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View from the Classroom
A Surplus Auction
by Steve Wood
June 20, 2001



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An old friend of mine from my days as a farmer used to say that the highest bidder at an auction just bought someone else's junk for too much. Of course, that farmer had inherited his operation, and I've seen him bid in the mid-five figures for equipment at a farm auction!

I attended a recent school surplus auction that offered around 300 surplus computers. I'd been clued in by a friend that most of the Macs were IIci's with 14" monitors. While I really, really don't need a Mac IIci, I had recently placed mine with a couple of my students as their take-home computer. I quickly realized that I was going to have trouble doing any updates on a column I'd done last year, Illustrated Mac IIci Teardown, without a IIci to photograph!

When I arrived at the auction, I found that there were easily 300 surplus machines. The auction was held in a school that had closed last fall, and the computers filled three classrooms! The computers had been stacked with a computer, monitor, keyboard, and mouse in each stack. Some stacks also included an LC or LC II inserted between a PC and its PC monitor. As I was a bit early, I took the liberty of rearranging a few of the stacks on which I planned to bid.

Performa 550While most of the offerings were PC's, about one-fourth were various Apple II and Macintosh models. I quickly lost interest in the IIci's when I saw four Performa 550's in one of the rooms. While based on the LC III motherboard, the Performa/LC 550 includes an integrated Trinitron display and is wired to accept an internal CD-ROM drive. It also can be upgraded to a 68LC040 chip by simply using a Performa/LC 575 motherboard. I've had mostly good experiences with the 570 series of Macs, so my focus went to the 550's. There was also a box of miscellaneous items that included power cords, a SCSI switch box, phone net connectors, and such. There was even a "possession arrow" box from the athletic department on top, which served to camouflage the contents of the box.

The sales rules for the computers were quickly established in the first classroom of computers. Bids were to be taken with the high bidder choosing which and how many stacks of computers to buy at that price. The runner-up bidder would have second choice, and then buying at the bid price would be thrown open to one and all. When that process was completed, bidding would once again commence.

The first room started with a $70 bid from a woman who saw a Packard Bell display just like one she had at home. As the bids went down, it became obvious that five or six dollars would be the lowest price the auctioneers would accept for stacks before auctioning off everything left in the room. The remains of the first room, about 50 stacks of mostly PC's, went for just $30!

I watched and listened in the first room, but kept my head still and didn't say a word or make any eye contact with the auctioneers. I knew one auctioneer from my days as a farm auction buyer, and the other is a friend whose kids and ours used to run around together. I once nodded my head yes to a question from my son at one of their auctions and found myself the not-so-knowledgeable owner of a $5 piece of farm equipment. To this day, I still don't know what it was that I bought. It sold at my going-out-of-business farm auction a few years later.

When things got around to the third room, the initial bid ran $135, but it was for a dry mount press that a couple of folks really wanted. There were also a number of television sets that went well, but when it got to the computers, the buyers had pretty well found what they wanted already. After several rounds of bidding and buying, I began to cautiously bid, and finally took the 4 550's and the miscellaneous box for $10 each. I later grabbed an LC III and a Quadra 610, 14" monitors,keyboards and mice for $5 each. The "room" (all the leftovers) sold for $35. I would have bid, but my wife's tolerance for vintage Mac hardware has been stretched to the limit, and it was hot. Loading 4 pickup loads of computers sounded like just too much work.

My total expenditure for the day was $60.

plenty of dustWhen I got the treasures home and tested, all started up with a bit of work. Each of the 550's had a 160 MB hard drive, a working floppy drive, and an extra 4 MB stick of RAM for a total of 8 MB. The first machine I opened up was one of the dirtiest computers I've ever seen. Fortunately, the rest were considerably cleaner.

Cleaning up the 550's involved pulling the bezels, front and back, and removing the drives and motherboards. I gave each a light brushing with a camelshair brush, but it was obvious these machines would need a thorough cleaning. I ended up opening up the case of each (which exposes some components with potentially fatal high voltage) and taking them to the garage to be blown out with a compressor. As the 550 teardown is similar in all respects to that of the 575, I won't replicate that information here, but will refer you to Performa 575 to PowerMac 575.

different batteriesI found that the early 550's used a 3.6v lithium battery, while later motherboards employed the more expensive 4.5v alkaline battery. As with the Performa/LC 570 series, models with the 4.5v alkaline battery may appear dead when in reality, they simply need a battery replacement. While GURU 2.9 (545K) noted the difference, Apple Spec only showed the 3.6v lithium battery!

The Quadra turned out to have a full 40 chip with FPU, a 250 MB hard drive, and 16 MB of RAM! Both monitors worked well, which is quite surprising since I dropped one of them outside the building!

The LC III turned out to be the second best buy of the day for me. It had a 2 gig SCSI hard drive and was equipped with 36 MB of RAM! Possibly the best buy of the day turned out to be the miscellaneous box. It contained over 50 computer power cords, in addition to various old drives, modems, and stuff I still haven't figured out. When I got home, I realized I still was without a Mac IIci, which is what I'd gone to the auction to buy!

Now what?

Performa 550In a great deal that I just stumbled across on eBay last year, I came into possession of some very good complete LC III systems. That got me started on a project supplying all of my part and full-time special education students with take-home computers. While I'd love to give each one an iMac or iBook, financial realities dictated something lesser. The LC III's that went home were mostly a great success. If I could have, I would have chosen a Power Mac of some sort with a CD-ROM, but price again dictated against that.

My new acquisitions guarantee that the computer giveaway project will continue for new placements in my classroom next year. Many of my sixth graders going on to another classroom in the junior high were surprised to find out that I did not want their computers back. The final take-home computer last school year actually went out just a few days before the end of school to a sixth grader who really didn't qualify for the program, but would give the LC III a good home.

It's uncertain whether the 550's will be upgraded with 575 motherboards, but I would like to add a CD-ROM to each one. The Quadra 610 may receive a CD-ROM as well, while the LC III will probably serve as a parts donor for machines already out in students' homes.

It had been a long time since I'd been to an auction. The tension and thrill of bidding were still there. I even made a new Mac buddy who was there to bid primarily on Apple II equipment. Even though I didn't come home with what I went there to buy, I was pleased with the day's accumulation.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

The child who didn't qualify for a take-home computer is a good example of what is wrong in our schools. He's a wonderful but troubled kid who aches inside from a mother who chose drugs and her dealer over her kids. It's the kind of problem that all of President Bush and Congress's newly mandated testing won't begin to address. It's easy to require tests, but curing the social ills that have caused the decline in performance of our public schools is something no politician wants to address. It defies a cure, and you don't get elected defining a currently incurable problem. So we'll begin testing all kids in grades 3-8 next year, knowing full well that while that may cause some small improvement in education, it won't really address what's wrong with schools and education today.

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About EdNews

Last April with the demise of Tom McKenna's excellent G3 All-in-one Stop Shop site, I saw the need for a gathering spot for Mac educators on the web. Tom's site had filled that niche well for almost three years, but Tom needed (and deserved) a break. In response, I committed to trying an education site with daily news postings.

Educators' News is a result of that decision. It is still in its infancy with just a few hits per day, but reader email is increasing. That's a good sign, since for this site to work, reader input will be necessary. I hope the site will turn out to be a cross of an educational version of the Macintosh News Network with the give and take of Tom's old AIO site.

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©2001 Steven L. Wood