VCF East Roars Back To Life

It didn’t take long to realize that the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East — returning to the InfoAge Science and History Museum in Wall, New Jersey after being held virtually last year — was a massive success. In fact, the first clue came before I even got out of my car. When a volunteer came up to my window to apologetically explain that the primary parking lot was already full and I’d have to drive down the road to an overflow lot, there was no question about it; a whole lot of folks were more than ready to shake off those pandemic blues and get back to business.

They certainly picked a great event for it. While VCF East has always been a highlight of the East Coast hacker’s year, it was obvious things were really turned up to the max for this much-anticipated return to an in-person festival. With respect to all those involved in previous events, things just felt more cohesive and better organized this time around.

Veteran attendees I spoke to all felt like they were witnessing the event going through an evolutionary change into something bigger and better, while first time fliers were impressed with the buzz of activity and breadth of what was on display. In short, admiration for the event and the people working behind the scenes to make it possible was unanimous.

It’s simply not possible to adequately summarize a multi-day event like VCF East in a single post, so I won’t try to. This article, and the ones to follow it, serve only to document some of the highlights from my own personal time wandering through the sprawling InfoAge campus. Ultimately, there’s no real substitute for making the trip to Wall, NJ and experiencing this incredible event for yourself. But if that’s not an option for you, hopefully the following will give you a little taste of what the Vintage Computer Federation labors so hard over every year.

Evolution of the ENIAC

One of the benefits of going to an annual event like VCF East is that you occasionally get to see people’s passion projects develop over time. What might have been little more than a proof of concept when you first saw it could end up being the talk of the show two or three years down the line. Which is precisely how I felt when I came across the group of people crowded around Brian Stuart and his expanded ENIAC simulator.

When I last saw his project in 2018, it took the form of a Raspberry Pi, a couple displays, and a 3D-printed hand controller modeled after the single close-up photograph Brian was able to find of the actual control units that operators would used at the time. But that was just on the physical level. In terms of software, he had already managed to simulate the ENIAC down to the individual electrical pulses that would have traveled through the gargantuan World War II computer. Rather than simply emulating the computer’s internal machinations and presenting the user with a high-level representation, his goal was always to create an open source model that demonstrates how the machine really operated.

Those goals haven’t changed, but the project has now moved into a new phase. With the simulation code essentially complete, Brian is now focusing on recreating the experience of using the ENIAC itself. With a considerably reduced footprint, of course. This year, that included a 3D-printed model of the complete computer at 1/10th scale. He’s also created a 1/8th scale model of four ENIAC accumulators, complete with fully functional LED displays that approximate the original’s blinkenlights.

Make no mistake, Brian’s project was already exceptionally impressive in 2018. But the addition of the new physical components of his display clearly resonated with the attendees at this year’s VCF, as people gathered around to marvel at his meticulous recreation. The takeaway for some might be about the importance of visual aids on a crowded show floor, but I was just glad to see his phenomenal work was getting the attention it deserves.

Local on the 8s

Events like VCF are also an excellent opportunity to see hardware that previously you were only able to admire from afar. For me, that meant getting to see the WeatherSTAR 4000 that techknight lovingly brought back to life with easily some of the best reverse engineering work to ever grace the pages of Hackaday. The machine was joined by several examples of similar weather-reporting devices in a group exhibit called Smooth Jazz and Stormy Skies, and each one of them was a fascinating look at the state-of-the-art in multimedia technology for their respective eras.

One of the particularly interesting elements of this display was an Arduino-controlled FSK encoder that’s able to produce the time and data signals necessary to control at least some variants of the WeatherSTAR. The device was connected to a pair of stock WeatherSTAR Jrs — diminutive text-only terminals that would likely have been marketed towards smaller markets that wanted basic functionality without the bells and whistles of the larger units. As the device relies on some closed source back-end code, techknight says he’s not sure he’ll be able to release the project in full, but does plan on documenting it in the future for those who are interested in his continuing quest to bend these iconic devices to his will.

Spotting a Silicon Celebrity

At a nearby table I also came across the now legendary Cursed Mac, though to be honest, I didn’t actually recognize it at first. The extensively modified Macintosh SE was stripped of its distinctive blacked out enclosure for its appearance at VCF East, and instead was clad in an admittedly gorgeous transparent case.

Some mused whether such a drastic modification strips the Cursed Mac of its identity. After all, its amateurish paint job and the wildly contrasting colors of its optical and Zip drives are part of what earned it the moniker in the first place. But in the end, this is just the beginning of another chapter in the long and winding history of Theseus’ favorite computer.

Computational Diversity

As fascinating as the more targeted exhibits were, arguably the most exciting part of VCF is seeing the incredible array of computers and hardware on display each year. From one-of-a-kind devices to machines which were never meant to see the outside of a research laboratory, even the most knowledgeable and experienced retro-computer aficionado is guaranteed to see at least a few specimens that will be completely unknown to them.

This gallery shows some of the unique, rare, and downright beautiful pieces of vintage hardware that I saw during my time at VCF East, but is in no way an exhaustive record of what was on display.

Competitive Consignment

Now normally this would be the part of the post where I would show you all of the incredible things I saw for sale at VCF. But to be perfectly honest, by the time I managed to get to the greatly expanded consignment area on Saturday afternoon, things were pretty well picked clean. Granted it was something of a revolving door, with people dropping off more car loads of oddities as the day went on; but from what I was able to gather from others, Friday morning was really where you wanted to be for the best deals and selection.

I still enjoyed looking through what was left, and a few pieces even managed to find their way into the trunk of my car, but my advice for anyone looking to get their hands on some particular piece of kit is be there when the doors open up on Friday if at all possible. Or better yet, keep an eye out for the next VCF Swap Meet.

