Evolution Of The Worlds Oldest Computer Festival

The Trenton Computer Festival (TCF) doesn’t have the name recognition of big technology conferences like DEF CON or HOPE. It’s not even as well known as smaller more localized conferences like DerbyCon, ShmooCon, or the Hackaday Superconference. In fact, there’s a good chance that most readers have never even heard of TCF. But despite not holding a place in the hacker lexicon, TCF has plenty to boast about. Its played host to technology luminaries from Bill Gates to Richard Stallman, and now in its 43rd year, holds the title as the longest continually running technology festival in the world.

Bill Gates giving the keynote at TCF in 1989

When originally conceived in 1976, the show was devoted to the dawning age of the personal computer, but since then has evolved into a celebration of technology as a whole. When TCF kicks off on March 17th, there won’t be a media blitz or huge corporate sponsorship. There won’t be a simultaneous online stream of the event, and the only badges worn by speakers or attendees will be of the paper variety.

What you will find at TCF is a full schedule of talks given by people who are passionate about technology in its varied forms. These run the gamut from quantum computing to lock picking, from Arduino to Space Shuttle avionics.

At the heart of TCF is co-founder and current Chair Dr Allen Katz. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr Katz about the challenges of running a conference of this type, and the secret to keeping relevant in a wildly changing technology landscape.

Birth of the Personal Computer

Dr Allen Katz

Running a successful technology conference is a challenge in itself, but managing to do it for four decades is something else entirely. You’d think that after doing it for so long Dr Katz might be getting bored of talking about it, but not more than five minutes after I emailed him about answering some questions for Hackaday, he responded with his personal phone number and told me to give him a call.

Dr Katz speaks very fondly of the early days of TCF, when personal computers weren’t something you could just go to the Best Buy and pick up. TCF started in the era of home-built computers like the Altair 8800 and the Apple I, and served as much as a venue for vendors to sell their computer kits as it did a place to find like minded individuals and swap ideas and tips.

At a time when most computer kits were purchased from mail order catalogs, Dr Katz attributes the success of the show on the desire of early computer builders to meet face to face. “The ability to bring people together, that personal contact, I think had value.

As personal computers grew in popularity, so too did the Trenton Computer Festival. By the time Bill Gates came to give the keynote in 1989, the show was drawing around 12K attendees, and it had started to become a problem. “We got kicked out of The College of New Jersey in 1990″, Dr Katz recalls. “The township said you can’t run the show, it’s a public safety issue. People couldn’t get through the streets.”

Eventually TCF moved to the New Jersey Convention & Exposition Center in Edison, and became part of the popular “computer show” circuit. Before online sales took over, shows like these provided vendors a chance to offer their latest and greatest hardware directly to computer enthusiasts without the markup of the electronics stores. But this era was to be short lived, and by the early 2000’s more and more people were simply buying their hardware online.

“We saw a tremendous drop when eBay and online sales came in,” Dr Katz says. “You don’t have these computer shows every weekend like you used to, because the crowds aren’t there.”

A New Direction

By 2005, TCF had come full circle and returned to the TCNJ campus, but this time with a renewed mission. It was clear simply being a venue for buying and selling computer hardware was no longer viable, so the show would need to become something more. Offer something that you couldn’t get when you bought a motherboard or processor online.

“It’s never going to be like it was. The college is in education, its prime motive is to educate, and that’s what we’ve tried to do that never was in the old days. The main reason people came to the festival was for the buying experience. We try to maintain, as well as we can, the buying experience. We go and see vendors and exhibits. But at the same time, I think people are more willing to come in and attend something that’s educational.”

TCF would retain its vendor area, albeit in a much reduced form, and begin to feature more and more technical talks and demonstrations. But the changing nature of TCF, and in many ways the technology community, was not without consequence. When asked about how the change in format impacted the show’s popularity, Dr Katz says they still draw enough of a crowd to keep everyone happy. “We’re attracting now about 800 people. Respectable. We run a lot of things in parallel, I check on all the talks. We’re really able to run a wide program. The talks fill up and the speakers aren’t upset. You don’t want to bring a speaker in and have four or five people show up.”

Evolving Content

Some of the talks for this year’s TCF, including one on building Tricorders

You have to wonder what TCF attendees in 1976 would have thought if they could’ve peered into the future to see the types of talks it would be playing host to one day. Even after all of these years running the show, you can hear the excitement in Dr Katz’s voice as he describes talks and demonstrations which would have sounded like science fiction when he founded TCF. With a laugh he quips, “Who would’ve thought we’d be talking about tricorders in 2018?”

