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Quirky Is Fine With Me



Quirky is fine with me. I'm a fan of all things slightly out of whack—people, places, movies, museums, books, you name it. My buddy Michael once took to wearing flea collars around his neck, wrists, and ankles when his apartment was invaded by fleas. Among my favorite books are The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad and The Dog in British Poetry. Then there's the Bily Brothers Clock Museum in Spillville, Iowa, and the movie Dancing Outlaw.

The latest to join the quirky club is The Collector's Guide to Vintage Intel Microchips, by George M. Phillips, Jr.—an e-book (in PDF) on CD-ROM that has everything you ever wanted to know (and then some) about Intel processors, controllers, RAM, ROM, EPROMs, memory, support circuits, and the like. This includes 1300 pages worth of part numbers, photographs, data sheets, the names of the designers (and interviews with them, in some cases), and occasionally, the collectible value of the chip—all indexed, cross-linked, and in color (see http://www.vintagemicrochips.com/).

Actually, George isn't alone in his fascination with silicon and circuits. It turns out that there's a worldwide network that collects CPUs and microchips. For instance, in Poland Marcin Majewski hosts his ABC CPU (http://www.abc-cpu.xn.pl/); in Germany, Christian Lederer puts up the CPU Museum (http://www.cpu-museum.de/); in Oregon, John Culver is the curator of the CPU Shack (http://www.cpushack.net/); in Corsica, Desideriu maintains the CPU Museu (http://cpu-museu.net/); and Lee Gallanger hosts his Vintage Chip Trader (http://www.vintagechiptrader.com/).

But when it comes down to it, collecting vintage microchips is no quirkier than collecting, say, vintage vacuum tubes. Bob Deuel's collection, for instance, consists of tens of thousands of vacuum tubes, although he displays only 1200 or so in his home, including a 228-pound tube from a 50,000-watt broadcast radio transmitter. And yes, Bob's not alone out there, at least when it comes to vacuum tubes. There's the Tubepedia (http://www.aade.com/tubepedia/1collection/tubepedia.htm); the Tube Collectors Association (http://www.tubecollectors.org/); Kilokat's antique light bulb site (http://www.bulbcollector.com/); Mike's Electric Stuff (http://www.electricstuff.co.uk/); Ake's Tubedata (http://www.tubedata.com/); and more.

But as you can see in The Collector's Guide to Vintage Intel Microchips, there's more to serious collecting than grabbing a microcontroller here and a vacuum tube there and dropping them into old cigar boxes (which, by the way, are also collectible; see http://galleries.cigarweekly.com/RickMG/album01). There's all that information to be gathered—specifications, packaging, part numbers, and more. Some of the most difficult information for George to compile was the introduction dates of the more than 300 different chips Intel introduced before 1980. Recall that the 8008 was introduced in 1972, and Intel's first microchip, the 3101 static RAM, was introduced around 1969. Of course, the easy way out would have been to just ask Intel, which maintains its own chip museum (http://www.intel.com/museum/). Unfortunately, it didn't occur to Intel to begin documenting exact introduction dates of its chips until the mid 1980s. By then, many of the introduction dates could only be determined by asking engineers who had worked for Intel in the 1970s if they remembered when particular chips were introduced. The answer George usually got was something like, "I think we worked on that in late 1971, but it could have been 1972, or was it 1973?" He adds that it is even more difficult when tracking down introduction dates of the different versions of a chip—the 2107, 2107A, 2107B, 2107C, and so on.

Alternatively, you'd think you could just go to the library and simply peruse old Intel data catalogs. Alas, libraries don't have them and early Intel data catalogs are almost as rare as Gutenberg Bibles. There's only one known copy of Intel's first data catalog printed in September 1972, for instance, and no known copies of the 1973 or 1974 data catalogs. This means (you guessed it) early Intel data catalogs are collectible, too, and it's not uncommon for them to sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Early Intel MCS-4 and MCS-8 user manuals, memory books, sales brochures, and the like are also sought after by collectors. It's no surprise that it took George about five years to put the e-book together.

So what possesses someone to devote this much time and energy into putting together such a quirky project? "Maybe the best answer is because it matters," says George. He goes on to explain that he's been a programmer for 20 years and seen how computers have changed the world. However, he says that people who live through events often don't realize the significance of those events as they are happening. It's all still too new. But George believes that future generations will look back on this time as a monumental turning point in history, on par with the discovery of fire and invention of writing—if they have a historical source to turn to. After all, no one ever said that just because something is quirky that it isn't important.


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