When I arrived at the InfoAge Museum of Science and History for this year’s edition Vintage Computer Festival East, I expected this to be a reduced event compared to last year. After all, how could it be otherwise? Due to the schedule change due to COVID, show runner Jeffrey Brace and his team only had six months to put together an event that is usually planned for an entire year. With such a truncated preparation time, they deserved a little respite.
But as anyone who attended VCF East 2022 can attest, they didn’t need it. Not only the event meet the high expectations set by last year’s Festival, he succeeded in overcoming them. There were more workshops, more talks, more vendors, more consignment rooms, more live streams, more…well, everything. This year’s program even got a bright splash of color compared to the grayscale document attendees received in October. It was, by any metric you want to use, better than ever.
This, however, leaves me in a somewhat unenviable position. As we’ve learned during the pandemic, a virtual representation of an event as large as VCF can give you a taste of what’s on offer, but all the nuance is lost. Looking at photos of someone’s passion project can’t compare to meeting the person and seeing that look of pride in their eyes as they walk you through all the details.
So keep that in mind through this recap of some of the projects that caught my eye. This is not a “best of” list, and the Festival is certainly not a competition. But each participant will invariably walk away with their own handful of favorite memories, so I’ll document mine here. If you want to make your own memories, I highly suggest heading to the Jersey Shore in April 2023 for the upcoming Vintage Computer Festival East.
History of handheld computers
A disturbing number of people believe wearable computing began in 2007 when Apple unveiled the first iPhone, but those who have followed the tech world bit take a closer look, there’s a long list of organizers, PDAs, handhelds, tablets, and other weird gadgets that date back to the very early days of personal computing. Dave Shevett brought some choice selections from his amazing personal collection of portable computing devices it ranged from a mechanical Curta calculator to iconic mainstays like the Palm Pilot and BlackBerry.
At an event filled with gear as rare and expensive as VCF, you should generally keep your hands to yourself. But in this case, Dave invited attendees to pick up and play with the devices on display to get a sense of what they might have looked like. Well, not all of them. I haven’t seen him hand the Curta over to the random passerby, but there’s not much damage you can do to a Sony CLIE or a TRS-80 Model 100.
I’ve learned over the years that “vintage computing” means something different depending on who you ask. For some, it’s the era of early desktop computers like the Commodore 64. Others seek big iron mainframes and front-panel turn signals. Modern in design, Core64 by Andy Geppert doesn’t technically fit into either camp, but it does allow you to play interactively with what is arguably one of the most fascinating components of the earliest digital computers: main memory.
We’ve covered Core64 here on Hackaday in the past, and Andy has even hosted a Retro Memory Hacking Cat in 2021. But this is the first time I’ve had the chance to see the material in person, and let me tell you, it’s awesome. The kits he brought were long sold out by the time I arrived, but he still had a few demo units on hand for attendees to play with, and was happy to talk about the project with anyone interested. The device has several operating modes, but the one that allows you to draw directly on the matrix by lighting the LEDs behind each ferrite was particularly appreciated by the youngest.
Its application as an educational tool was very clear, but the Core64 isn’t just for the miniature hackers in your life. There aren’t many opportunities to work with core memory these days, let alone weave things by hand, making this a particularly compelling gadget for anyone looking to gain hands-on experience with one of the technologies that put man on the moon.
Can you hear me now?
At first glance, the Dial 1 for IT exhibition organized by Jason Perkins may seem somewhat out of place in a computer festival. Although there was technically computer equipment involved, it was pushed back to the back, behind two tables stacked with a wide array of telephones. The specimens on display ran the gamut from old rotary dial telephones to relatively modern cordless models. There was even a payphone hanging on the wall next to the screen, a particularly rare sight these days.
All phones were connected to a PBX, and each had a small sticker indicating its extension. Participants were free to pick up any phone they liked and call any of their peers. There was even a public phone number listed so you could call the system from your cell phone. This exhibit introduced younger audiences to technology they had probably never seen in person before, and it was a huge success. There was a certain novelty to seeing teenagers using a payphone in 2022, and it was not lost on them — several times I saw young visitors taking pictures of their friends using the payphone with, ironically, the handheld supercomputers that pass for phones in the 21st century.
The TRS-80 rolls again
For those who have never been to a VCF event, you might get the impression that the show looks like a computer museum – with rows of old machines arranged in a table, far too old and fragile to be turned on, let alone used. In some special cases, you would be right. But for the most part, VCF is as much about breathing new life into these classic machines as it is about admiring them as historic artifacts. Gathering !a new game developed for the TRS-80 by Peter Cetinski is a perfect example.
Of course, just developing a game for the TRS-80 isn’t necessarily a remarkable achievement. After all, there was no shortage of games created by single developers at the time, and you could tell that the majority of TRS-80 owners were probably proficient enough in BASIC to have fiddled with their own simple games ( or having copied them from a book) at some point.
The trick here is that Peter isn’t using a 1980s development workflow. Instead, his games are made on a Macbook Pro using modern development tools. The well named TRS-80 Screen Designer Plaid Vest software allows it to create art assets using an interface that’s not quite unlike old-fashioned grid paper worksheets. the zmac cross compiler allows you to create binaries for the Tandy on your Windows, Linux or Mac OS machine, and the trs80gp emulator allows you to test them. Tap the result onto a stack of floppy disks (or tapes, as the case may be), and you’ll be ready to have your own table at next year’s VCF.
make an impression
No matter their age or background, everyone I spoke to at Vintage Computer Festival 2022 had nothing but positive things to say about the event. At the end of the day, even my own 11-year-old daughter, who usually spends her free time digging holes in Minecraft, was impressed. I’d say she came out of the event a little wiser, too – there’s something about spending an afternoon switching programs on the front panel of a minicomputer that makes the magic previously incomprehensible to people. interior of a modern smartphone looks quaint in comparison. She says she’s excited to be going there next year, and not just in the “Daddy says I have to go” way, either.
Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the Campus InfoAge itself, which offers an incredible array of exhibits for VCF visitors to explore. Seriously, was there another shipwreck museum within walking distance of a working radio telescope? But even still, that the passionate members of the Vintage Computer Federation are able to create an event that manages to captivate guests who aren’t even half as old as the computers or equipment on display is frankly a minor miracle. Considering this year’s theme was “Computers for the Masses”, I’d say they succeeded.