 1900’s were tagged as significant works in the disciplines of mathematics, engineering, computer science and so forth, with a degree of influence on the outcome of  what came to be known as “Cyberspace.”

One lot in particular that sold for 78,000 USD was the highlight of this event.  It was a sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage with lengthy explanatory notes by the translator Augusta Ada King.  This is perhaps, the most important paper in the history of digital computing, since after the appearance of the paper by Menabrea, the translation into English was the collaboration of the daughter of Lord Byron, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Babbage himself. The complete document with the additional notes, describing the design and operation of the first programmable computer, is three times the length of the original. The lot also included an offprint from the Scientific Memoirs III and it was printed in 1843 in London by John E. Taylor.

The field of cyberspace and computing as a whole is relatively new. The majority of the most significant works will probably never reach a rare collectible status because they have been published in large quantities as first editions in recent years. Consider for example the book, “Weaving the Web” by Tim Berners-Lee, that was published in 1999. It describes the original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor, British computer scientist and MIT professor, Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee. Besides a few limited supply copies that are signed by the author, the rest of the copies will probably remain readily available and relatively easy to acquire.

So where does the collector of rare computer science books turn to satisfy his urge to invest energy and money in?  Early works in mathematics and computer science such as the ones included in the Christie’s event will probably continue to appreciate in value as time progresses just as any other rare scientific book of the 17th, 18th and 19th century is more likely to do. The question that is more intriguing to the active collector is probably specific to a strategic approach in trying to determine what computer science books that are readily available today are likely to acquire rare book status tomorrow.  The foundation to a solid approach to this endeavor is posted in an article titled “Rare Books: What makes them Rare.”  Books that satisfy a number of these factors or are showing indications that will develop some of these rare book attributes are likely to meet higher demand and ultimately scarcity.

Even though age is a significant contributor to scarcity, the young age of the gender of Cyberspace and Computer science books should not be viewed as the determining factor of value. A case in point is last December’s sale at a fine book and manuscript auction held in New York by Sotheby’s.  The item of interest happened to be an Apple computer contract and dissolution of contract signed by Jobs, Wozniak and Wayne and it sold for 1,594,500 USD. Sothebys had its value estimated at a mere 100,000-150,000 USD.

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