Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006
Click here to return to archive
VCF 8.0: The final report
by Evan Koblentz
Comparing trips to the Vintage Computer Festival is like comparing your favorite "Star Wars" installment: they're all great but everyone has a favorite. This weekend's VCF 8.0 was my third trip but it was also the best. Nothing will ever have the "Wow!" factor of my first VCF (6.0, 2003), and it certainly wasn't as convenient as my second time (East 2.0, just a few hours' drive from home). However, at 8.0, I finally had a good-looking exhibit and came home with some excellent gear and experiences. We'll get back to that later in this report…
My trip began with an alcohol-induced Halloween journey through San Francisco's Castro district, followed by recovery most of Tuesday. I also stopped by the Computer History Museum that night to meet some of the PDP-1 restoration team (http://www.pdp-1.org) as described in last week's newsletter and I visited BookBuyers, a local store known for its vast computers and technology section.
Wednesday was much busier. First on the itinerary was the Intel Museum (http://tinyurl.com/8punj) where I received a tour from curator Tracey Mazur (she's no relation to Intel 4004 co-inventor Stan Mazor: http://silicongenesis.stanford.edu/transcripts/mazor.htm.) The museum has a $500,000 annual budget and they're currently planning a chip simulator ride and a platforms exhibit for next year. I was impressed that the museum focuses on the whole industry, not just on Intel. Tracey mentioned that a smaller exhibit will be installed in the Parsippany, New Jersey office (formerly telephony board maker Dialogic) which is very close to my home, so look for coverage of that in an upcoming issue.
Next up were stops at Weird Stuff Warehouse, the Sunnyvale Fry's, and Guy Sotomayor's warehouse. At the Weird Stuff electronics heaven, I didn't find much in my preferred collecting niche of vintage handhelds and laptops. The "weird stuff" far exceeds what's listed online (http://www.weirdstuff.com/sunnyvale/html/body_sunnyvale.htm) but not much of it fits in carry-on luggage! Ergo my minor purchase of a t-shirt and power strip. Next, at Fry's, what impressed me most was the selection and actually helpful employees. Dealing with CompUSA here on the east coast is a nightmare of terrible selection and pulse-lacking moronic employees. At the Fry's store, when the first person I asked for help didn't know the answer, he found a more senior coworker to help me and then said, "Let me come along so I can learn what you meant"… I was blown away! Maybe it was just a song-and-dance or a fluke, but I liked it. Finally, I visited Guy for about an hour. Guy rents a 1,400 sq. ft. warehouse to store his immense collection of DEC computers (http://www.shiresoft.com/pdp-11/index.html) and currently he's working on both a CPU diagnostics board and a 32K/128K-word memory board. (Hmm, is that a big K or a little k? Guy, are you reading this?) The diagnostics board is available now for $35 unassembled or 85 turnkey; the memory board will probably ship next summer or fall for about $250, he said.
Thursday, I visited the headquarters of History San Jose, checked in with VCF wizard and CCN contributor Sellam Ismail at his Livermore warehouse, and trekked to Bruce Damer's DigiBarn in the evening. HSJ is a government-funded organization with a $1.8 million annual budget. They use several warehouses to store in-house and externally managed vintage collections which includes film reels (about 5,000 of them), industrial electronics, radios (about 100 will stay), typewriters, vacuum tubes (about 15,000), and of course, computers. Collections manager Monica Tucker gave me the full tour; her work with a limited staff is quite impressive. The computer collection from Douglas Perham (http://tinyurl.com/8vygh) includes dozens of micro-era machines and one whopping SDS 930 (like this one: http://www.chac.org/930_lg.html). As with most professionally managed collections, HSJ can always use energetic volunteers. They also plan to exhibit at upcoming area technology festivals.
Traversing Sellam's warehouse is always an adventure in itself. It's a shame the GPS units in Hertz rental cars aren't portable because I could have used the navigation assistance! Sellam acquired a forklift and box truck since my visit two years ago. Most amazing is how much perfectly good stuff people drop off to be recycled. I planned to use a 20-inch LCD for my VCF exhibit, which cost $50 plus a $400 deposit at the nearest Rent-A-Center; Sellam stopped me to point out a nice 17-inch LCD which someone inexplicably disposed of for recycling. Instant savings! In comparison, Bruce's collection (albeit smaller) is extremely organized and clean. Bruce also helped add to my personal collection by donating his extra power adaptor for an Epson HX-20 laptop along with a full Grid PalmPad set-up -- the Epson started right up as soon as I plugged it in back home. Thanks, Bruce! The PalmPad doesn't boot at all, so perhaps one of you in readerland can offer some technical advice. (Thursday's only downside was a speeding ticket on my way back to Mountain View. My record and insurance are already nasty, so it looks like Internet traffic school for me...)
Friday morning was my meeting with Len Shustek. Len is chairman of the CHM's board and was an original Homebrew Computer Club member. He's proud of the recently opened exhibit on the history of computer chess; exhibits on word processing and programming languages were also considered and may be built in the future. Also on his mind is the museum's goal of a $125 million endowment. They're at $75 million including the recent $15 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Shustek admits there was some concern about Gates and Microsoft trying to influence the planned industry timeline exhibit, but he also feels that if the richest company doesn't donate, who will? That exhibit should be ready by early 2009, he said. As for technical restorations, there were IBM 1620 and 1401 projects before the current PDP-1 project, and next will probably be a Bendix G15 effort. That will be the museum's first vacuum tube restoration and original designer Harry Husky, in South Carolina, will be consulted.
