Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, AZERTY

In the US, we don’t hear much about computing from beyond the Anglosphere. We’ve seen some home computer clones from behind the iron curtain, but getting any information about them is hard. If you find an old keyboard with a QWERTZ layout, or even a few Cyrillic characters, in the States, it’s a rarity. To date, the only French computer on Hackaday is an old Minitel dumb terminal. To help rectify this, [Jeremie Marsin], [Thierry Mazzoleni], and [Jean Paul Mari] from Quebec brought the best of the French computing revolution of the 1980s along to this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East

The American-designed French Victor

The evolution of the reigning champion of this exhibit begins with the Micronique Victor Lambda, a licensed copy of a purely American computer, the Interact Home Computer System. This computer featured a 2 MHz 8080A, 8 or 16 kB of RAM, and was quickly discontinued. The French company Micronique quickly bought the original designs and remarketed the computer in France.

In a few short years, Micronique took this design and turned it into the Hector. This machine featured a 5 MHz Z80, 48 kB of RAM, high resolution graphics (243×231 at four colors) and included BASIC and Forth interpreters.

The Victor and Hector were the best home computers at the time, but for every Commodore or Apple, you need a ZX Spectrum. France’s version of this tiny computer with a terrible keyboard was the Matra Alice 32, a computer with a 1 MHz 6803, 16kB of Ram, and a real 80×25 text mode. The Alice is heavily based on the American TRS-80 MC-10, with a SCART connector and an AZERTY keyboard.


The weirdest computer [Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] brought out? That would be the Excelvision EXL100. The 1980s, for better or worse, were the times of the Z80 and 6502. The EXL100 was running something completely different. This home computer used a TMS7020 CPU from Texas Instruments, a speech synthesizer, and a wireless keyboard. Very strange for the time and relatively inexpensive; in 1984 this computer cost only ₣3190, or about $550 USD.


[Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] had an exhibit that presented the best the Francosphere had to offer to the computing world in the 80s and 90s. We haven’t seen enough early computers from outside the US, so we’re happy to have met these guys at the 11th annual Vintage Computer Festival East.

Digital Images And The Amiga

There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s where the Amiga was the standard for computer graphics. Remember SeaQuest? That was an Amiga. The intro to Better Call Saul? That’s purposefully crappy, to look like it came out of an Amiga. When it comes to the Amiga and video, the first thing that comes to mind is the Video Toaster, hardware and software that turns an Amiga 2000 into a nonlinear video editing suite. Digital graphics, images, and video on the Amiga was so much more than the Video Toaster, and at this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, [Bill] and [Anthony] demonstrated what else the Amiga could do.

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Building The First Digital Camera

While the official history of the digital camera begins with a Kodak engineer tinkering around with digital electronics in 1975, the first digital camera was actually built a few months prior. At the Vintage Computer Festival East, [William Sudbrink] rebuilt the first digital camera. It’s wasn’t particularly hard, either: it was a project on the cover of Popular Electronics in February, 1975.

Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera
Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera

[William]’s exhibit, Cromemco Accessories: Cyclops & Dazzler is a demonstration of the greatest graphics cards you could buy for S-100 systems and a very rare, very weird solid-state TV camera. Introduced in the February, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the Cyclops was the first digital camera. This wasn’t a device that used a CCD or a normal image sensor. The image sensor in the Cyclops was a 1 kilobit DRAM from MOS, producing a digital image thirty-two pixels square.

The full description, schematic, circuit layout, and theory of operation are laid out in the Popular Electronics article; all [William] had to do was etch a PCB and source the components. The key part – a one kilobit MOS DRAM in a metal can package, carefully decapsulated – had a date code of 1976, but that is the newest component in the rebuild of this classic circuit.

To turn this DRAM into digital camera, the circuit sweeps across the rows and columns of the DRAM array, turning the charge of each cell into an analog output. This isn’t a black or white camera; there’s gray in there, or green if you connect it to an oscilloscope.

