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Old geeks hang out in new place

Vintage Computer Festival 2007
Tue Nov 06 2007, 10:13

SELLAIM ISMAEIL is a geek with a mission. Ten years ago he convinced 25 other people that they all loved old computers as much as he did.

The Vintage Computer Festival was the result. Last weekend, hundreds of 'ole geeks' showed up for the tenth annual Vintage Computer Festival (VCF 10) held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. VCF 10 had speakers, a film festival, exhibitions, a marketplace, and even T-shirts.


Organisers rented tables in the Exhibition Hall and folks showed up with some of the oldest and strangest computers around. Brian Kehew brought a pair of Conbrio ADS200 “retro” digital music synthesizers.

Brian told us how his ADS 200 contains the most sophisticated and powerful digital electronics ever devoted to producing music. For $30,000 in 1978 US dollars, the instrument's electronics include: 5 Microprocessors, 64 Multiwaveform digital oscillators (expandable to 256 oscillators) each with independent 16 segment amplitude and frequency envelope generators, dual 16-bit stereo output channels (expandable to quad) giving 96 db dynamic range, more synthesis modes than any other synthesizer in existence. Brian explained an earlier version, the ADS 100, was used in Star Trek, The Motion Picture. Conbrio passed quietly into history in part because of patent arguments with Yamaha.


Heathkit aficionados rejoice! Bill Buzbee brought his Magic-1 Homebrew CPU box running the Minix OS. Bill had a simple but informative exhibit which explained, in his own words, that the Magic-1 is a completely home built min icomputer. It doesn't use an off-the-shelf microprocessor, but instead has a custom CPU made out of 74 Series TTL chips. Altogether there are more than 200 chips in Magic-1 connected together with thousands of individually wrapped wires. And, it all works. Not only the hardware, but a full software stack. There's an ANSI C cross-compiler for Magic-1 (retargeted LCC), a fully multi-user, multi-tasking port of the Minix 2 operating system, a TCP/IP stack and hundreds of programs. (Did you notice the soldering iron in Bill's exhibit. This guy KNOWS how to use one.)


Evan Koblentz flew in from New Jersey representing MARCH which is a co-sponsor of the East Coast Vintage Computer Festival. Evan brought along samples from his old laptop collection. He has the vintage computer bug so badly he is working on a book about the history of laptops.

VCF 10's Film Festival session started off with a wild video tour by Bruce Damer and Al Lundell of the DigiBarn Computer Museum. They showed some “home movies” about their AMAZING collection of vintage computers. Bruce Damer's original idea was to “save stuff” before it got sent to the recyclers. From there the DigiBarn grew into one of the premier computer collections. Al Lundell had a great video with first-hand accounts of visitors’ remanisances when again seeing their first computers. Bruce Damer explained what it takes to make DigiBarn the success it is and how to make your own collection of vintage computer stuff into a teaching tool.

Greg Maletic, the director of Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball explained what he went through in making his movie. His movie is a 60-minute documentary that explores the mysterious demise of Williams - the world's largest pinball manufacturer. The Williams company faced a mak e-or-break moment in 1998; they needed to create something radically new to survive. The designers put their heads together and came up with the revolutionary "Pinball 2000" system that fused pinball and video game technology into a single amazing unit. And then - inexplicably - the pinball division was shuttered in 1999 so that the company could focus on the lucrative slot machine industry instead.

VCF 10's Marketplace was dedicated to folks selling “stuff”. There was a large section dedicated to computer books of nearly every possible title. I even saw paper punch tapes for sale and those freakin' punch cards that I kept dropping in the early 1960's, which made me run away from computers until the Homebrew folks in Silicon Valley started us on our personal computing adventures.

Here are a couple of tables full of 'Vintage Computing History' which were for sale.


In the next installment I'll talk about some of VCF 10's speakers. There was Dr. Zbigniew Stachniak who traced the reasons why Intel didn't build the first PC. The “Home Computing Revolution” was started by Radio Shack's TRS-80 said Sir William Gates III. David & Theresa Welsh traced the “Role of the TRS-80 in Computing History”. There were talks about hard drives and the Intel 4004 chip in the first calculator.

Next time one of your friends starts talking REAL SERIOUSLY about their passion for stuff, watch out! They could be as serious as Sellam Ismail and ten years later hundreds of people will be showing up to buy T-shirts for the party. µ


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