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

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VCF Europa 5.0: The Geek Empire Continues to Expand

by Sellam Ismail

MUNICH, GERMANY -- They came by train, plane, and automobile. VCF Europa 5.0 held this last weekend was a resounding success, drawing over 360 visitors across both days from all over Europe. The event featured 35 exhibits and eight talks.

Probably the coolest aspect of this year's event was the integration of the Cray-Cyber Project with the exhibition. The Cray-Cyber Project ( is run by John Zabolitzky and features an actual Control Data Corp. Cyber 960 and a couple of Cray mainframes running and connected to the Internet. John gave the first talk of the VCF and then escorted a group of attendees to the underground lab from where the project operates (actually a sub-level car garage in the suburbs of Munich) to hack on the various mainframes. John also provided an exhibit at the VCF which included an IBM 129 keypunch. Throughout the event, attendees were able to punch small programs on a card deck at the VCF, then a courier would run the cards over to the project data center, run the batch through the Cyber 960, and then return the printed results back to the programmer at the VCF. Besides the sheer geek aspect of this exercise, it also served to demonstrate just how dreary the computing experience used to be for most programmers 30-40 years ago, and how far we've come.

As usual, there were a great many excellent exhibits, mostly featuring European computers not normally seen (or not seen at all) in the U.S., and the marketplace was overflowing with lots of vintage computing goodies (some of which I couldn't help but to partake of). We'll be publishing a full photo gallery showing all the various exhibits and other shots from VCF Europa 5.0 on the VCF website in the next week or so.

VCF Europa producer Hans Franke hosted the Nerd Trivia Challenge, one of the more popular features of VCF Europa. Participants were chosen from the audience and then drilled on computer history trivia with questions of increasing difficulty. Winners were treated to prizes while losers were admonished to go home and brush up on their computer history knolwedge.

Once again, the VCF delivered another fine event for the European scene. The next stop is Burlington, Massachusetts on July 16-17 at Sun Microsystems' corporate campus for VCF East 2.0. I'll see you there! (Also in the works: VCF Italy, tentatively planned for September 4-5.)


In my previous article I made some factual goofs (these things happen when your editor is on your back about looming deadlines). [Editor's note: Hey, I resemble that remark!] I wrote that IBM invented core memory in 1952. This is not totally correct. IBM ended up with the patent rights to the inventions, but credit for the actual development seems to be spread across several people, including John Presper Eckert, An Wang, Jay Forrester, Jan Rajchman, Mike Haynes and William Papian. Two good write-ups on the development of core memory can be found here and here

I also wrote that the first fixed head hard disk was invented by Electronic Research Associates in the early 1950s. Upon further research this does not seem to be the case. The only concrete research material indicates that ERA's device was based on a drum, whereas IBM's RAMAC in 1956 was the first storage device to market to actually use disks (the UNIVAC division of Remington-Rand also had disk technology in this same time period but never brought it to market). More research seems to be in order, as there is some question as to whether ERA may have experimented with disk technology prior to IBM.

Many thanks to the various readers that supplied correction information (in particular Stan Sieler).

Also, in an "expert" response I provided to a reader's question, I provided information about "Bit-Rot" (the process whereby EPROM chips lose their programming over prolonged periods of time) that wasn't totally correct. I said that even masked ROMs can lose their programming in the same manner that EPROMs do, but this is not true. Masked ROMs (ROM chips that are fabricated on a silicon die) will retain their programming indefinitely as they are not subject to the same phenomenon of decay (more accurately, growth) that EPROMs are. A good write-up on the subject of Bit-Rot can be found in an article by Brian Hayes on the American Scientist website entitled simply "Bit Rot":