Historians bemused at pounds 7.7m for calculator

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'WHO paid pounds 7.7m for a 19th-century German mechanical calculator at Christie's on Wednesday?' That was the question they were all asking yesterday: scientists, dealers and historians were finding it hard - even impossible - to take in the news. 'If this had been a Renaissance piece by Michelangelo, I could understand it,' said one scientific instruments specialist.

The highest prices for top quality calculating machines, though rarely on the market, have never exceeded tens of thousands, said another.

Although a pair of 16th-century globes sold for pounds 1.23m in 1991, that was the only seven-figure price achieved by scientific instruments: the Science Museum in London, which boasts a fine collection of calculating machines, generally pays a few thousand pounds.

Derek Robinson, its head of physical sciences, said: 'Everybody's talking about this . . . It's so startling. We're all amazed.'

A couple of sources wondered whether Christie's would actually be paid. Could someone have misunderstood the exchange rates?

Few believed that Edgar Mannheimer, the Swiss collector who bid for it, had bought it for himself.

One source suggested that the actual purchaser was Bill Gates, the 37-year-old founder of Microsoft, the personal computer software company. As the world's richest businessman, with shares reputed to be worth around dollars 8bn, pounds 7.7m would seem cheap. Like Mr Mannheimer, he was unavailable for comment.

Several sources believe that the calculator was bought by an individual, rather than a corporation like IBM (which has an historic scientific instruments collection). Harriet Wynter, who has dealt in this field for 30 years, said: 'Industrialists have a romantic streak about discovering the beginnings of their industry. If you're making your millions in computer software, what's more natural than this sort of toy?'