There was a time when seeing an actual computer was a big deal. They were in air-conditioned rooms with raised floors and locked doors. Even at a university, you were likely only to get access to a keypunch machine or a terminal. Then small computers came out, but computer stores were few and far between. Now you can go to any local store that sells electronics and put your hands on hardware that would have been black magic in those days. But the computers back then were also much easier to understand completely. Look at your main computer today. Do you know all the assembly language instructions for it? Can you access the GPU and the MMU? Could you build your own memory for it? Sure, you don’t have to do those things, but it was fun knowing that you could. That seemed to be the overwhelming sentiment among the attendees we spoke to at the Vintage Computer Festival last weekend: We like computers that we can completely understand and troubleshoot.
If you weren’t one of the 900 or so attendees, we can help. Check out our video summary, dive into even more interviews with Bil Herd and guests on our YouTube channel, or just keep reading. The festival happens at several locations throughout the year, but this was the first time one has been in the Southwest for about ten years!
You can catch the interviews in their entirety (plus many more) over on YouTube. Audio at live events can be tricky, so volume up!
The number of truly vintage computers at the show was amazing. Sure, there were the obligatory PCs and Macs that were just a few generations old, but they were the distinct minority. There were several Tandy computers, many Commodores of various types, and more than one minicomputer-era machine. There were also a few homebrew machines and some great-looking replicas. Outside of replicas, we didn’t see any Altair or IMASI machines, but there was some S-100 paraphernalia. There were some Soviet-era home computers on display playing — what else — Tetris. Of course, a few TI, Atari, and NExT machines made it, too.
Heathkit was well represented, and there were some odd machines like a Wang word processor and a model from Lanier. We noted a few vintage HP and Sun workstations and a giant Tektronix beast showing vector graphics.
One of the fun things to do at anything like this is to try to figure out what the odd gear you’ve never seen before actually is. One exhibitor had a tube board full of IBM tubes and was hoping someone could tell what it was. We didn’t know either. We did, however, know what the tubes [David/Usagi Electric] had on display. They were part of his modern tube computer.
There were plenty of other computers and components from companies that were never household names. There were even some familiar computers and terminals that had been modified and rebranded into new equipment. We saw a VIC-20 like that, as well as ADDS terminals, and Data General modifed by other companies.
There were a number of old-school video games around, including the display from the National Videogame Museum. Halfway between video game and computer, we saw at least one Coleco Adam.
But we also noticed a few of the old educational kits. There was an old Brainiac K-30 Computer Circuit Lab that promised “A stimulating adventure in science, mathematics, and logic as you discover the basic principles of computer circuitry.” This was essentially the same as the old Geniac kit — the masonite board computer where you made multi-pole switches using wooden disks and wired them as switching logic.
There was also a Radio Shack computer trainer that we half-remembered. We never realized it was a repackage of a kit sold in Japan by Gakken, which was also at the show. Or maybe the Gakken was a repackage of the Radio Shack version. We aren’t sure. The video below shows one of these from [Tim Gilberts], which was not the one at the show.
Hackaday super friend [Jeri Ellsworth] was at the show, and Bil caught up with her. Check it out below.
There are plenty more interviews over on our YouTube channel. Overall, it was an amazing show, and we certainly hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for VCF to return to the Southwest.