Old Computers, New Inspiration

Some of the best highlights from the 2019 edition of VCF East, the long-running retro computing event that puts vintage machines in a modern context.

Today in Tedium: I’m not a newbie when it comes to conferences—I’ve attended many over the years, big and small, and my day job includes an element of regular conference attendance. But I’ve never attended an event quite like VCF East, the long-running computer festival that brings out so many old computers out of the woodwork that it’s not even funny. (It also brings out their fans, a distinct breed of human that isn’t afraid to futz around on something old for a while.) This past weekend, I got a chance to head up to New Jersey to check out the world of vintage, and I got to set my eyes on some fascinating old tech. It was my first go-around, and perhaps it won’t be my last. When I go to events like this, I tend to focus less on reporting and more on inspiration, tone, and taking something back with me—and with that in mind, I wanted to speak to a few things at VCF East that inspired me. Let me nerd out for a little bit in today’s Tedium. I promise you won’t get bored! — Ernie @ Tedium

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1997

The first year that a Vintage Computer Festival took place, over on the West Coast. The event came to the East Coast in 2001 and the event has been held at the InfoAge Science Center, a technology museum and former military installation, since 2006. (Dig around a bit and you’ll find a UNIVAC.) The event is old enough at this point that it encourages its own nostalgia—photos of VCF West, dating as far back as 1997, are easily accessible on the Vintage Computer Federation’s website.

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The SGI Onyx supercomputer that we highlighted over this way last fall. Hiding in the background: Dodoid. (photo by Raion; used with permission)

Good news: The SGI community is still going strong

There were lots of exhibits at VCF East this year, including an entire wall dedicated to much of Atari’s hardware over the years. (I got in a little time on Moon Patrol, myself.)

But the big reason I was there was because I didn’t want to miss my chance to see a certain supercomputer I wrote about last year, along with the person who owns it.

Dodoid, the 16-year-old Canadian SGI enthusiast whose video on the Onyx supercomputer went viral last year (it’s at 1.4 million views and counting), brought a couple machines with him to New Jersey along with a full replica of the SGI website, circa 1994, and stories about the company that created the machines that fostered his hobby. (When I asked him if he felt SGI could have succeeded making a consumer machine much in the way Apple does, he had a whole story ready to go about that, complete with details about the tension in the C-suite over the decision to stay with the high-end market.)

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Also there was Raion, the operator of the growing SGI community Irix.cc—he also brought some machines, including an SGI Indy once used by Acclaim Entertainment as a development machine. The exhibit was pretty popular, as far as I could tell—and it appeared to draw interest from users even younger than Dodoid. At least one other person came to VCF specifically to see the SGI machines besides me, and he wasn’t even a teenager yet!

It was worth the trip up just to see these guys, and I was glad to see the SGI presence at this event. I think the fact that they were there reflects the fact that even “retro” isn’t immune to culture shifts.

Old computers intended for server rooms or workstations may not have ever had a presence among the kinds of consumers often associated with retro computing, but they’re still worth getting nostalgic about.

“Back in the day, some people really knew what they were doing—not Ken, but Bell Labs.”

Brian Kerninghan, a longtime colleague of Ken Thompson, the primary developer of the original Unix operating system, discussing the fact that Thompson, an admittedly unambitious graduate student, initially resisted repeated overtures from Bell Labs to join the research facility. (Eventually, he was won over.) Thompson’s time at Bell Labs proved fruitful, as he would soon develop Unix and many other key tools that computer users rely on today. Thompson, who spoke at VCF East about his work at the laboratory, noted that he put together the primary parts of Unix during a three-week period when his wife and child were out of town.

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Here’s a “selfie” of myself from the Cromemco Cyclops, a digital camera from the 1970s that supported the Altair 8800. (photo by author)

Five cool things I saw at VCF East this year that you might find cool, too

  1. A 1-kilopixel digital video camera. Bill Sudbrink, a frequent exhibitor at VCF East, has often brought his Cromemco Cyclops digital camera to the event, one of the earliest digital cameras in existence. (Jalopnik has the messy details about the camera.) The camera, in case you were wondering, was plugged into an Altair 8800, meaning it had a lot of power behind it … for 1975. The camera lent itself to interesting selfies, of course.
  2. A fully functional ham radio station. OK, this is a slight fib—this was something in the nearby National Broadcasters Hall of Fame building, which is part of the InfoAge Science & History Center, but it was covered in the price of admission, so it was pretty rad. The building also included things such as a vacuum tube tester, demonstrations of how batteries work, and even a black-and-white television camera.
  3. An entire table dedicated to GEOS. A few years ago, I had a chance to write about GeoWorks, the PC-based operating system that was arguably better than Windows 3.1. (A lot has changed in GeoWorks world since I wrote it, so expect me to update the piece in the next month or two.) As I noted in the piece, GeoWorks had a predecessor in GEOS, a graphical shell that effectively gave older 8-bit machines like the Apple II and Commodore 64 a second life in a time when graphical user interfaces were still brand new. The table, run by enthusiasts Jeff Salzman and Todd George, was perfect for nerding out about.
  4. A DOS-compatible palmtop … made by Atari. Atari was a big topic of the event, as I mentioned, but one of the coolest contexts in which they showed up was actually in a table dedicated to portable computers, operated by collector Dave Shevett. Around the time Atari was pushing the Lynx handheld system, it was also getting its fingers into the PC market, with the Atari Portfolio, a PC-compatible machine that didn’t have access to a floppy drive due to its small size and instead used replaceable memory cards not unlike the PCMCIA standard that was later created for similar reasons. Shevett’s collection, filled with approximately 40 years of portable computing history, also included cool stuff such as a computer developed for the One Laptop per Child initiative, which Shevett actually worked on.
  5. A whole bunch of European computers. As I wrote last year, the British computer company Acorn was a bright light of the European computer market in the 1980s, thanks to the BBC Micro and its follow-up, the Acorn Archimedes. Thanks to collector Thierry Mazzoleni, who displayed a variety of vintage European machines, I got a chance to check out an Acorn Archimedes in the flesh.
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The C64 intro screen to L’Abbaye des Morts. (Double Sided Games)

