VCF Swap Meet Takes Step Back To Move Forward

When computers were the sort of thing you ordered from a catalog and soldered together in your garage, swap meets were an invaluable way of exchanging not just hardware and software, but information. As computers became more mainstream and readily available, the social aspect of these events started to take center stage. Once online retail started really picking up steam, it was clear the age of the so-called “computer show” was coming to a close. Why wait months to sell your old hardware at the next swap when you could put it on eBay from the comfort of your own home?

Of course, like-minded computer users never stopped getting together to exchange ideas. They just called these meets something different. By the 2000s, the vestigial remnants of old school computer swap meets could be found in the vendor rooms of hacker cons. The Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) maintained a small consignment area where attendees could unload their surplus gear, but it wasn’t the real draw of the event. Attendees came for the workshops, the talks, and the chance to hang out with people who were passionate about the same things they were.

Consignment goods at VCF East XIII in 2018.

Then came COVID-19. For more than a year we’ve been forced to cancel major events, suspend local meetups, and in general, avoid one another. Some of the conventions were revamped and presented virtually, and a few of them actually ended up providing a unique and enjoyable experience, but it still wasn’t the same. If you could really capture the heart and soul of these events with a video stream and a chat room, we would’ve done it already.

But this past weekend, the folks behind VCF East tried something a little different. As indoor gatherings are still strongly discouraged by New Jersey’s stringent COVID restrictions, they decided to hold a computer swap meet in the large parking lot adjacent to the InfoAge Science and History Museum. There were no formal talks or presentations, but you could at least get within speaking distance of like-minded folks again in an environment were everyone felt comfortable.

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A Double Shot Of Vintage Computing This Weekend

Going anywhere interesting this weekend? No, of course you aren’t. None of us are. So why not tune your computer or smartphone to the online stream of one of the virtual Vintage Computer Festivals that will be taking place between October 10th and 11th. Granted only one of them is in English, but we’ve often thought of blinky lights as something of a universal language anyway.

Vintage Computer Festival East, which normally would have happened in the Spring, has finally decided that 2020 is a wash for any in-person meetings and has decided to switch over to virtual. Interestingly, it sounds like they’ll be live streaming at least some of the exhibitor tables from the InfoAge museum in New Jersey where the physical event would have been held. So from an attendee perspective, the virtual event should be a bit closer to the real thing than if everyone had to figure out their own streaming setups from home. Presentations will run from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Eastern on both days.

On the other side of the globe, Vintage Computing Festival Berlin will be broadcasting their own exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. In an interesting use of the virtual format, they’ll be giving viewers an intimate look at vintage computers and technology that’s held in private collections, museums, or otherwise inaccessible storage and research facilities. Content will be streaming from 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM CEST on both days, with a musical performance overnight.

While there’s an understandable tendency to bemoan the trend of moving events online in the face of COVID-19, there are certainly situations where the format can actually bring you more content than you’d have access to otherwise. Especially when they end up being free, as is the case with both of these Festivals. We’re still eagerly awaiting the point where we can get back to attending these events in person, but we certainly aren’t complaining when so many incredible people are willing to put on these presentations without seeing a dime.

The Vintage Computer Festival East Is Happening This Weekend

This weekend is the premier vintage computer meetup on the East Coast. It’s VCF East, and it’s all going down this weekend, Friday to Sunday afternoon, in Wall, New Jersey.

2019 is a fantastic year for computer history, being the 50th anniversary of Unix, and the 40th anniversary of Atari. For that, there will be exhibits of dozens of systems running some sort of *nix, including systems from Apple, AT&T, DEC, IBM, NeXT, SGI, and Sun. For the Atari extravaganza, you’re getting the full line of Atari 8-bitters, some STs, and a Falcon 030. There will be other exhibits about POTS, so bring a landline phone, a progress update on a 1/10th scale, pulse-level simulator of the ENIAC, and someone will assuredly have Super Mario Brothers for the C64 running.

Keynotes reflect this great year of computer history with a keynote by the one and only Ken Thompson, co-inventor of Unix. On Sunday, there’s a talk with Joe Decuir, engineer who helped develop the Atari VCS and Atari 800. There’s also a Homebrew Computing Discussion Panel.

As always, there will be a flea market, an understated highlight of any Vintage Computer Festival. It’s like a museum you can buy. One time there was an LCD for an Apple IIc. Too rich for my blood, but technically the first Apple laptop.