This project in Popular Electronics would be manufactured by Cromemco in late 1975 and was released as their first product in January, 1976. The Cromemco was marketed as a digital camera, designed to interface with the MITS Altair 8800 computer, allowing anyone to save digital images to disk. This was the first digital camera invented, and the first digital camera sold to consumers. It’s an amazing piece of history, and very happy [William] was able to piece this together and bring it out to the Vintage Computer Festival this weekend.

VCF East: A Retro Hackathon

We got a banner.
We got a banner.

This weekend is the Vintage Computer Festival East in Wall, New Jersey. Every year is different, but there’s a general plan for each day. On Saturday and Sunday, the exhibits rule the con, the consignment shop is busy, and the keynotes bring down the house. Friday is a little different. This is the day for ‘in the trenches’ talks from the commodore crew, classes on recapping 30-year-old computers, and this year – for the first time – a retro hackathon. It’s basically the same format as any other hackathon, but instead of bringing MacBooks and building something cool, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s were provided. This is the report on the first retro hackathon we’ve ever been to.

The Apple II one-liner SIN graph
The Apple II one-liner SIN graph

First off, no one remembers how to program in BASIC. If you’re looking for a population that should remember the vagaries of the different dialects of BASIC, you would think it would be the people who came out to the middle of Jersey on Friday to talk about old CPUs. Apparently, this is not the case and several people were confused about single and double quotes in PRINT statements. Luckily, a few programming manuals for the C64 and Apple II were available, so everyone could still have fun with PEEKs and POKEs.

If you want to get people programming on some old machines, you need to give them some inspiration. The first half hour of the retro hackathon didn’t see any teams programming. Given this demographics proclivity to say, ‘I can do that better’, I typed a few BASIC one-liners in the C64 (random Truchet tiles in PETSCII) and Apple II (a SIN graph), and the people started pouring in. Yes, they could program something better than a single line of BASIC.

What came of an impromptu retro hackathon? Hangman, in BASIC. No, it didn’t quite work, and there were only three or four possible words hardcoded into the program. Still, text mode graphics are a lost art. The Apple IIc was programmed to make fart noises. The original plan for this project was to program music. What would  have been the winning entry was a line-drawing program on the C64 that looked like the enemy in Qix. That guy wasn’t there during judging. The winner of a $50 credit to the consignment shop was a kid who programmed zero-player Pong on Apple II basic. He bought a Mac Portable (non-backlit) with that prize.

We’ve gone to hackathons, we’ve waded through the sea of MacBooks, and had a Red Bull drip installed. This retro hackathon was completely different, but somehow familiar. No, no one is going to create something new – everything that can be done on these machines in a few hours of BASIC programming has already been done. That’s not the point, though. It’s a geek pride of proving your mettle, putting your money where your mouth is, and doing it in a casual environment where everyone is friendly. This is the first retro hackathon we’ve gone to, and it won’t be the last. We’re going to do this again, once we get an Apple IIc+, a few Commodores, a Speccy, and a few good monitors. We already have the banner, anyway.

Hackaday Teams with Vintage Computer Festival for Retro Hackathon

For the last few years, we’ve been going to the Vintage Computer Festival East in New Jersey. This is one of the best cons we go to every year; there are dozens of interesting exhibitors, awesome talks, a great venue, and a small consignment area filled with the weirdest stuff you can imagine. This year proves to be no different, and we’ll be there cataloging the weirdness and spectacular hacks of computer systems old enough to vote, plus something new.

Hackaday’s 8-bit game programming contest is happening for the first time at VCF East, April 15-17 in Wall, New Jersey. Competitors are given two and a half hours and an old 8-bit system (Apple II, C64, Atari 800, etc.). The goal is to create a game using only what is currently in memory, be that in the ROM or between the ears. There are two sessions on the Friday of the event, starting at 10am and 2:30pm.

