A short history of collecting, Part V: Mechanical & Electronic Devices

Last update: 24 October 2018

In 1565 Samuel Quiccheberg - in the oldest known museological tract - already mentioned the instruments, tools, and machines to be collected alongside naturalia and arts of works. With the early museums built from the private wunderkammern of wealthy individuals, mechanical devices only represented a fraction of those collections. It is with the Industrial Revolution that museums dedicated to mechanical devices emerged. Early examples include the London Science Museum and the Munich Deutsches Museum of Natural Science and Technology. Famous private collectors include e.g. Carl Marfels for antique watches, Allan Bromley for calculating devices, and Jeremy Norman for the first comprehensive library on Cybernetics.

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1. The Jeremy Norman Library of Cybernetics: A library on the history of computing, networking and telecommunications, 1996-2001

Offprint collected in 1999; bibliography published in 2002
United States of America

"Origins of Cyberspace: A library on the history of computing, networking and telecommunications", assembled by J.M. Norman in 1996-2001, and here inscribed to The Tricottet Collection by both authors.

[1] Hook, D.H. and J.M. Norman (2002), Origins of Cyberspace: A library on the history of computing, networking and telecommunications, with contributions by M. R. Williams. Published by www.historyofscience.com, Novato, California, 670 pp. (regular limited ed. of 500 copies, bound in heavy cloth with silver stamping, inscribed to The Tricottet Collection by both authors). Incl. Christie's (2005), The Origins of Cyberspace, Wed. 23 Feb. 2005, New York, 247 pp.;
[2] Wilkes, M.V. (1953), Can Machines Think? Proc. I.R.E., vol. 41, no. 10, pp. 1230-1234 (unbound as issued, signed by Wilkes on the first leaf, ex. Origins of Cyberspace no. 1034, Wilkes 1999 no. 36).
Provenance: J.M. Norman
References: Hook & Norman (2002:516, OOC 1034); Christie's (2005:209, part of lot 227)

Between 1996 and 2001, book dealer Jeremy M. Norman assembled a library of important works in the history of computing and telecommunications, composed of technical reports, books, pamphlets, blueprints, typescripts, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera, covering the period from the early 17th century to about 1969. Assisted by bibliographer D.H. Hook and historian M.R. Williams, J.M. Norman published the collection catalogue 'Origins of Cyberspace', which has become the standard bibliographical reference on the topic since its publication in 2002 [1]. It includes 1411 annotated entries, and in addition to giving basic bibliographic information, Hook and Norman describe the provenance of each title, as far as it is known, and give a brief account of its historical importance. 'Origins of Cyberspace' suggests how fragile much of the fundamental literature of computing and communications is. Rather than the bound books and manuscript letters on fine paper of the 17th and 18th centuries, one has carbon copies, mimeographs, and publications printed on highly acidic paper (Kidwell, 2003). Part of the Norman library was sold at Christie's in 2005 [1b]. Since the books do not carry a bookplate, only inscribed/signed copies may be matched to the description given in the OoC catalogue [2].

Jon and Andrea Robertson collection of automata, York, Museum of Automata, newspaper archive

2. Cray's supercomputers, from revolutionary machine to scrap metal, to finally collectibles thanks to Anthony Cole

Document dated [1997]
United States of America

Cray supercomputer commemorative plaques prepared by Anthony Cole and associated documentation. A. Cole purchased the Cray mainframes as scrap metal and transformed some parts into collectibles.

[1] (a) Two newspaper clippings (laminated and signed "From Memorybillia, Anthony Cole"): Business Day, Lab sells its supercomputer at a bargain - for $10,000. Wednesday, April 14, 1993 issue (original page + photocopy of second page), San Francisco Examiner, This Cray has had its day, Thursday, April 15, 1993 issue (color photocopy TBC, incl. MemoryBilia's business card); (b) Photocopy of typed letter from Terrance R. Borman M.D. to Mr. Shahani (dated 4/27/97, with original blue stamp "COPY"), regarding permission granted by the family of Seymour Cray to Tony Cole to distribute Cray memorabilia;
[2] Cray-1 and Cray-2 commemorative plaques prepared by A. Cole (with CoA; incl. price list from MemoryBilia): Cray-1 ECL Logic Board #400/998 and Cray-2 Memory Board #305/998
Provenance: A. Cole

