Auctions | March 16, 2015

Computing History Under the Hammer at Bonhams

New York—Exciting and valuable objects from the dawn of computing lead the Fine Books & Manuscripts auction on April 13 at Bonhams New York. 

The star lot is expected to fetch at least seven figures, being a recently discovered handwritten manuscript by Alan Turing in which he works on the foundations of mathematical notation and computer science. Made up of 56 pages contained in a simple notebook bought from a stationers in Cambridge, UK, it is almost certainly the only extensive autograph manuscript by Turing in existence, and has never been seen in public. It dates from c.1942-44 when he was working at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma Code, and provides remarkable insight into the thought process of a genius. It was among the papers left by Turing in his will to his close friend and fellow mathematician, Robin Gandy who, in the blank center pages of the notebook between Turing’s writing, wrote his dream journal.

Continuing with the Bletchley Park theme is a very rare Enigma Machine in working condition. The 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine (aka Heeres Enigma) is estimated at $140,000-180,000. The machine, with serial number 18660, was manufactured for the German military in Berlin in July of 1944. Few of these machines are known to have survived the war. Patented by Arthur Scherbius in 1918, the Enigma Machine uses three interchangeable rotors, which scramble plain-text messages to produce a cipher text message, a virtually unbreakable code. The Germans first used this machine as their primary cipher device in 1926 to encrypt naval coded messages. The code was finally cracked by a team of young British code breakers at Bletchley Park led by none other than Alan Turing.

Another spectacular piece of scientific history is a handwritten and signed letter by the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace (est. $25,000 - 35,000). The letter, dated 1839, is addressed to the celebrated English journalist, Albany Fonblanque (1793-1872), and includes the words:

“Have you forgotten your promise to come here? The weather seems now very tolerable 
(& sometimes really delightful). — Babbage is here. I hope you will come before he goes."

Lovelace was a precocious mathematician and befriended the famous Charles Babbage when she was just 18 years old and he was 42—he referred to her as the "Enchantress of Numbers." The algorithm she wrote for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a mechanical general-purpose computer, is considered to be the first ever algorithm intended to be used on a computer.

Christina Geiger, Director of Fine Books & Manuscripts at Bonhams, says “One of the truly gratifying aspects of auction is the sometimes magical juxtaposition of important historical figures. Here we have Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, two computing pioneers who lived almost exactly a century apart, both of whom were impeded by the prejudices of their time but vindicated by history. They lead the way in a diverse and exciting Books & Manuscripts auction which includes items spanning over 700 years of global culture, events and discoveries.”  

The auction will be held at 1pm and will begin with the Alan Turing manuscript. To view the online catalog, click here.