the Compaq III | on the importance of garage sale hopping

Wade Peterson, the generous donor of the AML‘s Compaq III portable laptop, kindly took the time to write me an email detailing how he came across this latest jewel of the lab:

Two years ago my mother and I enjoyed going to garage sales together.  At 84 today, she’s not quite as interested in getting in and out of the car; and at 84 what possibly could you need?  But, we both love bargain hunting and finding treasure in other peoples homes and garages!  In the world of garage sales fanatics (and I’ll include the two of us in that realm) you more often than not have to stop at a hundred sales before you find a single nugget of treasure.  Likely, our luck is not much different than other treasure hunters, whether they be deep sea adventurers, archeologists in search of lost artifacts, or Nicholas Cage in his latest “treasure” adventure movie.  The key is to “keep looking”.  And, we do.  It was on a Saturday afternoon that I decided to take mom and I out on our next trek.  Saturday’s being an expecially bad day to go hunting, since most sales start on Wednesday and I’ve known some people to squeeze themselves under the garage door of a surprised owner opening up for their first day.  Not I mind you.  I’m a gentleman shopper.

Well, to get to the heart of it, we drove around quite a bit, with nothing miraculous beaming out from anyone’s estate or garage.  But, a sign pointing to an estate sale with a starting date of Saturday peaked our interest enough to yank the steering wheel in the direction of the homemade arrow on the sign.  Hint: never drive close behind a garage sale adventurer…  We came upon a bend in the road where there were cars lining the street (always a good sign).  I dropped her off, parked a block away and walked back.  Anticipation was high.  I had no sooner gotten in the door to realize I’d reached nirvana.  That moment when you realize the light at the end of the tunnel was turned on just for you.  My mom had a glazed looked on her face, but I sported a huge grin.  You see, the elder gentleman that had recently passed, and therefore the reason for the estate sale, was one of the first people ever to open a “personal computer retail store” in the 1980’s.  His house contained the remains of the inventory.  Gold nuggets – nope; Antique computer systems and parts – yup, galore!   “Mom, sit this one out, I’m going to be awhile…

The house was huge by any standard.  The attic contained electronic toys, pinball machines, etc.  The bedrooms were lined with bookshelves of old computer manuals, software and books.  The basement contained larger size mid and mainframe computer components, and a whole addition on the back of the house contained a warehouse (yes, warehouse) of antique electronics, software and computer parts.  What a mess!  But to a purveyor of old computers, this was the Holy Grail…  I spent several hours browsing while mom sat and twiddled her thumbs (she doesn’t knit).  I brought out one nugget, then another, and another, piling the gold at her feet.  I, of course, got the normal “What the heck is THAT?” question; but I fended her off with a loud “SHUSH….” not wanting a claim jumper to devour my stash.

In the end there were many prizes to take home that day; but the crown jewel was a Compaq Portable III luggable lunchbox computer (lightweight in those days, coming in at a mere 20 lbs), complete with gas plasma display.  A thing of envy in the days of high-tech, well paid, pocket protector wearing computer techs who were dispatched to the field.  Let’s just say – It was the iPAD of the 80’s.

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Categories: media archaeology lab

Author:Lori Emerson

I am an Associate Professor of English and Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado Boulder. I'm the author of Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound and co-editor of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.

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2 Comments on “the Compaq III | on the importance of garage sale hopping”

  1. J.R. Raith
    March 24, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

    What a fantastic write-up! I’ve always loved garage sales, but it sounds like I missed out on true Nerdvanna.

  2. T.Z.
    March 27, 2011 at 12:05 AM #

    Garage sales are like thrift stores, you do need to hit them many times to find anything of real use for the collection, but you do find gold once in a while for little money.

    The thing about the estate sale you mentioned is that the items you found were part of somebodies beloved collection (not some old junk 386 system they got new and never bothered to recycle that sat in the attic 15 years). It would be a bit weird for me (a fellow computer collector) to be digging around in that collection thinking of the time and effort the recently deceased owner spent putting it together. Being a computer collector is like being part of a weird club in some ways.

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