The Cray-1, named after its architect Seymour R. Cray (1925-1996), was one of the most successful supercomputers in history. In the 1990s however, it had become obsolete and in 1993, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory sold one of those supercomputers at auction for $10,000 to a Hayward computer reseller, Anthony Cole. His original idea was to sell the gold and other precious metals that it contained or sell the machine to a technology museum since only about 40 Cray-1s had been installed between 1976 and 1982. Cray-1 was then replaced by the more performant Cray X-MP and Cray-2 (Business Day, 1993; San Francisco Examiner, 1993) [1a]. After Cray's death in 1996, Cole decided to create Cray commemorative plaques in honnor to the architect of the most famous supercomputer. After obtaining authorisation from the Cray family [1b], he made some parts of the Cray machines into collectible items [2].

Ethel Holmes automata collection catalogue with photograph of collector

3. The Allan G. Bromley collection of calculating devices: abacuses, slides rules, and mechanical calculators

Calculating devices dated [1979-1997]
Sydney, Australia

Selected slide rules (linear, circular, and cylindrical) formerly from the Allan G. Bromley collection, all with Bromley sticker, including the first slide rule catalogued in his catalogue, inventory number 1979.12.

[1] Archive on A.G. Bromley's work on the Antikythera mechanism (cardboard mock-up, photographs of model, early report with handdrawn diagram, newspaper clippings, etc.);
[2] Calculating devices: (a) Slide rules (8 linear: A.G. Bromley nos. 1979-12, 1981-8, 1982-92, 1982-95, 1983-49, 1986-31, 1990-102, 1997 4, 1 circular: 1982-46, 1 cylindrical 1983-94); (b) Abacuses (nos. 1981-46, 1982-71); (c) Mechanical calculators (Addiator: no. 1983-76, 'Lightning Calculator' 1981-7, adding pen 1982-55). Incl. a collection of labels written by Bromley;
[3] Photographs of the display made by A.G. Bromley in the University of Sydney Computer Science Department (stamped on the back "Allan G Bromley Syd. Uni. Computer Sceicen 1980" and handwritten note: "Madsen Building, Syd Uni July 1980"); incl. collection leaflet.
Provenance: A.G. Bromley estate

Allan George Bromley (1947-2002) was an Australian historian of computing at the University of Sydney who became a world authority on early computing devices, such as the Antikythera mechanism [1] and Babbage's engines. He is also remembered for being one of the most avid collectors of calculators [2]. Bromley started collecting mechanical calculators in 1979 [2] and wrote about computer collecting as early as 1981 (see below). Eventually he was responsible for a collection of old computers which used to be displayed in the rear foyer of the building housing the University of Sydney Computer Science Department [3]. At home, he had a large personal collection of mechanical calculators, slide rules, etc. He was a generous donor of artefacts to museums in Australia, especially the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the Australian Computer Museum Society Inc. (source: Wikipedia). He had also a large library on the history and engineering of calculating and computing devices, including some collection catalogues of scientific devices. Here is presented a selection of calculating devices from his collection: slide rules of different shapes (including Bromley's earliest catalogued slide rule, numbered 1979.12) [2a], abacuses [2b], and mechanical calculators [2c].

early manuscript on computer part collecting, Allan Bromley, Collectorabilia 1981, collectors of technological devices

4. The A.G. Bromley Library of catalogues & leaflets on calculating & scientific devices in British collections & exhibits

Earliest catalogue published in 1914
From Britain to Sidney, Australia

The rare softcover version of the 'Handbook of the exhibition of Napier relics and of books, instruments, & devices for facilitating calculation', published in Edinburgh in 1914, part of the A.G. Bromley library.

