The Vintage Computer Festival is coming to sunny Southern California in February 2024. That’s right, bring your Commodores, your Tandys, your PDP-11s, and Altairs. The world of retrocomputing will be open to vendors, visitors, and exhibitors at The Hotel Fera Events Center in Orange, California on February 17th and 18th, 2024.
If you’re thinking there already is a VCF out west, you’d be right. VCF West was held in August at the Computer History Museum. The CHM is in Mountain View, California. That puts it nearly at the epicenter of the microcomputer revolution of the ’70s and ’80s.
Southern California still had plenty of computer enthusiasts though. For the non-geographically inclined amongst us, SoCal is nearly 6 hours from Mountain View by car. We’re sure we’ll see many familiar faces at SoCal, along with plenty of new ones.
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!
The evolution of computer graphics is something that has been well documented over the years, and it’s a topic that we always enjoy revisiting with our retrocomputing readers. To wit, [Stephen A. Edwards] has put together an impressively detailed presentation that looks back at the computer graphics technology of the 1960s and 70s.
The video, which was presented during VCF East 2021, goes to great lengths in demystifying some of the core concepts of early computer graphics. There’s a lot to unpack here, but naturally, this retrospective first introduces the cathode-ray tube (CRT) display as the ubiquitous technology that supported computer graphics during this time period and beyond. Building from this, the presentation goes on to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of DEC’s PDP-1 minicomputer, and how its striking and surprisingly capable CRT display was the perfect choice for playing Spacewar!
As is made clear in the presentation, the 1960s featured some truly bizarre concepts in regards to cutting edge computer graphics, such as Control Data Corporation’s 6600 mainframe and accompanying vector-based dual-CRT video terminal, which wouldn’t look out of place on the Death Star. Equally strange at the time was IBM’s 2260 video data terminal, which used a ‘sonic delay line’ as a type of rudimentary video memory, using nothing but coiled wire, transducers and sound itself to store character information following a screen refresh.
These types of hacks were later replaced by solid state counterparts during the microcomputer era. The video concludes with a look back at the ‘1977 trinity’ of microcomputers, namely the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80. Each of these microcomputers handled graphics in a slightly different way, and it’s in stark contrast to today’s largely homogenised computer graphics landscape.
There’s a lot more to this great retrospective, so make sure to check out the video below. When you’re finished watching, make sure to check out our other coverage of VCF 2021, including some great examples of computer preservation and TTL-based retrocomputing.
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.
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.
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.
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 lineup of talks looks great, covering everything from operating an Apollo DSKY display panel and how to recover magnetic tape to ENIAC technical manual bugs and the genesis of the 6502. That last one is presented by Bill Mensch who was on the team that created the 6502 in the first place. He’ll be joined by Hackaday’s own Bil Herd (himself a celebrated Commodore and MOS alum) and Eric Schlaepfer (you may remember his Monster 6502 project). You may not be able to wander the exhibits and play with the vintage hardware this year, but you can hear from a lot of people who have spent years learning the hacks and quirks that made these systems tick.
Hacakaday is proud to once again sponsor VCF West. You don’t need a ticket, the conference will live stream on their YouTube channel for all who are interested. We’ve embedded the live stream below, as well as the awesome poster at that Joe Kim produced for display at the festival.