For $150,000, You Can Buy a Window From the Manhattan Project
Bonhams, a premier auction house, is having its first scientific history sale.
On October 22nd, paddles will fly at the Bonhams auction house on Madison Avenue as collectors bid on some of the most coveted, and most unusual, science and technology objects in existence. This will be the inaugural History of Science sale for Bonhams, orchestrated by senior specialist Cassandra Hatton, who has a background in rare books and space history (and a personal infatuation with lot 48, a first edition book by astronomer Johannes Kepler).
The auction is not for several weeks, but it has already attracted a number of registered bidders, who Hatton tells me are of all ages, a good sign for the success and popularity of an auction, she notes. While Bonhams has never held a sale of this theme before, they are striking while the iron is hot. "Science, as a subject in general, is becoming a lot more popular. The interest is here. There is nostalgia mixed in," Hatton explains. "There is also the tech field, a lot of collectors in tech are interested because it relates to what they do. People that have the means to collect are going to turn to people they may have idealized, who may have influenced them. A lot of collecting is coming from that sector, so they will collect things that inspire them."
For the startup executive who made their millions though an iOS app or a venture capitalist born in the Valley, few objects will inspire them more than the 1976 Apple 1 Computer motherboard, which is still in working condition.
Hatton expects the motherboard to go for half a million dollars, as it is in "fantastic condition." Steve Wozniak built this model in Steve Jobs' family home, either in the garage or Jobs' sister's bedroom. Two hundred were originally created, and only 15 remain in working condition today, as most were rebuilt into Apple II machines and others simply broke over time.
For the Apple enthusiast with a more modest budget, the original Apple flag from the European headquarters will be up for grabs, appraised between $1,500 and $2,500. In June, Bonhams auctioned off the original exterior building rainbow Apple sign starting at $10,000.
One of the most unusual, and heaviest, items up for grabs is the Manhattan Project Viewing Window. The 1,500-pound window is six inches thick and comes on a wooden cart, where it is illuminated with a series of custom LED lights. Used at the Hanford Site as the viewing window for plutonium tests, the lot will likely bring out a wide variety of bidders—the makings of a great bidding war—as it appeals to a variety of war memorabilia collectors, scientists, and even Hatton herself. "If I could build that into my house, I definitely would," she says. Of particular note is the window's eerie yellow glow, though Bonhams assures me it is absolutely not radioactive.
Hatton points me to what she calls the original iPhone: The globe, an object sure to bring in a number of Jobs-obsessed millionaires. The auction will include dozens of globes, including a number of unusual miniature globes. "Some of them are tiny, 1.5 inches in diameter. You could literally slip them in your pocket," she says. "The way I think of these globes is the way people think of their latest phone. They get their iPhone 6, sit around and say, 'I have this app, I have this device.' The globes were the equivalent of that in the 18th century." Men, she continues, used to have custom globes made with special cases and would meet up at a pub to discuss the latest explorations. "They were a great accessory for 18th century men."
While many miniature globes have a price in contradiction to their size, this 1.5-inch beauty (left), complete with 28 hand-colored engravings of the world's different people, is set to bring a more modest $1,000 to $1,500. It dates back to 1825.
Those who can afford items in that price range are likely to look for a direct, human link to the historical figure or event most important to them. For many who attend the History of Science auction, this link will be to Charles Darwin. "We have a Darwin letter. It's up in the five-figure range but it is just hilarious," Hatton explains. "He's writing about the reproductive act amongst barnacles. On one hand, it's exemplary of his keen intellect and inquisitive mind; on the other hand, it humanizes someone we think of as the father of evolution and a serious mind. You can laugh while you're reading it."
Those of us who cannot afford to own the letter itself, appraised at $20,000 to $30,000, can still enjoy Darwin's take on barnacle relations, as Bonhams has transcribed it in full:
My dear Sir,
Mr Lubbock told me yesterday of a fact, observed, I believe by a friend of yours, which interests me particularly: & I shd be extremely much obliged if you could get me a little more information on the subject, namely the act of cross impregnation in some Balanus.
The points on which I so much wish for more information are which was the species; if not known could I see a specimen of the kind. Was the probosciformed penis inserted into more than one individual? For about how long [and how many] times was it inserted? Was it inserted deeply & at which end of valves? Especially did the recipient individual continue during the times exerting its cirri? Did it keep its opercula valves widely open for the reception of the organ? I am anxious to know whether this recipient was a willing agent or adulterer. or whether it was a case of rape by act. If the recipient was in full vigour, I think it wd be impossible to insert anything without its consent. Were the specimens under water at times? Who was the observer that I might check his authority.
I hope you will kindly forgive all this trouble, for I am really very curious at to the point. Perhaps the simplest plan wd be to forward this note to your friend & back up my request. I have been very glad to notice what progress you are making in your researches.
Yours sincerely, C. Darwin
As with all science and technology, there is a hint of magic. In this case, it would be the Magic Lantern, an 1890s device that works as a primitive film projector. A part of 17th century magic shows, Magic Lanterns included a number of hand-colored discs that would project images of faraway lands, like the Egyptian Pyramids, to entertain guests. Bonhams believes this lantern, which isn't in pristine condition, may bring $3,000.
With 288 total lots covering hundreds of years of scientific and technological achievement, Bonhams ought to drain the pockets of many science-loving, millionaire collectors.