The schedule of talks this year include cutting edge topics like cryptocurrency and the latest developments in artificial intelligence, and it’s easy to forget that TCF has been running since before many of these speakers were even born. “We’ve tried to broaden it so it’s not just computers,” Dr Katz says. “It’s really related to emerging technologies that tie in with digital electronics.”

Dr Katz explains that one of the things they are trying to do is bring in more varied presentations to keep things fresh. But it hasn’t always been easy. When the New Jersey chapter of TOOOL approached him in 2016 about doing live demonstrations of lock picking, he had his doubts. “I never would have thought the lock picking would have worked,” Dr Katz admits. “But it’s turned out to be very popular, there were a lot of people who told me they really enjoyed it.”

Looking Ahead

Even after 43 years, there are aspects of TCF that Dr Katz says could be improved upon. While they are often requested, there are currently no recordings made of the TCF presentations. The desire is there, but a lack of funding and volunteers has so far made it impossible to document the presentations with the level of quality they deserve. Though he’s quick to point out that anyone looking to record the presentations on their own is more than welcome to do so if the speaker has no objections.

Dr Katz also says he’d like to see greater involvement from the next generation. “We need to bring in younger people, who have different ideas than the people who’ve run it for 40 years.” While they’ve certainly made progress, he believes they could always do better. He’d especially like to see more TCNJ students in attendance, but admits that due to the show happening during spring break, school is likely the last place most of them would want to hang out.

But above all, the biggest goal is simply to keep finding content that enthralls attendees. The Trenton Computer Festival will never be the biggest or flashiest technology conference, but that’s never been the goal. So long as the speakers are happy and the attendees are learning, Dr Katz says the show will go on.

32 thoughts on “Evolution Of The Worlds Oldest Computer Festival

  1. Never heard of this con until now, wonder how many other little mom-and-pop kind of computer/tech conferences are out there nobody knows about but locals.

    Looks like advance tickets are still available at $14! Even just to hit a couple of the talks, thats a pretty good deal.

    1. I present so I might be biased. I’ve attended several talks. I loved the Apollo Guidance Computer by Frank O’Brien (author of a book on the subject).. I’ve attended other talks and given several. I recall meeting Steve Ciarcia (he had his ZPM (?) lunch box computer Loved his Circuit Cellar articles in Byte and still subscribe to Circuit Cellar Magazine.
      Love going to TCF. I wish the ‘junk yard’ was a little bigger but that’s no longer the purpose of TCF. :-)

      1. I REALLY wish the ‘Junk Yard’ was bigger. It’s honestly my main reason for going, but the vendors get smaller and smaller each year. In years past, the greatest bargains on the most unique components could be found. It used to be the entire weekend, and I’d go both days. Then, only 7 hours on one day. Last year, I spent 2 hours. I would have only spent 20 minutes if it weren’t for the Toool Lock Pick guys.

        1. Last year I didn’t do too badly. I managed a bunch of 6809 stuff. A Coco 3 with drive, a Coco 2, and 3 6809 boards ( not sure of the bus). I intend to put NitrOS9 on the Coco 3 and it will go to the Vintage Computer Federation Museum at Infoage in Wall Twp. NJ.

        2. Thank you for your kind words. We hope to help TCF get back to former glory, if possible. I think a big part of this is new & unique things to bring this more in line with some hacker cons, but also bringing back the spirit of what it meant to be a computer ‘festival’, for lack of better words. I also think it would be important to get our youth interested in technology as well.

        3. I’m a big fan of the flea market area myself, and it’s definitely been getting smaller as time goes on. I think, realistically, it’s just hard to compete with the availability of parts online. Even the unique and vintage gear is pretty well covered by eBay.

          I’m not sure what the solution is, other than perhaps waiving/reducing the vendor table fee for individuals (versus the “pro” sellers).

  2. And Al was big in VHF/UHF circles in ham radio in the sixties, having a small newsletter in the early sixties, then the VHF columnist for CQ magazine in the later sixties, complete with the “beatnik beard”. He was also doing moonbounce when it was still fairly uncommon and needed a very big antenna.

    He still is.

    But I’ve known about him for 46 years, from before there were home computers.


