VCF East 2021: Preserving Heathkit’s 8-Bit Computers

To say the Heathkit name is well known among Hackaday readers would be something of an understatement. Their legendary kits launched an untold number of electronics hobbies, and ultimately, plenty of careers. From relatively simple radio receivers to oscilloscopes and televisions, the company offered kits for every skill level from the post-war era all the way up to the 1990s.

So it’s hardly a surprise that in 1977, seeing the success of early home computers like the Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080, Heathkit decided to join the fray with a computer kit of their own. But by that point the home computing market had started to shift from a hobbyist’s pursuit to something the whole family could enjoy. Compared to the Apple II and TRS-80, both of which also launched in 1977, Heathkit’s machine seemed like the product of a bygone era.

While it might not have gained the notoriety of the microcomputers it was designed to compete with, the Heathkit H8 is certainly not forgotten. Tucked away in a corner at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East was an impressive exhibit dedicated to the Society of Eight-Bit Heath Computerists (SEBHC)¬†called Heathkit: Keeping the Legacy Alive. Presented by Glenn Roberts, this collection of original and modern hardware demonstrated the incredible lengths to which this group of passionate Heathkit owners have gone to not just preserve the memory of these often overlooked computers, but to continue to improve upon the kit’s unique design.

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VCF East 2021: Novasaur TTL Computer Sets The Bar

There was certainly no shortage of unique computers on display at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East; that’s sort of the point. But even with the InfoAge Science and History Museum packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful computing devices stretching back to the very beginning of the digital age, Alastair Hewitt’s Novasaur was still something of an oddity.

In fact, unless you knew what it was ahead of time, you might not even recognize it as a computer. Certainly not a contemporary one, anyway. There’s nothing inside its Polycase ZN-40 enclosure that looks like a modern CPU, a bank of RAM, or a storage device. Those experienced with vintage machines would likely recognize the tight rows of Advanced Schottky TTL chips as the makings of some sort of computer that predates the 8-bit microprocessor, but its single 200 mm x 125 mm (8 in x 5 in) board seems far too small when compared to the 1970s machines that would have utilized such technology. So what is it?

Inspired by projects such as the Gigatron, Alastair describes the Novasaur as a “full-featured personal computer” built using pre-1980 components. In his design, 22 individual ICs stand in for the computer’s CPU, and another 12 are responsible for a graphics subsystem that can push text and bitmapped images out over VGA at up to 416 x 240. It has 512 K RAM,¬† 256 K ROM, and is able to emulate the Intel 8080 fast enough to run CP/M and even play some early 80s PC games.

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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.

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Vintage Computer Festival East Reboots This Weekend

We don’t have to tell the average Hackaday reader that the last two years have represented a serious dry spell for the type of in-person events that our community has always taken for granted. Sure virtual hacker cons have their advantages, but there’s nothing quite like meeting up face to face to talk shop with like-minded folks and checking out everyone’s latest passion project.

Luckily for classic computer aficionados, especially those on the East Coast of the United States, the long wait is about to end. After being forced to go virtual last year, Vintage Computer Festival East will once again be opening their doors to the public from October 8th to the 10th at the InfoAge Science & History Center in Wall, New Jersey. Attendees will need to wear a mask to gain access to the former Camp Evans Signal Corps R&D laboratory, but that’s a small price to pay considering the impressive list of exhibits, presentations, and classes being offered.

In fact, it’s shaping up to be the biggest and best VCF East yet. The Friday classes cover a wide range of topics from CRT repair to implementing a basic video controller with a FPGA, and the list of speakers include early computer luminaries such as Michael Tomczyk, the Product Manager for the VIC-20, and Adventure International founder Scott Adams. A little birdie even tells us that if you bring your copy of Back into the Storm, our very own Bil Herd will be sign it for you after his talk on the history of the Commodore wraps up Saturday evening.

If you’d rather get hands-on you can always take a walk over to the Computer Deconstruction Laboratory, InfoAge’s on-site hackerspace. Glitch Works will be on hand with several popular kits such as the XT-IDE, an 8-bit ISA adapter that lets you connect (relatively) modern drives to classic machines, and the R6501Q/R6511Q Single Board Computer. A bit rusty with the iron and would rather start on something a little easier? Not to worry. Neil Cherry, a staple of the Hackaday comment section since before we switched to color pictures, will be instructing hackers young and old in the ways of the flux during his all-day soldering classes.

Of course, no VCF trip is truly complete until you’ve searched for treasure in the consignment room. The space has been expanded for 2021, and considering how long folks have had to clean out their attics and garages thanks to the pandemic, we’re expecting a bumper crop of interesting hardware to wade through. If the turnout for the VCF Swap Meet in April was any indication, we’d suggest bringing some extra cash with you.

As a proud sponsor of the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East, Hackaday will naturally be bringing you a first-hand account of the overall event as well as a deeper look into some of the incredible exhibits on display in the very near future. But words and pictures on a page can only go so far. If you’ve grown tired of virtual events and are looking to peek your head out, we can guarantee a trip to InfoAge this weekend will be well worth the gas money for anyone within driving distance.