From time to time I see postings on eBay boards and elsewhere arguing about where and when the first online auctions were held. Some folks naturally think eBay (as eBay or AuctionWeb) was first, because it was the first auction of which they were aware.
Several other Web sites are suggested as candidates for having held the first-ever online auction, but the truth is that the first online auctions weren't on the Web at all.
As I mention in the Introduction to The eBay Survival Guide, major consumer online services such as CompuServe (nee MicroNET) and The Source were sponsoring auctions in the early 1980s. Specifically, Comp-U-Card Online/Comp-U-Store held weekly auctions for consumer goods like the brand-new Sony Walkman in 1983, and CompuServe's first eBay-style automated online auctions were held in 1982.
But those sales were predated by auctions conducted through bulletin board postings and email. The auctioneer/seller would post a notice on a system bulletin board, describing the item for sale and setting a minimum bid and closing time. (There was no way to post a photographic image back then). Bids were either emailed to the bidder or posted as replies to the seller's original message.
CompuServe was sponsoring such auctions through its classified ad system in 1980. But individuals ran their own online auctions as early as 1979 on both CompuServe and The Source, which were in beta the first part of that year. Such auctions were also run on the earliest public BBSes, going back to 1978. (There's no record of auctions being held on the first public BBS, Ward Christensen's CBBS, in 1977.)
So who held the very first online auction? The early BBS callers and members of MicroNET and The Source out there will have to slug it out for the bragging rights. I didn't hold my first online auction (via email) until 1983, when I sold off an old printer for parts, and I don't know anyone who held an auction before 1982.
All of this talk of "first" pertains only to computer bulletin boards and consumer online services. If you expand the definition of "online" to include cable TV-based interactive electronic communication, you'll find that online auctions predate BBSes, CompuServe, and The Source. Warner Cable Corporation's Videotex experiment, QUBE, which went live on December 1, 1977, included online auctions among its many services. QUBE (and later services like Channel 2000 and Viewtron in other parts of the country) offered pretty much everything you get on the Internet today: email, shopping, polls, ads, single-and multi-player gaming, news, weather, stock reports, and bulletin boards - along with real television. These were computer-based services delivered by cable television. (The Source actually provided many of the services for Channel 2000 and Viewtron.) The only major elements missing were software downloads and instant messaging.
The QUBE auctions were held nightly on a talk-variety show called "Columbus Alive." The proceeds went to charity, and the auction period was limited to an hour or three in the evening. Bidding was in realtime. Viewers could leave the program, return to check the progress of the sale, and bid again - overall, not unlike an eBay Live Auction, but with live video of the item being sold, and no absentee bids.
Most auction sale amounts were added to the viewer's monthly cable bill, and there was no feedback system.