Another topic on Shustek's mind is individual museum donations. Many collectors get turned away, sometimes without a satisfactory explanation. "We turn down 90 percent of what people offer us and most of the time the reason is we already have one, and sometimes it's sad," he explained. The ratio of willing donators to museum staff and resources is simply overwhelming most of the time. On the other hand, this helps seed the collecting market for the many private museums and individuals, he noted. The CHM's bottom line is simple, he said: "We want to do a good job for companies that are not doing a good job for themselves."
After meeting with Len, I spent a few hours preparing my VCF exhibit back in the hotel room, and then returned to the CHM to help Sellam with setting up the tables, partitions, etc. - but really what's best about Friday afternoons before VCF is saying hello to old friends as they start to stream in. Set-up would go much faster if not for all the chatting and joking around, but what fun would that be? Hans Franke, a.k.a. the Chief Shlepper, made sure everyone contributed. Hans is a man of action and should be considered for the job of replacing Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency! Finally the set-up was complete and I went to dinner with Marvin Johnson, Erik Smith, and CCN contributor Erik Klein (http://www.vintage-computer.com).
At last, the main event! Saturday morning was everyone's last-minute rush to finish constructing their exhibits and attend some of the lectures if they had time. Many of us joined the most popular session, which was Bruce Damer's panel on the 30th anniversary of the Homebrew Computer Club. The panelists, all Homebrew members at some point, included Allen Baum, Michael Holley (who also won several awards for his exhibit of the Southwest Technical Products Corp. 6800 computer), Bob Lash, and Shustek. Homebrew member Liza Loop was also in attendance; she has a new wiki at http://tinyurl.com/brwhz. Most notable were Lee Felsenstein, who presided over most of the Homebrew meetings and designed the Osborne 1 and Processor Technology SOL computers, and the most famous member of all, Apple's Steve Wozniak... if we need to identify Woz for you, please unsubscribe from this newsletter now. :) All of the full biographies are at Bruce's site at http://tinyurl.com/cm3nd and there is some nice video coverage by CNET News.com at http://tinyurl.com/a47e6. Woz's own hero, John "Captain Crunch" Draper attended the VCF and the Homebrew panel as well. (Don't forget, there will soon be a searchable archive of the Homebrew club newsletters, thanks to several CCN readers and yours truly.)
My personal victory for the morning was having Woz and Draper sign my VCF t-shirt - they simply wrote "Woz" and "Crunch" which is awesome. I'm going to have that shirt framed to hang on my computer room wall! Another autograph came from Slug Russel (see above PDP-1 section) who marked my Atari 2600 copy of SpaceWar.
Just as Friday afternoon is the traditional VCF set-up time, Saturday night is traditionally dinner at the Tied House restaurant. About 30 of us made it to dinner; the restaurant staff gave us a semi-outdoor and well-heated back room. As always, the conversation and laughter was raucous, the food and beer was delicious, and the nerdity prevailed. In the most blatant example, Jack Rubin presented a flashing "NERD" belt buckle to Sellam. Surely you CCN readers remember the fashion accessory being a wildly discussed topic on the classiccmp.org's cctalk mailing list not long ago! It turns out that Jack purchased it just for this occasion. Booting the flashing lights took some hacking on Sellam's part, but no one will ever forget who's the top nerd around our hobby.
Sunday is typically somewhat slower, which gives the exhibitors time to check out everyone else's exhibit. It seemed like almost every exhibitor took a lot of pride in the actual displays this year, with several people using videos, professionally made color posters, custom plastic cabinets, etc.... the whole show floor just seemed a lot more colorful and upscale this time. Even those who used bare tabletops pulled off some raw technology that blew us all away, such as VCF newcomer Elisabeth who arrived Sunday morning with an original working Apple Lisa and later revealed that she owns three more of them! At my own exhibit, a former Sony employee said he could probably help me acquire the elusive PTC-100/300 handhelds, which in 1990 were the first of their kind to use graphical interfaces. That's great news!
The full list of award winners will be posted, eventually, by Sellam at some inevitably hard-to-find and extremely nerdy web site...
Within a few hours of closing time, the VCF show floor became barren, as everyone packed up and several of us stayed to help deconstruct tables, partitions, and the rest of it. One last hurrah: beer and pizza that night with Sellam, Hans, Jack Rubin, and Stan Sieler. Larry Pezzolo joined us a bit later. I also ran into VCFer Jason Scott (of "BBS: The Documentary" fame) Monday morning at the airport.
For those who missed VCF 8.0, or those who just haven't got their fill, rest easy! It's only about six months until VCF Europa 7.0 (see here: http://www.vcfe.org/E/) and VCF East 3.0 (moved from the Boston area to New Jersey, see here: http://www.vintage.org/2006/east/). Nor do midwesterners have to wait, with the unrelated Classic Computing and Gaming show rescheduled for Dec. 4 (http://www.ccagshow.com).
Long live vintage computing!