You can call the 8-bit game programming contest a hackathon. That’s basically what it is; getting a small team together to whip up an application quickly with a number of constraints. The term ‘hackathon’ has been bastardized as of late, with companies requiring the use of a particular API or other nonsense. The 8-bit programming contest doesn’t have these limitations. All you need to do is create the coolest game in two and a half hours, and get the most applause from the audience. The best game wins a prize.

Of course, we’re not going to VCF East just to promote a retro hackathon. We’re only obliged to mention that first because we’re sponsoring it. VCF East is a fantastic event, with more retro goodies to satiate even the most curmudgeonly retro aficionado. The show is enormous with keynotes from [John Blankenbaker], inventor of the Kenbak-1 personal computer and [Stewart Cheifet], host of Computer Chronicles. Dr. Dr. Ted Nelson, author of Computer Lib and creator of Xanadu, the underlying software for computers that won’t be built for 100 years, will also be there. The weekend is, as always, packed with great exhibits of ancient tech, classes, and workshops.

Each Vintage Computer Festival is different, but if you’d like a sample of what it’s all about, check out these posts:

Apart from an announcement for the festival in New Jersey, there are a lot of changes in the organization of the various vintage computer festivals held around the country. The Vintage Computer Festival East was formerly organized by MARCH, the Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists. Late last year, MARCH was dissolved, and reformed as a 501(c)3 called the Vintage Computer Federation. The VCF (see what they did there?) also has the rights to hold VCF West, which last happened in 2007. The VCF Midwest, Southwest, Europe, and UK will remain independent.

If it isn’t already extremely obvious, this is one of the top-tier events we go to every year. No, it’s not DEF CON, it’s not HOPE, and it’s certainly not a big con. It’s just a bunch of nerds nerding out, which is the critical ingredient for the best events we attend all year.

VCF East X: The Mega Mix

The Vintage Computer Festival East was last weekend, and now it’s time to wrap everything up. We’re going to start this off with a video of the biggest, most intolerable jerk on the planet walking around the boardwalk at Ashbury Park. Thanks to [Fran] for filming it.

That video, despite the wretched casting director, included the reveal of the PDP Straight-8, the 50-year-old minicomputer that was repaired and refurbished by [David Gesswein] just this year. You can see some pictures of that and more below, and a little more on [David]’s website.

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VCF East X: Amigas And Non-Apple Macs

The Amiga 1000, the original Amiga, was introduced in 1985, making this the 30th anniversary of the Commodore Amiga. Of course this needed to be represented at the Vintage Computer Festival, and [Bill Winters] and [Anthony Becker] were more than up to the task:

The guys brought with them a representation of nearly every Amiga, and also have a few neat gadgets to plug into these cool little boxes. The Amiga 1200 has been heavily upgraded with a compact flash drive. With the proper adapters and cards, this neat machine can be upgraded with Ethernet, WiFi, or just about every conceivable networking solution.

Attached to the A500 is a Gotek floppy drive emulator, a relatively standard if weird device that turns a PC floppy drive connector into a USB mass storage solution. This floppy emulator did not originally support Amiga disk formats, but with a firmware modification, everything just works. That’s a great story in itself, and something we should probably cover another time.

If you’re wondering what it was like for [Bill] and [Anthony] to dig through their garage for their exhibit, here you go.

Portable Macintoshen

The first Macintosh was released in 1984. Macintosh users wanted a slightly more portable machine, but the first ‘luggable’ Mac wouldn’t be released until late 1989. The market was there to fill the gap, with some bizarre machines exhibited by [Matt Bergeron]:

The Outbound laptop and notebook were unlicensed clones of the Macintosh. Instead of pirating the Apple ROMs, the Outbound computers required buyers to pull the ROM chips from their Macs and install them in the slightly more portable version. This was, of course, inconvenient, and we can imagine there were more than a few ROM chips cloned.

The Dynamac was a different beast, using the entire PCB from a mac SE or SE/30. To this, the creators of the Dynamac added a custom video card and electroluminescent display that was also capable of driving an external monitor. Very cool stuff.