Cleaning Crew Discovers One of the World’s Oldest Surviving Desktop Computers

The 1972 Q1 microcomputer could fetch $60,000 at auction

The 1972 Q1 desktop microcomputer
Found at a property in London last year, this 1972 Q1 desktop microcomputer is now going up for auction. Heritage Auctions

Last December, employees at Just Clear, a London-based house clearance company, were emptying a property when they stumbled across two decades-old computers.

At first, the workers were unsure what they had uncovered. They didn’t recognize the items and couldn’t find any relevant information online, Just Clear’s founder, Brendan O’Shea, tells Live Science’s Keumars Afifi-Sabet. After speaking with an expert, however, O’Shea learned that his team had found rare pieces of technology history: a 1972 Q1 desktop microcomputer with an internal printer and a 1976 Q1 Lite with an external companion printer.

Created by the New York City-based Q1 Corporation, the Q1 was the world’s earliest microcomputer, featuring a single chip (Intel 8008) rather than multichip microprocessors. It boasted a built-in screen, keyboard and printer.

“Every year, our sustainable clearance teams collect thousands of computers from homes and businesses nationwide,” says O’Shea in a statement. “Occasionally, we encounter items deemed important enough to preserve and archive for the future.”

The 1976 Q1 Lite
The 1976 Q1 Lite Heritage Auctions

In February, the newly resurfaced microcomputers went on view in “Creating the Everything Device: Showcasing the Machines That Built the Future,” an exhibition of vintage computers and gaming machines held at Kingston University London. Later this week, on May 24 and 25, the two computers (plus the Q1 Lite’s companion printer) will go up for sale at Heritage Auctions, where they could fetch more than $60,000 each, the Observer’s Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly reports.

“Keep in mind these have never been to auction, and there is no record or precedent set for them,” Sara Balbi, the managing director of Heritage Auctions’ London office, tells the Observer. “We’ll have to see what the market decides.”

Over the past decade, similarly rare relics of computer history have gone under the hammer at auction houses around the world. In 2022, a prototype of Apple’s first computer, the Apple 1, sold for $677,196; in 2023, a fully operational Apple 1 signed by company co-founder Steve Wozniak fetched $223,520.

Few Q1 computers survive today. But the machines played a key role in the development of modern computing technology. As Valarie Spiegel, Heritage Auctions’ director of video games, explains in a separate statement:

The shift to a microprocessor-based architecture allowed the Q1 to punch well above its weight and support capabilities usually reserved for larger systems. … It hinted at the future of personal computing and marked a pivotal moment in technological history, demonstrating the vast potential of microcomputers to transform both professional and personal computing landscapes.

The Q1 Lite's companion printer
The Q1 Lite's companion printer Heritage Auctions

The Q1 debuted in December 1972. Four years later, the Q1 Corporation produced the Q1 Lite, a smaller, sleeker version of the 1972 device that did not include a built-in printer.

According to Heritage Auctions, the Q1 and the Q1 Lite originally sold for upwards of $90,000 each, making them too expensive for individuals use.

“The Q1’s champagne customer was NASA, and Q1 Lites were installed in all 11 NASA bases in 1974,” Paul Neve, a senior lecturer at Kingston, tells All That’s Interesting’s Kaleena Fraga. “I suspect owners of Q1s in the [19]70s would have used their Q1s for many of the same tasks we use our PCs for in the office; one of the advertising straplines was ‘the ultimate office machine.’ A 1977 promotional brochure even suggests electronic mail as a use for the machine.”

Though the Q1 Corporation is now a relic of the past, it’s worth noting that the company’s devices appeared years before today’s major players, including Apple and Microsoft.

“The early pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s laid the foundation for today’s everything device: the modern computer now so ubiquitous in everyday life,” says Neve in the university statement. “We rely on computers for our work, communication, productivity and entertainment, but without the early trailblazers, none of these would exist. There would be no PCs, no Macs, and no Apple or Android phones without Q1 Corporation, Sinclair and Acorn.”

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