[1] Horsburgh, E. M., ed. (1914), Napier tercentenary celebration. Handbook of the exhibition of Napier relics and of books, instruments, & devices for facilitating calculation. Royal Society, Edinburgh, 343 pp. (soft cover ed., A.G. Bromley sticker);
[2] (a) Baxandall, D. (1926), Catalogue of the collections in the Science Museum..., 85 pp. (Bromley "28-3-84"); (b) Pugh, J. (1975), Calculating Machines and Instruments, Catalogue of the collections..., 102 pp. (Bromley "22/8/79"); accompanied by a letter from J. Shore to A.G Bromley (1-page signed printout, Powerhouse letterhead, dated 29 May 1990);
[3] (a) Letter from M. Wright to Bromley (2-page letter, Science Museum header, dated 6 Apr. 1990), regarding "hosting an exhibit on Robotics". Incl. Bayley, S. and J. Woudhuysen (1984), Robots. Victoria & Albert Museum, 60 pp. ("Allan G Bromley 25-4-86"); (b) ...
Provenance: A.G. Bromley estate

A.G. Bromley, famous collector of calculating devices, also built a library on calculating and computing works, including some collection catalogues. He owned for instance the rare softcover version of the 'Handbook of the exhibition of Napier relics and of books, instruments, & devices for facilitating calculation' [1]. The exhibition featured displays of many different types of calculating machines, as well as exhibits of other aids to calculation [OOC 322]. With the Munich museum, the Science Museum of South Kensington formed the most complete collection of calculators at the turn of the 20th century. Its catalogue (Baxandall, 1926) [2] lists e.g. two machines built by the Earl of Stanhope and an original Morland calculator, all formerly owned by Charles Babbage. This catalogue remained the most useful and informative catalogue of early calculating instruments through the 1960s [OOC 222] [2]. Bromley's association with Michael T. Wright (1948-), curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum, brings more information about its collections and exhibits, on Babbage, robots [3a] and scientific devices [3c].

5. The Carl Marfels collection of antique watches, including the celebrated Jaquet-Droz automata

Collection catalogue published [1906]

Association copy of Perregaux's 1906 'Les Jaquet-Droz et leurs automates', including the collection catalogue 'Les Montres Anciennes de la Collection Marfels', pp. 45-55. Carl Marfels obtained the famous automata for his collection.

[1] Speckhart, G. (1911), Sammlung Marfels, 88 p., 37 pls. (presentation copy, inscribed to Russian landscape painter Julius von Klever, dated Berlin, 21st Dec. 1906) (COMING SOON);
[2] Perregaux, C. (1906), Les Jaquet-Droz et leurs automates. Publication faite sous les auspices de la Société d'histoire et d'archéologie du canton de Neuchatel, Imprimerie Wolfrath & Sperlé, Neuchatel, 55 pp. (association copy, inscribed "A monsieur Charles Perrin, membre du Comité de la Société d'histoire, avec les compliments xxxx de C. Perregaux").
Provenance: C. Perrin estate

Carl Marfels (1854-1929) was an officer at the Ludwig & Fries business, where he gained the opportunity to see some antique pieces of watchmaking. This led him to become a collector of antique watches [1] (coming soon). In 1893, he left his job in Frankfurt and moved to Berlin to acquire the Deutsche Uhrmacherzeitung publishing house. In 1897, he founded the German Watchmakers Association. As of 1902, the Marfels collection of clocks was recognized as one of the most exquisite and best collections existing in this field. The collection contained examples of the oldest known pocket watches, but also the finest and rarest clocks in enamel painting, engraving, engraving lacquer painting (Vernis Martin), including many curiosities, as pocket watches made of iron, mother of pearl, ivory, wood, rock crystal, porcelain, etc. (source: Watch-Wiki). It is to be noted that automata often form a subsection of watch collecting since they represent some of the most complex mechanisms taken from Horology technology. The best example is given by the story of the Jaquet-Droz automata (The Writer, Musician and Draughtsman). Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), famous watchmaker, made a tour of Europe with his automata, which fascinated kings and emperors alike. In the late 19th century, long after his death and the one of his son Henri Louis (1752-1791), the History Society of Neuchatel tried to acquire the automata but it was Carl Marfels who got them first [2]. This indeed made the Marfels collection the most exquisite in the world.