They’re Alive! Vintage Computer Fans Keep the Great Machines of the Past Running

A monochrome glow spilled out into the room, produced in the old fashioned way: by hurling electrons at a phosphorescent screen. The high-pitched rasp of a dot-matrix printer pierced the air. For a second I was back in the 1980s, the 8-bit age when computers stopped being things that people only saw in movies and magazines and started cluttering up their homes. Then someone jostled against me and I returned to the present and the crowded exhibition hall of the Vintage Computer Festival East (VCF East).

The festival took place 15-17 April at the InfoAge Science Center in Wall, New Jersey. The center itself has an interesting place in technological history, stretching back to its origins as part of Marconi’s radio empire and including decades as a top secret communications research facility for the military. An 18-meter radio dish that was used as the ground station for the pioneering Tiros weather satellite, launched in 1960, is being restored to full operation at the site. 

The InfoAge center is home to a permanent collection of vintage computers, covering the years from 1945 to 1986, but it’s also home to the annual festival where enthusiasts gather to exhibit their personal collections of vintage computers and related items. Most of the machines still function, sometimes only thanks to heroic restoration efforts.

On display at this year’s festival was a working Apple 1, a rarity easily worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It had been painstakingly restored for the owner by exhibitor Corey Cohen, who is now often employed by auction houses looking to verify the authenticity of such machines. My favorite moment was when he loaded a computer program into the Apple via the original cassette tape interface—with a sound file on his iPhone standing in for the cassette player.

Going back further in time, Brian Stuart demoed his emulator of the fabled and immensely influential World War II–era ENIAC computer. Stuart’s emulator not only reproduces most of the internal workings of the behemoth machines on a PC, but he’s taken the time to recreate the panel displays from old photographs so that they light up exactly as they would have done when the real machine was running. When I arrived, Bill Mauchly, son of ENIAC co-creator John Mauchly, was looking over the emulator with obvious delight. Mauchly pointed out that one of the original programmers seen tending to the giant machine in a photograph was his mother, Kathleen Kay McNulty, whom Mauchly senior had married in 1948. “ENIAC is sort of like my step-brother,” he joked.

Other displays included things like a collection of Apple II clones from around the world, including a fascinating Bulgarian machine that also housed a Z80 processor in addition to the Apple’s standard 6502 CPU. The user can switch between processors, allowing them to run a much wider range of software than either CPU alone. Another switch lets the machine’s display alternate between the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets (all programming had to be done using the Roman alphabet).

Speakers at the conference included John Blankenbaker, creator of the Kenbak-1, a little known non-microprocessor-based educational machine that has a good claim to being the first commercial personal computer. Ted Nelson, the man who coined the words hypertext and hypermedia (among other contributions to our modern digital lexicon), walked attendees through some of his alternative vision for what computing could be. Nelson’s original system design for hypertext, called Xanadu, included both “jump links”—now known as the hyperlinks that glue the Web together—and a system for visually presenting relationships between documents. Said Nelson:  “The World Wide Web is a fork of Xanadu,” one that kept the jump links but left out what Nelson considers the most important part: being able to visualize the connections between documents. He’s still working on a prototype of the full system, but as he nears his 80th birthday he ruefully admits, “all my plans involve being younger.” (Look out for the video of IEEE Spectrum’s interview with Nelson soon).

Evan Koblentz, the author of Abacus to Smartphone: The Evolution of Mobile Computers and president of the Vintage Computer Federation, a non-profit umbrella organization to a number of festivals, explains that one of his goals is to build bridges between historians of computer science and the enthusiasts and collectors who keep and tend early machines. “I think that [academic] researchers need to get their hands dirty, and hobbysists need to understand that research isn’t just looking things up on Wikipedia.”

If you missed this year’s show in New Jersey, you still have several chances to revisit the vintage world of computing. VCF Europa takes place in Munich from 30 April to 1 May, and VCF West will take place at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley from 6-7 August.  

Video produced by Kristen Clark.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement