Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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VCF East 2.0 wrap-up

by Evan Koblentz

BURLINGTON, MASSACHUSETTS, Sun Microsystems -- This week, I'm happy to report that VCF East 2.0 was a success. Everyone learned something, or bought something, or just enjoyed reminiscing. Personally, I experienced all three, and took home a second-place award in the other" category for my exhibit, "PDAs: 1973-1993". (Compared to all the minis and micros, my PDAs and heldhelds fell into the "other" category. Hopefully in the future there will be enough people who collect luggables, notebooks, handhelds, and transputers to make "portables" a full category of its own.)

Here are some of the event highlights, from my point of view.

- Friday morning set-up. A great thing about VCF events is that everyone helps with the venue set-up. Getting vintage computers to work, especially for people who traveled a long distance to attend, can be challenging. Luckily, there's no better place than a VCF floor to find knowledgeable people who can help you. From schlepping to sharing power cords to configuring boot-up sequences, there was something for everyone to do. Unlike during the public exhibition hours when you end up showing the same functions of your computers over and over, during the set-up period you can really get your hands dirty and learn something, and that certainly was the case this time. At one point we all learned that the power outlets in our portion of the Sun building shared just TWO circuits. Thankfully nobody killed the power for eastern Massachusetts. (Everyone setting up Friday morning also is indebted to Sun for letting us take over their building and parking lot, and especially to public relations staffer Samantha Moulton, who served as the event liaison. Sam: THANK YOU!)

- Also Friday morning, many exhibitors took a break from set-up and joined the attendees at the speaking sessions. My own exhibit set-up is relatively simple, so I went to the first two sessions - Curt Vendel and Steve Golson's Atari "7800 20th Anniversary" talk, and event owner/newsletter writer Sellam Ismail's "VCF Ramblings" talk. In the Atari talk I learned the reality vs. the legend of how Atari's executives ran the company, how that affected customers, and how companies like Coleco and Nintendo exploited Atari's mistakes. The talk also gave me some new respect for the technical brilliance of the 7800 and its developers. Next, in Sellam's talk, I learned the details of his PDP-8 replica for Tokyo's National Science Museum. The replica worked by running Bob Supnik's simulator software on a Linux computer behind a "blinkenlights" front panel, with the computer case itself made from wood. Besides the case, I was amazed to learn how many of the replica's switches and other electromechanical parts came not from a computer parts bin, but from Sellam's local hardware store! Now that the PDP-8 and other replicas are built, Sellam says he'll build one for anybody. More information will come in the future. Unfortunately I missed Bob Supnik's own talk, and that of Sun's panel on the history of storage networks. The good news is that all of the panels were recorded, so hopefully they will be available soon for public viewing. We'll let you know the details as soon as possible.

- The influx of Sun employees -- almost 1,000 work at the Burlington facility -- into Friday's public exhibits was terrific. At my own exhibit, I really enjoyed that so many of them appreciated my handhelds collection and asked smart questions. Looking over the 20 or so devices that I brought along, many commented that they owned this or that device back when it was new. But even among them, most were suprised to learn some of the virtually unknown PDA functions and options that existed in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s. That's definitely inspiration for me to keep collecting and researching.

- Vince Briel's Replica 1. Vince, congratulations on winning the "Best of Show" award! Vince's exhibit area was right next to mine, so during the rare slow times, I talked to him about his project. My soldering skills are shaky, but I'm strongly considering attemting the Apple 1 replica build. Vince generously took the time to explain every step to me, in terms I could understand. If I do attempt the project, then I'll record every detail here in the newsletter. The moral? If I can do it, anyone can, trust me! Vince also impressed everyone with his industrial design skills, as the Replica 1 he brought along has a case made of see-through plexiglass, with a hinged top cover. As cool as an Apple 1 replica is, this made it even nicer.

- Friday night's VCF party. At the day's end, almost all of the exhibitors and their guests -- about 25 people -- went to dinner together at a local steakhouse, with the outside modeled to look like railroad cars. Beer, many laughs, and the meat all came in large quantities. Of course vintage computer collectors come in all shapes and sizes -- and boy, can some of them eat! I'll refrain from naming the guilty, you know who you are. :)

- Saturday's talks and exhibit. We all dragged ourselves out of bed Saturday morning and, once again, encroached on Sun. The highlight from Saturday was Art Hill's talk, "A Personal History of Computing," during which the 82-year-old Hill (who has more energy than me, at 29!) wowed everyone with his stories. To me the most exciting part was that Hill actually worked with and learned from J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, the builders of ENIAC. He also worked with the famous Navy Adm. Grace Hopper, who was largely responsible for COBOL, the "common business-oriented language," who but did not (despite the myth) coin the term "bug" in reference to computing. Some of Art's stories were wilder than others,but as he admits, age has a way of muddying the details. I missed the next talk on the IBM/360 by Lawrence Wilkinson, as I had to prepare for my own talk that afternoon, and I missed the final talk, from John Titus who developed the Mark-8 hobbyist kit. (I'd like to think my own talk on the history of PDAs was a show "highlight" for others! A good sign came through the mailing list last night, as an attendee mentioned on the list that "There is actually an HP41 calculator here," referring to my own exhibit. So it's not just computer collectors that come in all shapes and sizes -- it's the computers too.) Overall, Saturday's attendence at the exhibits was a little slower than Friday's, but it gave the exhibitors themselves a chance to check out each other's work.

I brought home many good memories and a few new toys from VCF East. After dinner Friday night, I helped administrator Jay West and others swap some DEC and other gear between minivans and trailers in the Marriott parking lot -- we sure hope Jay made it home safely to Kansas City, after his flat-tire adventures during the inbound trip on I-84 in Connecticut. It was also great to see newsletter founder Mike Nadeau sell many copies of his book, "Collectible Microcomputers." I experienced a really funny moment as well: at one point Friday, Sellam walked over to my exhibit and, not joking, asked "Got a calculator?" Given the nature of vintage PDAs, I had about 15 calculators! Finding one that was JUST a simple calculator and had fresh batteries was the challenge, but we eventually did.

Many of us went to dinner again on Saturday night, and once again I was wowed by the computing stories (and appetites!) of my fellow hobbyists. As for toys, I acquired a TRS-80 Model 100, and a DVD copy of Steve Wozniak's speech from last year's K-Fest event. (Many VCF attendees will be at the Apple II event this week, including VCF Europa leader Hans Franke and Commodore 64 heroine Jeri Ellsworth. See for more information.)