A great homebrew game that just happened to be hiding at VCF East

Recently, I had the chance to play a homebrew game that I found utterly fascinating in its conceit. The game, L’Abbaye des Morts, dates back to 2010, and is based on one of the Catharism movement of the 12th through 14th centuries, mostly in France. Frequently persecuted, Cathars followed a belief system that there were two deities, one good and one evil, rather than a single God.

While borrowing heavily from Christianity, their beliefs differed in some important ways, including a belief that Jesus was an angel in human form, and a rejection of some parts of the Bible. Additionally, Cathars had social beliefs that contrasted heavily with what was common at the time—they abstained from meat or animal byproducts, opposed war and capital punishment, and strongly believed that reproduction was morally wrong.

They were generally peaceful—but as their beliefs went against mainstream Catholicism, they faced heavy persecution, with the Albigensian Crusade, a brutal and violent campaign pushed by Pope Innocent III over a decades-long period, eventually ending the Cathar movement altogether.

L’Abbaye des Morts takes this general background and centers it around Jean Raymond, a Cathar who finds himself running for his life, hiding out in a mysterious castle where a dozen of his fellow Cathars met a mysterious fate.

Long story short, it’s a heavy topic for a video game, but in the hands of its original developer, Locomalito, it feels fascinating. It’s a side-scroller that plays with puzzle elements, which is not uncommon for a homebrew software title that mimics earlier eras (the version I played was for the Sega Genesis; other versions target the ZX Spectrum and other systems). But the story—which is incredibly dark stuff, even if it’s a little thinly plotted, makes it feel like you’re playing something new.

Apparently, the developer Double Sided Games knew that I would still be raving about this game weeks later, when I found myself at VCF East. The developer’s Commodore 64 port of L’Abbaye des Morts, on display at the event, stands out because it’s not the same game that’s appeared everywhere else. The new version, reprogrammed for the hardware, is very much the same game that I found extremely compelling, but it has added speed and new dynamics that make it feel new again. My jumps didn’t feel the same on the C64.

It reflects one of the things I love about homebrew the most: The ability to borrow from the past but move beyond the limitations of what came before from a storytelling standpoint. If you haven’t played this game, it’s very much worth your time.

Recently, there’s been a movement in the video game space—mostly pushed by the manufacturers themselves—to drop physical software entirely.

Google drew a lot of attention not long ago for its cloud-based gaming effort Stadia, while Microsoft just released a discless version of the Xbox with an incredibly complicated name: The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition.

Clearly, this is where the world is going, and even though the non-gaming software world has already long embraced this New Normal, there are reasons not to feel particularly comfortable about it when it comes to gaming, a space dominated by the very kind of collectors that I was surrounded by at VCF East last weekend.

Wandering through the consignment shop at VCF East, strewn between the outdated laptops and the $30 Mac Minis (clearly, I got a discount), I was confronted with a reminder that these boxes, containers, and other vessels for software once promised the world to consumers.

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Want to make a personal newsletter? Here, buy this box. (photo by the author)

Imagine, if you will, 1984 or 1985, walking into a computer store and looking for productivity or home software. These boxes, big and small, talked a big game, and seemed impossibly ambitious—they promised things that would never be possible just a few years before.

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Really, it’s the language that makes this software seem so fascinating.

You weren’t buying software. You were buying something that could make your life just a little bit better, that could expand your reach. And even if you knew the last program you bought didn’t totally live up to the promised experience, it still won you over—hook, line, and sinker.

These days, we’re saturated with technology, and these promises have become slicker and more corporate. We can basically do anything with these digital windows, and bring them with us anywhere. (Side note: At one point, an older gentleman saw me on my laptop in a break room and said something that implied he didn’t believe laptops should exist, and that the correct place for a computer was in the home, not on the go.)

But back then, these promises were new. We had not been forced into three or four different modes of working. The doors of what was possible were opening, not closing—even as we can say, objectively, that our computing experiences have gotten more advanced and way closer to the promises made on old software boxes.

There are a couple more sparks from VCF East that I plan on diving into a little bit more in the coming weeks, but I guess, more than anything else, I hope that, if you’re into tech in any tangible way, you spend just as much time looking at the past as you do the present. Maybe it’s at an event like this—maybe it’s in another way entirely.

But often, the past shines light on the present better than the latest machine ever could.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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