On November 30, 1988, members of the Boston Computer Society (BCS) filled that city’s Symphony Hall to capacity. They were there to see Steve Jobs demo the NeXT cube, the remarkable computer from the startup he’d founded after being ousted from Apple three years earlier. I was lucky enough to be in Jobs’s audience—and even my 34-year-old recollections of the evening are electrifying.
Charles Mann was also in the house that night. He was recording Jobs’s show for distribution as part of the Powersharing Series, an audio-cassette series of presentations made at the BCS, other user group meetings, and Boston’s Computer Museum by tech-industry notables. After putting the project aside for decades, Mann returned to it in recent years: Working with tech historian Tom Frikker, he digitized 134 of his recordings and began selling them on a $60 USB drive. It’s a priceless record of what was going on in computing between 1982 and 1991.
In 2020, I wrote about Jobs’s demo and Mann’s recordings, and shared the NeXT audio in its entirety along with other Powersharing excerpts. What I didn’t know at the time: Mann didn’t just save his master tapes. He also preserved a trove of documents relating to the undertaking, including the releases that speakers signed granting permission to use their presentations.
And now he’s decided to part ways with that collection. Online auctioneer RR Auction will be putting the contract Jobs signed and dozens of others up for bid, mostly in lots bundling multiple items. Among those represented by their signatures: Bill Gates, futurist Esther Dyson, Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith, Jobs’s Apple partner Steve Wozniak, other Apple notables such as John Sculley and Bill Atkinson, AI eminences including Seymour Papert and Ray Kurzweil, all-around visionary Alan Kay, portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne, spreadsheet inventor Dan Bricklin, Borland founder Philippe Kahn, PC kingpin Michael Dell, and Sony’s Akio Morita. Even psychedelics booster and part-time technologist Timothy Leary is included.
The documents are being offered in an auction that also includes a wealth of other items relating to Jobs, Apple, and other key figures and companies in computing history. It’s online now and closes on August 18. Mann’s archive is so bountiful that only a chunk of it is included. Another batch will go up for bid later.
Why is Mann, who will soon turn 88, selling off these artifacts? He explains that he wanted to deal with them now rather than burden his kids with the task someday. All along, he saw his recording efforts as an act of historical preservation as much as a business. “The amount of sales was minuscule compared to what I put into it,” he says. “But it was just that motivation.” Having never made much money selling the Powersharing Series on tape and USB drive, he could find the auction to be the most remunerative aspect of the whole experience.
Even in the 1980s, Jobs’s obsessive perfectionism was the stuff of legend.
His goal with getting the recordings into schools and libraries, he says, is “not to generate income from it, but just to make sure that they’re there. I’ve long since given up on recovering funds from [the recordings], unless this auction unexpectedly strikes fire. But you know, that would be ironic, because I had never thought about that.”
Signed by Steve Jobs
Just as Jobs’s NeXT presentation may be the single most significant Powersharing recording, his contract, which he signed on February 16, 1989 at NeXT, is the flagship of the upcoming auction. He didn’t like doling out autographs, which he claimed to see as a form of credit-hogging. That makes any surviving Jobs signature a sought-after rarity, and RR Auction has developed something of a specialty in them, as well as other unique items related to Apple history.
In 2021, the auction house sold a signed 1983 Jobs letter—in which he slyly refuses an autograph request—for $480,000. At the same time, a copy of the first issue of Macworld magazine signed by both Jobs and Wozniak went for $201,000. Last month, a 1976 check signed by Jobs brought $55,000.
Even in the 1980s, Jobs’s obsessive perfectionism was the stuff of legend. So Mann found it especially meaningful that the Apple cofounder gave his blessing to the Powersharing Series audio-only version of his NeXT presentation. “My happiest moment was getting a letter back from somebody in his office saying, ‘we thought the tape was very good and here’s Steve’s release,'” he says. (That letter is included with the release in RR’s auction.)
Mann may have decided to part way with his vintage paperwork—but the memories are his alone, and remain precious.