World’s Oldest Computer Festival is This Weekend

There was a time when owning a home computer was kind of a big deal. In the days before the popularization of the Internet, so-called “computer shows” were the best way to meet with others to swap advice, information, and hardware. Of course today, things are very different. The kind of people who are building their computers just buy the parts online, and everyone else is probably using a $200 laptop from Walmart that isn’t worth spending the time or money on to upgrade.

Small sampling of the talks at TCF 2019

So while the Trenton Computer Festival (TCF) may have started in 1976 as a way for people to buy early computers like the Altair 8800, over the years it has morphed into something much closer to the modern idea of a “con”. Those who visit the 44th TCF on March 23rd at the College of New Jersey will likely spend most of their time at the festival attending the 40+ talks and workshops that will be happening in a span of just six hours. But anyone who’s got some cash to burn can still head over to the flea market area where they’ll be able to buy both modern and vintage hardware.

Talks run the gamut from Arduino to quantum computing, and if you don’t see something that piques your interest in this year’s program, one might wonder how you found yourself reading Hackaday in the first place. If you manage to find some spare time between all the talks, the New Jersey chapter of the The Open Organisation Of Lockpickers (TOOOL) will be there giving a hands-on lock picking class, and if you don’t mind taking the crash course, you can even get your ham radio license. All for the princely sum of just $20 at the door.

In fact, there’s so much going on at TCF that it can be somewhat overwhelming. As I found out during my visit last year, the number of simultaneous events means you’ll almost certainly have some difficult decisions to make. I’ll be making the trip out to the College of New Jersey campus again this year for TCF, and will have plenty of Hackaday stickers and buttons to give out to anyone who manages to stop me while I dash between talks.

Hackaday Visits World’s Oldest Computer Festival: TCF 43

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.

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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.

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