Customers peruse a stall at the Electronics Flea Market. (Erik Neumann/KQED)
A bunch of men crowd around a folding table in the parking lot of De Anza College in Cupertino. The group pores over the guts of ancient, disassembled radios. Nearby, a piano ballad blasts out of giant speakers. Paul Waltimyer is trying to sell a radio he restored -- a really old radio.
“This one here is a 1925 masterpiece," Waltimyer says. "It was called a TRF, a tuned radio frequency set.”
The radio he’s selling is made of wood and is about the size of a big mailbox. On the front are three knobs. “You had to have three hands to run it,” he says, explaining its three separate tuners.
Waltimyer is just one vendor here at the Silicon Valley Electronics Flea Market. The market started in the 1970s. On this Saturday, about 50 vendors fill the parking lot. They sell computers, reel-to-reel tape machines, and depth sounders, which were used to measure the water from a boat. Most of the vendors are guys. Lots are into ham radio, and some work in tech.
“I love the old technology,” says Eric Schlaepfer. “I love mixi-tubes and cathode ray tubes. I build a lot of projects with them.”
Schlaepfer is an electrical engineer at Google. He comes to the flea market for components for his own personal projects that he shows off at technology festivals. He says the artifacts at the flea market can reveal surprising connections in Silicon Valley. To demonstrate, he grabs a book about electric circuits from under a nearby table.
“If we open it up, there’s a name written on the inside of the cover, which is 'Albert S. Hoagland,'” Schlaepfer says. “As it turns out, he was one of the innovators at IBM back in the '50s and he worked on the IBM RAMAC, which was the world’s first hard drive.”
But the flea market doesn't just attract hardcore engineers. Renee McAnally is another regular.
“This is our favorite hunting ground,” she explains. “We go to different flea markets and stuff, but this one we come to every single month.
McAnally is better known as “The Robot Lady.” She sells clocks and jewelry made from tiny motors, brass gears and wire. A 4-foot high robot, made from serrated magnetic computer cores, stands nearby.
“We don’t know what the pieces are half the time,” she says, “we just see something and go ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ The gentleman who put this on, they’ll come and they’ll say, ‘Oh that piece is this and that’s what it does.’”
Bob Ellingson is selling merchandise at a nearby table. His Santa Clara store has been selling new and used electronics since the mid-'60s.
“For the swap here, we get all the cool stuff out and this is the only place we bring it,” Ellingson says.
His inventory includes battery radios from the '20s and spare parts to fix them: vacuum tubes, transistors and diodes. Ellingson says he recognizes the other shoppers and vendors, as well as some of the stuff they’re selling.
“I have seen stuff at other stalls that I know I sold them previous years, because I see my little price tag on 'em,” Ellingson says. “It’s a little déjà vu. I think all this stuff moves around from one person’s garage to another, honestly. It just keeps moving around the Valley.”
Toward the end of the market, Eric Schlaepfer is leaving with the treasures he bought today.
“These are interesting,” he says, pulling a metal, glass and wire device out of a plastic bag. “This is a plug-in module that would have gone into a vacuum tube computer, probably from the early '50s. These look like IBM.”
Schlaepfer says he’ll trace them out later at home and figure out how they would have connected in a computer. Will the stuff he bought, at some point in the future, wind up back here at the flea market? He says maybe, if he moves on to some new project, he’ll bring them back and keep the cycle going.
The Electronics Flea Market is held on the second Saturday of each month, March through September, at De Anza College in Cupertino.