The pitch to my wife was simple: “Feel like spending the weekend in Seattle?” That’s how I ended up at the inaugural Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest last weekend, and I’m glad we made the five-hour drive into The Big City to check it out. Hackaday is a VCF sponsor, after all, so it seemed like a great excuse to make the trip. That it ended up being two consecutive days of great Seattle weather was only icing on the cake of being able to spend time with fellow retro computer aficionados and their dearest bits of old hardware, in a great museum dedicated to keeping computer history alive and accessible.
The fact that Seattle, home of Microsoft, Amazon, and dozens of other tech companies, has until now been left out of the loop in favor of VCF East in New Jersey and VCF West in Mountain View seems strange, but judging by the reception, VCF PNW is here to stay and poised to grow. There were 20 exhibitors for this go around, showing off everything from reanimated PDP-11 and Altair 8800 control panels to TRS-80s from Model 1 through to the CoCo. Almost every class of reasonably transportable retro hardware was represented, as well as some that pushed the portability envelope, like a working PDP-8 and a huge Symbolics 3640 LISP workstation.
At some points onlookers outnumbered exhibitors three-fold, cramming the aisles between displays and making it tough to get up close to chat. Almost every exhibitor was swarmed with people asking questions, pecking commands into keyboards, or taking selfies with the hardware. I only got the chance to talk to a few exhibitors, like David Cooper with his impressive collection from the TRS-80 ecosystem. My first programs were typed into a Model 1 at the kind forbearance of the manager of my local Radio Shack, and playing Sea Dragon with my son on a machine I haven’t touched since the 1970s was a real treat.
VCF PNW also hosted a series of interesting talks, only one of which I managed to hear. Paul Laughton talked about following his passion to a programming career that spanned from mainframes to micros, including the early days of Apple, working on a $13,000 contract to develop Apple DOS, meeting his future wife at the Homebrew Computer Club, hanging out with Jobs and Woz, and writing the book on Atari DOS and AtariBASIC. He eventually wound up writing firmware for one of the first consumer digital cameras at Logitech. Paul is now a docent at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, home of VCF West, using his spare time to write and maintain the BASIC! For Android app.
And while the talks and exhibits were what attendees were there for, it was impossible to not wander out into the host venue, the Living Computers: Museum + Labs. This place is a real treat for anyone interested in computers on any level. The main floor has a lot of exhibits geared to kids: a self-driving car simulator that takes you on a virtual ride past the Krusty Burger on Main Street, Springfield; VR and AR demos; and interactive robot displays. But the upper level has the mother lode of hardware: every Apple from the original to the Mac, Ataris, Osbornes, Commodores, and even machines from MITS and IMSAI. If you cut your teeth on a personal computer anytime between 1975 and the “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” days, chances are good they have it on display. Plus there are dozens of minicomputers and a beautiful display of big iron in a climate-controlled computer room.
But the best part of the museum? Almost every exhibit was operational, and touching was most definitely encouraged. We were amazed to see almost every keyboard occupied by someone entering the “Hello, world!” equivalent for the particular architecture. Very few artifacts were locked away from prying fingers, and even those that were labeled as not for touching were generally accessible enough so that you could get up close for a look. It’s really a great museum, and well worth a visit when you’re in the area. And it seems like the museum benefited from the VCF attendees — word has it that the museum broke its attendance record, previously set by a Minecraft event.
All in all, VCF PNW was a great success, and congratulations are due to the production team, especially producer Mike Brutman. Thanks too to Rob and Evan of the Vintage Computer Federation for the hospitality, and to Matisse from LC:M+L for getting us set up with credentials for the day. Here’s hoping that VCF PNW is here to stay, and that the 2019 event will be even bigger.