VCF East: Cactus, Retro Because it Wants to Be

Among the rows of digital dinosaurs, one blinking front panel stood out. It certainly looked the part of a retro computer; with banks of blinking LEDs and multicolored paddle switches. But upon closer inspection, the laser cut wooden front panel betrays the fact that this machine is an impostor. It may have the appearance of a machine from the heady days where home computers looked like they could have doubled as a prop on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise, but it’s actually a product of much more modern provenance.

It’s called the Cactus, a love letter to the homebrew microcomputers of the 1970’s, designed and built by somebody at least 20 years too young to have experienced them the first time around. Alexander Pierson created the Cactus not because he had fond memories of putting together an Altair 8800 in 1975, but because he’s fascinated with the retro computer experience: the look of the front panel, the satisfying clunk of era-appropriate switches, and the idea that the computer’s inner workings aren’t an abstract black box but rather something you can interact with and study. Judging by all the attention the Cactus got at VCF East XIII, he’s not the only one.

Let’s take a look at everything Alexander poured into this retrocomputer build.

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VCF East: SDR on the Altair 8800

You’d be forgiven if you thought software defined radio (SDR) was a relatively recent discovery. After all, few outside of the hardcore amateur radio circles were even familiar with the concept until it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners could be used as fairly decent receivers from a few hundred MHz all the way up into the GHz range. The advent of the RTL-SDR project in 2012 brought the cost of entry level SDR hardware from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars effectively overnight. Today there’s more hackers cruising the airwaves via software trickery than there’s ever been before.

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VCF East: The Mail Order App Store

Today we take the concept of a centralized software repository for granted. Whether it’s apt or the App Store, pretty much every device we use today has a way to pull applications in without the user manually having to search for them on the wilds of the Internet. Not only is this more convenient for the end user, but at least in theory, more secure since you won’t be pulling binaries off of some random website.

But centralized software distribution doesn’t just benefit the user, it can help developers as well. As platforms like Steam have shown, once you lower the bar to the point that all you need to get your software on the marketplace is a good idea, smaller developers get a chance to shine. You don’t need to find a publisher or pay out of pocket to have a bunch of discs pressed, just put your game or program out there and see what happens. Markus “Notch” Persson saw his hobby project Minecraft turn into one of the biggest entertainment franchises in decades, but one has to wonder if it would have ever gotten released commercially if he first had to convince a publisher that somebody would want to play a game about digging holes.

In the days before digital distribution was practical, things were even worse. If you wanted to sell your game or program, it needed to be advertised somewhere, needed to be put on physical media, and it needed to get shipped out to the customer. All this took capital that would easily be beyond many independent developers, to say nothing of single individuals.

But at the recent Vintage Computer Festival East, [Allan Bushman] showed off relics from a little known chapter of early home computing: the Atari Program Exchange (APX). In a wholly unique approach to software distribution at the time, individuals were given a platform by which their software would be advertised and sold to owners of 8-bit machines such as the Atari 400/800 and later XL series computers. In the early days, when the line between computer user and computer programmer was especially blurry, the APX let anyone with the skill turn their ideas into profit. Continue reading “VCF East: The Mail Order App Store”

VCF East: The Desktop ENIAC

The ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, is essentially the Great Great Grandfather of whatever device you’re currently reading these words on. Developed during World War II for what would be about $7 million USD today, it was designed to calculate artillery firing tables. Once word got out about its capabilities, it was also put to work on such heady tasks as assisting with John von Neumann’s research into the hydrogen bomb. The success of ENIAC lead directly into the development of EDVAC, which adopted some of the now standard computing concepts such as binary arithmetic and the idea of stored programs. The rest, as they say, is history.

But ENIAC wasn’t just hugely expensive and successful, it was also just plain huge. While it’s somewhat difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, ENIAC was approximately 100 feet long and weighed in at a whopping 27 tons. In its final configuration in 1956, it contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. All that hardware comes with a mighty thirst for power: the ENIAC could easily suck down 150 kW of electricity. At the time this all seemed perfectly reasonable for a machine that could perform 5,000 instructions per second, but today an Arduino would run circles around it.

