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Vintage computer buffs help preserve history

Feature Retro machines festival is more than just old fun and games
Mon Jun 21 2010, 16:17
windupmp3

COMPUTING PRODUCTS of historic importance are being recycled or thrown into rubbish tips, an archaeologist warned at Britain's first Vintage Computer Festival this past weekend.

Christine Finn, broadcaster and author of Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year in Silicon Valley, said some historic computers such as an Apple 1 have fetched high prices. But she warned, "A lot of people don't get it. They don't understand why we have to hang on to the old.... It's about progress. To see where we are going we have to understand where we came from."

No persuasion was needed for the vintage computer buffs attending the festival at the wartime codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park, birthplace of what was arguably the first modern computer to be used in earnest and now home to The National Museum of Computing.

Visitors included a predictable collection of dads and granddads drooling over old Spectrums and BBC Micros, trying to get a new generation of kids to enthuse about a crudely pixellated shoot-'em-up or to understand the thrill of getting a Basic program to write "Hello World".

Anyone hoping to get a fortune for that Spectrum gathering dust in the attic would be disappointed. The going price for early eighties machines seemed to be around £50, though retro dealer Rich Mellor said a pristine ZX80 can fetch upwards of £180. But, as Finn pointed out, few collectors are in it for the money.

edsacmodeuleNo-one needed reminding of how fast things have changed, but it was still a shock to see products barely two decades old looking like something from another age. A rack packed with vacuum tubes from the early EDSAC 2 computer of the early fifties (above), designed by Maurice Wilkes at Cambridge and a precursor of all business machines, looked positively prehistoric.

clockgeneralCuriouser was a beautifully made digital clock dating from the forties that served as a reminder that computing did not start with electronics. Codebreakers at Bletchley Park initially used Boolean logic implemented with Post Office relays and stepping switches used in telephone exchanges. The digital clock, with its custom-made art deco case, used the same technology to tell the time by counting AC mains pulses. It also gave the date and even accounted for leap years. Owner Mike Saunby (pictured above with the dismantled clock), who bought it on E-bay from someone under the impression it was an old radio, believes it was a one off rather than a product for sale.

altairMarking the dawn of personal computing was this 1975 Altair 8800 owned, like the EDSAC module, by Jim Austin, professor of computer science at York, who plans to turn his considerable collection into a museum. This was the machine on which many US computing pioneers learned their stuff; two young men called Bill Gates and Paul Allen cheekily offered to write a version of Basic for it, and founded a little startup company called Microsoft on the back of the contract.

mk14Two years later came Clive Sinclair's MX-14 microcomputer kit, which at £39.95 was cheap even accounting for inflation. A bit too cheap, because the flexi-keys on the first version did not work well, according to engineer Colin Phillips, who owns the one pictured above. It used a Natsemi SC/MP processor and had 256 bytes of RAM, and eventually it became quite versatile, with a cassette interface card and a module allowing a TV to be used as a display.

p1020512Pictured above is the hard way to repair one of Sinclair's better known products. It's a breadboard lash-up of logic in the Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from a ZX Spectrum. Software engineer Chris Smith, unable to find a replacement ULA, reverse-engineered the chip from a photograph of its innards, tested his results on the breadboard, and then reproduced the design as a custom chip on a replacement module. He has now written a book about it.

compuMicrocomputer kits were still being sold in 1980, like this UK 101 sold by Barnet-based Compukit and based on a design published over four 1979 editions of Practical Electronics. Software engineer John Honniball managed to get colour by stacking an extra 1KB video RAM chip on top of each of the existing ones and switching between the two.

"I wouldn't recommend doing that now because the lower chip gets hot," he said. Nevertheless the machine is still going.

Several exhibitors said they were into old machines because computing is no longer the fun it was when you often had to write your own software, and even design hardware, to get something done. Neil Fazarkelley, who showed some eighties robot arms driven by a Castle Technology Iyonix PC running a version of Acorn's RISC OS, said some tasks are actually easier on old computers.

"I use a PC for something like database work. But Windows is not good for this kind of [machine control] work because it can't single task. There are always interrupts calling on the machine to do something else."

He agreed that modern real-time operating systems were up to the task but said the RISC OS interface made it very easy to use.

windupmp3steampunkReal history was not enough for one exhibitor. Dr Simon Lock, a computer scientist turned artist, showed a windup MP3 player (above) as an example of what he called Retfaux, giving high-tech devices "a retro aesthetic". He also had a top hat that told you the time when asked. Actually it didn't, when he tried it on your reporter, but you get the idea.

Lock described himself as a "steampunk", by way of explaining why he was dressed like a Gothic witch. Thus the march of history - time was when you could tell a geek by his anorak. µ

Note - The National Museum of Computing is appealing for corporate "foundation sponsors" to put up £12,500 a year towards its running costs. First to sign up is Insight Software. The museum also needs the support of people willing to become members at £45 a year.

 

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