I was fortunate enough to visit the Trenton Computer Festival last weekend. The show struck a very interesting mix of new and old, commercial and educational. Attendees were writing programs in BASIC on an Apple I (courtesy of the Vintage Computer Federation) not more than five feet from where students were demonstrating their FIRST robot.
The one-day event featured over fifty demonstrations, talks, and workshops on topics ranging from a crash course in lock picking to the latest advancements in quantum computing. In the vendor room you could buy a refurbished laptop while just down the hall talks were being given on heady topics such as using neural networks and genetic algorithms for day trading on the stock market.
Recent years have seen a widening of the content presented, but TCF’s longevity means there is a distinct “vintage” vibe to the show and the culture surrounding it. Many of the attendees, and even some of the presenters, can proudly say they’ve been attending since the very first show in 1976.
There was simply too much going on to see everything. At any given time, there were eleven talks happening simultaneously, and that doesn’t include the demonstrations and workshops which ran all day. I documented as many highlights from this year’s TCF as I could for those who haven’t had a chance to visit what might be the most low-key, and certainly oldest, celebration of computing technology on the planet. Join me after the break for the whirlwind tour.
Vendor Area a Flea Market at Heart
Affectionately referred to as the “Flea Market” in the TCF schedule, the vendor area is a hold-over from the days when the festival was one of the few places in the country you could purchase a computer. As computing became mainstream there was less and less demand for such a venue, and accordingly the vendors that bring their wares to TCF have changed quite a bit over the years.
Today you’ll still find a few professional vendors selling things like laptops, 3D printers, and of course Raspberry Pis. But the majority of those selling at TCF are simply individuals looking to offload some of their own personal collection of electronics, gadgets, and anything else that managed to work its way into their possession. It’s here that the “Flea Market” really earns its name, as more people have come to dig through boxes of assorted electronics components and bits of unidentifiable gadgetry than buy a new laptop.
While the vendor area was a flurry of activity, the consensus among those with a few TCF’s under their belt is that there seems to be fewer tables each year. There was still a considerable buffet of weird and wonderful hardware at the show, but the impact of eBay and Craigslist can’t be denied.
TCF: The Next Generation
Earlier in the month I had the opportunity to interview Dr Allen Katz, one of the founders and current Chair of TCF. We talked a bit about the fascinating history of the show, but also about where it is currently and how he thinks the future might look. As Dr Katz told me in our conversation, “We need to bring in younger people, who have different ideas from the people who’ve run it for 40 years.” Outreach doesn’t happen overnight, but browsing through the schedule of talks and demonstrations shows that progress is surely being made.
Cody Hofstetter gave a rousing presentation on privacy in the modern age (which he previously presented at Ohio LinuxFest 2017), covering everything from Google Maps to IMSI catchers. Charismatic and professional, he kept the packed audience engaged until they finally had to be cleared out for the next speaker to take the podium.
Also in attendance was Sam Zeloof, a name that may sound familiar to Hackaday readers. In his garage-turned-laboratory, Sam has been doing work that redefines the limits of home fabrication. His talk, “How to Make Semiconductors and Integrated Circuits at Home”, was one of the longest presentations at TCF and held in a room much larger than most other talks. Even still, nearly every seat in the oversized venue was occupied by somebody taking diligent notes. Sam talks about semiconductor physics with such casual confidence you’d think he was talking about what he had for breakfast. I’d wager most in the audience would never suspect he’s still in high school, and the rest wouldn’t believe it if they were told.
Cody and Sam exemplify the type of speakers TCF has been courting as it moves in a more educational direction. They speak with passion on subjects that genuinely captivate them, and have no trouble keeping a technical audience hanging on their every word despite the fact they’re easily the youngest people in the room.
Interactive Demonstrations from FIRST to TOOOL
The talks and vendor area are obviously the bookends of TCF, but there’s also a number of all-day workshops and demonstrations for attendees to wander in and out of when they have a free moment. The Arduino workshop was particularly popular, with the occasional line forming as people waited to get their hands on one of the ever-popular microcontrollers. Attendees were instructed to bring their own laptops, but the Arduinos as well as various sensors and motors were provided in an open-ended experimentation session complete with roving volunteers to help get code written and hardware wired.
The FIRST team from the nearby Ewing High School, the “Mighty Monkey Wrenches“, demonstrated their competitive robot throughout the day. A large ball shooter, the robot roamed the halls and fired its beanbag payload for attendees to try to catch. It was particularly popular with the younger show-goers; apparently a healthy fear of large robots shooting at you is a learned response and does not come naturally to more diminutive humans.
One of the workshops specifically praised by Dr Katz when I spoke with him was the lock picking demonstration and training presented by the New Jersey chapter of TOOOL. This group aims to increase public knowledge of lock picking, in an attempt to dispel some of the negative connotations surrounding it.
The “Lockpick Village” was filled with a wide array of people learning the basics of lock picking from the TOOOL representatives on hand. From handcuffs to high security padlocks, all manner of locks were being studied and (at least occasionally) bested by those in attendance.
The Sarnoff Collection
Those attending TCF were invited to head over to the next building on the campus to see “The Sarnoff Collection“, a museum chronicling major developments in 20th century communication technology. On display is everything from the first commercially available color television to early computing advancements such as core memory.
All of the people I talked to at TCF were happy with the show, and said they’d certainly come back in the future. I heard a few common critiques. A number of people said they would like to see a two day show so there are fewer concurrent events, but if that’s not logistically feasible, than at least recordings of the talks would allow you to see what you missed. As it stands no recordings are made at TCF, which especially hurts when the scheduling is so tight that it’s almost impossible for you to see everything you want.
Almost everyone said they would like to see more tables in the vendor area, but it’s hard to say how that can be improved. Lowering or even waiving the fees on vendor tables could potentially be an option, even if it meant an increase in ticket price. Given the fact tickets are only $14 (or $20 at the door), most said they could accept a bump in cost if it meant making the show more attractive for vendors.
In general, people just wanted more of TCF. That’s a great endorsement for a show that’s been running for longer than many of the attendees have been alive. Everyone I spoke to thought that the 43rd Trenton Computer Festival was a rousing success!