This vast discrepancy between the power and size of modern hardware versus such primordial computers was on full display at the Vintage Computer Festival East, where [Brian Stuart] demonstrated his very impressive ENIAC emulator. Like any good vintage hardware emulator, his project not only accurately recreates the capabilities of the original hardware, but attempts to give the modern operator a taste of the unique experience of operating a machine that had its heyday when “computers” were still people with slide rules. Continue reading “VCF East: The Desktop ENIAC”

VCF East XIII is Right Around the Corner

The middle of May is a very special time at the Jersey Shore. It’s finally warm enough that business owners decide they might as well unlock their doors, but still cool enough that you can go on the boardwalk without having to bump into sweaty strangers. It’s a time for saltwater taffy without the risk of skin cancer, for hot dogs without seagulls trying to steal them from you. You get the idea.

This year it’s also when the Vintage Computer Festival East will be held in Wall, New Jersey. Running from May 18th to the 20th, VCF East XIII will play host to talks, workshops, and demonstrations focusing on the storied days before we all started carrying supercomputers in our pants. Of course it wouldn’t be a computer festival without vendor tables, and there’s even a consignment area where VCF staffers will sell your old gear while you peruse the show.

Here’s hoping that [Don Eyles] brings his hardcopy of the lunar module source code with him. Our own [Greg Charvat] got a close look at this incredible piece of history.
A trio of keynote speakers will help set the tone of VCF East. On Friday [Bill Dromgoole] will discuss the ongoing restoration of a UNIVAC 1219-B military mainframe. Once designed to handle the radar on a Navy destroyer, thanks to the tireless efforts of [Bill] and his merry band, it’s currently on the hunt for the Wumpus. Saturday will see NASA contractor [Don Eyles] explain how he hacked his way around a stuck “Abort” button on Apollo 14, deftly avoiding the kind of problems the previous guys had in getting to the Moon. Finally on Sunday [Dave Walden] will talk about his work in Ye Olden Days of the Internet: programming the very first routers, known as “Internet Message Processors” or IMPs.

If you’re looking to get up close and personal with tech of yesteryear, you’ll definitely want to check out the exhibit area. Arguably the largest single draw of VCF, this is where you’ll see everything from 1980’s robots to software defined radio on the MITS Altair 8800. In previous years we’ve seen WWII Enigma machines, as well all the cool toys that kids had back in the day.

As usual we’ll be there to take plenty of pictures and dive into the sundry amusements offered by the show and the InfoAge Museum which plays host to it. Hackaday is once again a proud sponsor of VCF East and their continuing efforts to preserve technology history for future generations. We’d love to see you there and we’re always looking for the inside scoop on interesting hardware so don’t be shy about tracking me down with your story!

The Best Of VCF East

Last weekend was the Vintage Computer Festival East in Wall, New Jersey. While this yearly gathering of nerds nerding out on old computers might be a bit too obscure for some, there are always amazing exhibits of actual historical importance. A few Enigma machines showed up, and the rarest Commodore goodies made an appearance. We saw the pre-history of Hackaday and ‘maker’ culture with Southwest Technical Products Corporation, and found out it was probably, possible to build a RepRap in the 80s. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from, and even though the old timers were a bit more grizzled than us the Vintage Computer Festival shows how little things have actually changed.

What was the coolest and weirdest stuff at VCF? What does the Silverball pinball museum look like? Check that out below.

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VCF: Popular Electronics And Southwest Technical Products Corporation

Hackaday owes a lot to the hobbyist electronics magazines of yesteryear. Back in the day, Popular Electronics and Radio-Electronics would publish projects and articles about DIY electronics – more or less the same editorial purview we hold today. Some of these projects would become full-fledged products, and you need only look at the Altair for what can happen at this confluence of publishing and engineering.

One of the more popular companies to come out of these hobbyist trade magazines was SWTPC, or Southwest Technical Products Corporation. This was the company that brought one of the first microcomputers to the masses with the SWTPC 6800. This wasn’t just a homebrew microcomputer company – there were Nixie clocks, test gear, and stereo preamplifiers – all things that could easily find a place on the pages of Hackaday today.

This year at the Vintage Computer Festival East, [Michael Holley] brought out the test gear he’s been collecting for the past few decades. These are machines that wouldn’t be out of place on any DIY electronics blog today. This is by all accounts the pre-history of the maker movement.

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