As with all VCF East events, it’s held at the InfoAge Science & History Center the site of the Camp Evans Signal Corps R&D lab during World War II. It’s basically the site of what would become DARPA. You’ve also got the Silverball pinball museum just up the road in Asbury Park. There’s plenty to do and see on the Jersey Shore this weekend, and it’s not even Labor Day.

Hackaday Links: April 21, 2019

A Russian company has developed a drone with a very interesting control scheme. It’s a VTOL fixed wing, that takes off like a bicopter, transitions to use wings for lift, flies around for half an hour or so, and then lands on its tail. This is a big ‘un; the reported weight is 50 pounds. Although the available footage really doesn’t give any sense of scale, we would estimate the wingspan as somewhere between four and five feet. Fixed-wing VTOLs are close to the holy grail of current drone science — wings actually generate lift, and VTOL means Uber can deliver McDonalds to your driveway.

What happens when you give an idiot a USB killer? $60,000 in damages. A former student at the College of St. Rose killed 59 computers with a USB killer, basically a charge pump that dumps a hundred or so volts back into a USB port, destroying the computer. Yes, you can just buy USB killers on the Internet, and yes you can film yourself zapping computers and posting the videos on social media. Both are dumb ideas.

This week was huge for the preservation of our digital culture. The source for the original Infocom games, such as Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have been archived and released. This is a rather interesting development, as these games were written in Zork Implementation Lanugage (ZIL), a language that is used by no one and there’s almost zero documentation. Yes, we have the source, but not a compiler. It’s Lisp-ish, and there are people working to make new games in this language. Also this week is the release of the source for Leisure Suit Larry. Hackaday readers will be familiar with Leisure Suit Larry as the protagonist is a 38-year-old loser who lives in his mother’s basement. This game goes off the rails when the protagonist decides to leave the basement, but it was written a long time ago, and I guess Al Lowe didn’t foresee the Internet or something. Tip of the very fancy hat to @textfiles here.

You in Jersey? The Vintage Computer Festival East is May 3-5th, and it’s bound to be a grand time. Keynotes are by Steve Bellovin, co-inventor of USENET, Ken Thompson (!), co-inventor of UNIX, and Joe Decuir, co-inventor of the Atari VCS, Atari 800, and the Commodore Amiga. There’s also a Software Store (new this year), which we can only hope is like walking into Babbage’s. Protip: while you’re there, go up to Asbury Park and visit the Silverball Museum. It’s a whole lot of pinball.

For easier production and assembly of circuit boards, you should only place your components on one side. Doing so means you don’t have to flip the board and run it through the pick and place again, and you don’t have to worry about glue. This is a single-sided circuit board. There’s only one side. It’s a Mobius PCB, the flex-circuit version of a handmade circuit board made with a conductive pen.

VCF East XIII: Another Day In Retro Paradise

While the weather alternated between mist and monsoon for most of it, the thirteenth annual Vintage Computer Festival East was still a huge success. People came from all over the country, and indeed the world, to show off computers and equipment that was easily older than many of those in attendance. From 1980’s robots to recreations of the very first machines to ever carry the name “computer” as we understand it today, there were a dizzying array of fascinating exhibits to see for those who made the pilgrimage to the InfoAge Science Center in Wall, New Jersey. The people who own and maintain these technological touchstones were in many cases were just as interesting as the hardware they brought to show off; walking encyclopedias of knowledge about the particular piece of vintage gear that they’ve so lovingly shepherded into the modern day.

Through it all, save for a brief intermission to get chili dogs from the nearest WindMill, Hackaday was there. We got up close and personal with [Brian Stuart]’s impressive ENIAC emulator, listened to some ethereal chiptunes courtesy of [Bill Degnan]’s MITS Altair 8800, saw relics from the days when the “app store” needed stamps from [Allan Bushman]’s impressive colleciton, and got inspired by the [Alexander Pierson]’s somewhat more modern take on the classic kit computers of the 1970’s.

But those were’t the only things on display at the Vintage Computer Festival, not by a long shot. There were over 100 individual exhibits this year at VCF, and that doesn’t even include the workshops, classes, tours, or the daily keynote presentations. To say you get your money’s worth on the ticket is something of an understatement.

It’s fair to say that there’s no real substitute for seeing a show like this in person. But in addition to the aforementioned articles, a rundown (in no particular order) of some of the interesting exhibits and attractions from this year’s VCF is a decent consolation prize. If this piques your interest, we’d invite you to keep an eye out for the next Vintage Computer Festival. We’ll be there.

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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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