  3. “(TCF) doesn’t have the name recognition of big technology conferences[…]
    and the only badges worn by speakers or attendees will be of the paper variety.”

    quod erat demonstrandum


  4. Back in the old days the TCF had a very large outdoor electronics flea market that spanned several parking lots. It was hard to pull yourself away from the bargains to attend some of the tech talks inside the building.

  5. TCF has been run since 1976, it kind of got sucked up into the computer shows (lots of DIY PCs) but till did the presentations.
    It’s now back to it’s roots of technology.

    I’ll be giving a Presentation on Home Automation (Smart Home stuff). Another gentleman will also give another HA presentation later. I’m looking forward to that.

    This year I intend to demo first, then explain. Last year my WiFi AP lost its’ hard coded DHCP and I wasted time finding out what addresses the HA devices had. I’ll also start high level then work low level. My presentations are always put up on my site afterwards (I think this might be 7th presentation. I always update the presentations. I’m working on it right now. Wish I could bring the Google Home but I’m not 100% sure it would work in the demo.

    1. Are you presenting on the Do it Yourself Home Automation? I caught it last year. It was the first time in 20 years that I had been to the TCF. I have fond memories going there regularly about 30 years ago with my father when it was at the Mercer County College. This will be the first year my wife is attending.

      For those considering attending but want to know more about the talks/forums, more details are https://tcf.pages.tcnj.edu/files/2018/03/PB2018.pdf . It’s difficult to find the information when going in through their main page.

      1. Sorry for the late reply. I was busy with work and my presentation. Yup, I did the DIY Home Automation last year. I’ll do it again next year. :-) I’ll reduce the confusion. I’ve already gotten a few comments to help. Also I’ll have a second presentation where we actual put together devices and add them to the demo.

      1. Well considering the Linux without the CD took something like 100+ floppy diskettes … oh. Of course it was, his other choice would have been Windows or Mac. BSD was tied up with AT&T & Sun fighting over whther to see the Free(?)BSD folks or not. Interesting times. I have a bunch of CDs from the time Including Red Hat :-) I still have a 386sx (with 387) that runs 1.2 … if the drive will boot up.

  6. I grew up across the river in the Philadelphia area and attended one of the first TC Fairs. I remember it being a cold and wet day. My most vivid memory is of getting distracted and locking my keys in my car. Fortunately I’d recently gotten a copy of my key and had it in my wallet. Some time over the years I bought a TV Typewriter II board and may have bought it there. I wonder if it still works?

  7. BTW, The talks really do fill up. I’ve been surprised at how many folks show up. I’ve had talks with folks standing. One poor guy fell asleep during my talk but the room did warm up quite a bit. I should have hooked up to the thermostat (I do the HA presentation). We instead, opened the windows.

      1. Ah yes, Sunday mass, Monseigneur Monotone, more effective than anesthesia.

        Actually I’m pretty wired. I’m not know for my soothing personality. When I get going people have asked me to slow down. I’m not very good at slow.

  8. I went to TCF for many years and pretty much only hit the flea market. Last time I went it was really disappointing. Less and less interesting stuff. I am down to one hamfest a year now, and last year that was beat. It was raining though so I may give it one more shot. They have the good sense to let people tailgate for the price of admission so almost everybody brings something to flea market with them. That makes for a good assortment of stuff and a fun afternoon of picking.

    1. I’d love for you to go to TCF but if you’re there for the flea market you will be disappointed. The room is about 60×60 and there will be vendors but it won’t be like the old days. TCF is kind of moving away from that and that’s a good idea really. It’s more the presentations now. STEM, Makers, learning. That’s the direction they’re going in.

      1. This doens’t seem like a good idea. Even when I was only a few years younger, I remember the joy of making connections, learning & networking with people buying unique, old, or obscure things. Yes, the outreach & the growth into STEM is a natural progression, but removing the ‘festival’ part of it kills it. It is largely a shell of what it once was. It’s unfortunately considered dead to a lot of people. There has to be a balance.

        1. I don’t think we’ll see the Flea market return to it’s ‘junkyard’ days. Trust me when I say I have a lot of memories and souvenirs (Rockwell AIM, Z80 Starterkit, Applied Microsystems Z80 emulator, NEC PC8201A and ton more). That kind of stuff is now going for a lot on Ebay. But Arduino, ESPs, Rasberry Pi, 3D printer stuff, etc. could help.

          One thing to note, a neighbors son was casting metal in his driveway. Teens around the block were building all sort of things including a bicycle built for 4. The maker community is a huge mixture of skills. That could be very useful.

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