A Spring Fling

While this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East was held in October, historically it happens in May, right before things start to heat up at the Jersey Shore. Obviously COVID-19 made that date unworkable for 2021, so the decision was made early on to push it out to the Fall. While the number of cases is still a bit higher in the Northeast than VCF organizers (or anyone, for that matter) had probably hoped for, the move certainly paid off. Masks were strongly encouraged, and there was quite a bit of hand sanitizer going around, but otherwise it was about as close to a pre-pandemic event as you could expect.

Assuming the worst of this thing is truly behind us now, and that the 2022 event doesn’t need to have its date pushed back, that means the next VCF East is only around seven months away. That’s great news for those of us who get to walk around and gawk at all the fascinating hardware on display, but it does put extra pressure on the hard working folks at the Vintage Computer Federation who make it all possible. Luckily, helping them out is as easy as spreading the word about the VCF, and of course, buying a ticket to one of their events.

We’ll certainly be there when the Vintage Computer Festival East comes back around to Wall, NJ in the Spring. Will you?

15 thoughts on “VCF East Roars Back To Life

  1. Neat stuff! Some of us actually ‘used’ some of the ‘vintage’ equipment :) . Does that make us ‘vintage’ as well ? … or just older. Nice to see in-person events happening again.

    1. The most important old computers I have were bought new.

      I have a selection of others, bought cheap when they were obsolete but not yet collectible. But while they were computers I lusted after when they were new, they mean less than the ones I actually used when they were current.

  2. This was my first VCF event, and I was blown away. Honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, and I can’t really say I had a lot of experience with vintage computing going in, but everyone was so welcoming and passionate about it that you couldn’t help but have a good time.

    Was surprised by some of the prices I saw in consignment area though. Had hoped things would be going cheap, but saw many machines with price tags of $500+. Not exactly pocket money.

    1. I’ll be the first to admit I was one to have some of the higher priced items in consignment.

      One thing to keep in mind is that consignment is open to all attendees who are looking to sell stuff in their collections. On that note alone, you would expect to find a wide range in pricing. Consignment has been a way for item providers to pay for their trips to the event from their own proceeds. It has also been a way for people to buy fully working and vetted systems that they once had when they were younger, and to personally relive the experience, without having to question the condition of an item.

      Good deals come and go throughout the event. The author of the article is correct in that things get picked clean. You have to be patient for new items to arrive, but you also have to be quick. But good deals go both ways. For example, you would rarely, if ever, find even a broken Amiga 4000 for less than $500 because the market price for a broken Amiga 4000 is much higher. After all, these machines aren’t made anymore, and you really wouldn’t find them at any local thrift shops. You have to take advantage of the opportunities when they come up. Pricing is a compromise between what a seller is willing to let an item go for and what a buyer is willing to pay. And in most cases, you can always negotiate a price with the seller if they put their contact information on their sales sheet.

      Also keep in mind that 15% of each sale goes to the organization running the event. With that, expensive items, priced fairly, raise considerable funding for future events. Plus sellers can’t always “give stuff away” at rock-bottom prices. Money may have already been invested in the item and they’re at least entitled to a profit if they desire.

      I for one like to sell quality items. Unless otherwise marked, I’ve sold items throughout the years that I have thoroughly checked for operation, cleaned up, made as presentable as possible, and marked with as fair a price as I have seen for the item in the current collector’s market, in its current condition. “Fair” meaning, as mentioned before, for both the buyer and seller.

      Sure, it’s all an as-is sale, but I turn the tables in my mind. If I’m looking to buy a turnkey vintage computer system that isn’t made anymore, I would expect to pay more for one that has been proven to work than one that looks like a direct barn find. I can’t speak for other sellers, but that explains the pricing difference. And I do invest the money I make from selling stuff by acquiring, repairing, cleaning, and reselling stuff at future events… so more people can enjoy this hobby.

      I also tend to price a bit higher on the first day, then lower my prices throughout the event. It’s what I do, and it works for me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who prices that way. The buyer knows how much they are willing to pay for an item. I bought a complete 386 system with monochrome VGA monitor for $150. I probably paid too much for it compared to market value, but it worked, it filled a need I had, and I was happy to pay that much for it. I didn’t even haggle with the seller. Besides, the organization made $22.50 off the sale in commission.

  3. And I was there. I was buy on the Friday, what with work and all the rest. So I did do Saturday, and even Sunday. And as with the swap meet, we missed each other. Next time perhaps.

    1. Silly keyboard and one of many cats who wanted attention. I was actually typing “busy” when he wanted my attention. Next time the VCF launches a repair weekend, turn up. Oh and next event might be in December…..

  4. Haven’t been there. But those HP 2640 terminals bring me all the way back to 1981. Philips used to use them with their PRX telephone exchanges. I always wanted one. But well, I didn’t know the difference between a ‘dumb’ terminal and an actual home computer at the time. :)

    So my dad bought me a Nascom 1. And the second thing I wanted to do (after learning how to program it ;)), was to build it into a HP 2640 casing. Well, that was 40 years ago, and I still didn’t get to doing it. ;)

  5. I drove all the way up there from West Virginia. Met with Mr. Mensch, Mr. Herd, Mr. Tomczyk, Mr. Ahl and Mr. Adams. The kid in me was keeping the adult me away from exhaustion. The Glitchworks was there as well and I got to build a 6501 SBC. Via consignment, I made out well with a PK-232 Packet Radio Interface for only $5 (Corroded batteries replaced and 2 traces repaired). All in all, a wonderful event. I even got a VCF shirt with the “Jolly Wrencher” I can wear here with pride at work. Can’t wait for the next event.

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