If I asked you to think of a valuable magazine you would probably think of a 1960s copy of Melody Maker hand-signed by the Fab Four, or even a mint copy of the first edition of Superman. These are of course highly valuable and coveted items, but I bet very few people would ever go so far as to suggest a scientific journal as their first choice?
When you think of scientific publications it is natural to think of the rows and rows of cloth bound volumes that make up the shelves of any self-respecting university. To the uninitiated their contents remain as dull as the sober covers they were preserved in, read by very few, with outdated ideas and little more than bulky shelf fillers waiting for the day they are ignominiously thrown into the skip. But while most scientific journals will indeed have little financial value, for a select few editions they can literally be worth more than their weight in gold. One area where this is true is in the early concepts and discussions around the principles of a Computer.
Computers of course have proved themselves to be one of the most ground-breaking inventions of the modern era and today we can’t imagine a moment without them. But back in the day it was geeky scientists, mathematicians and engineers who were the first to slowly and painfully piece together the ideas which would eventually lead to the birth of computing. For the science community the academic journal has always been the tried and tested way to announce any new idea or concept, and while the readership may be far less in numbers than an average broadsheet, it would be read and reviewed by the peers you most want to impress.
In the world of computing there are few names more important than the English mathematician Alan Turing. As well as being the famed code breaker of Bletchley Park, Turing is also considered one of the fathers of Computer Science. In 1928 a fellow mathematician named Mathew Hillbert set out a highly theoretical challenge to the Maths community called the ‘Entscheidungsproblem’ (or logic problem) in which he asked if there was a universal algorithm that could give a correct ‘yes’ ‘no’ answer to any given problem. It all seemed a simple enough question, and several people took up the challenge only to rapidly decide that such a theory was sadly impossible. But finally 8 years later in November 1936 the young Alan Turing released a 10 page paper in the ‘Proceedings of the London mathematical Journal’ proving such a concept was indeed possible. He then expanded on his ideas in a 24 page follow up the next month. Turing’s uninspiring title was called “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” and though it would have completely passed the general public by, it opened Pandora’s box to the world of computer logic and artificial intelligence.
Today an original copy of the 1936 London Mathematical Journal which published Turing’s ground-breaking treatise is admittedly a rare thing. At best the Journal would probably have had only a few hundred subscribers, most of them academic institutions or mathematicians. Since the full impact of Turing’s idea did not come to fruition until just after the Second World War 10 years later, and interest in the history of Computing did not really begin until far more recently, we can safely assume that most copies were lost to the mists of time. But as is always the case a few copies have been unearthed. In 2014 Bonhams Auctioneers in New York sold a copy which made a very respectable $50,000 (or £37,948). Of course this was cheap compared to another copy they sold from their London Office the year before which was a bespoke reprint specifically made and signed by Turing a few months after the original to send to a colleague who had lost his copy. This made an impressive £205,215!
It is not just Turing’s early papers that have acquired a high financial value among museums and collectors but also those of other computer pioneers such as Howard Aiken, Charles Babbage, John Von Neumann and more. Early treatises and conceptual papers in other specialist publications can happily sell into the tens of thousands of pounds also, and while the global interest in computer history continues to grow, we should expect new records to be set for many years to come.
But for anyone with the pockets deep enough to consider owning such a piece of computer history it is good to remember that also in 2014 a copy of the first ever Superman comic sold for over $3 million……..therefore an early Turing article still looks like a steal in comparison!