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Vintage Computer Festival Pacific-Northwest took place February 10-11, 2018 at Living Computers: Museum+Labs and featured 20 hands-on exhibits, along with expert presentations and behind-the-scenes museum tours.
This was the first Seattle event for the nonprofit Vintage Computer Federation, which also produces Vintage Computer Festival East at its own museum in Wall, NJ, and Vintage Computer Festival West at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. The show venue for Seattle, formerly known as the Living Computer Museum, is led by Paul Allen who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975.
Most of the exhibits focused on 1970s-1980s minicomputers and microcomputers, such as DEC PDP-series minicomputers, S-100 “homebrew” systems, and 8-bit home micros from companies like Apple, Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and many others. Still other exhibitors demonstrated homemade software and modern hacks. User groups, such as the Seattle Retro-Computing Society, were also present.
Upcoming editions of the Vintage Computer Festival series include VCF Southeast (April 21-22, 2018 operated by the Atlanta Historical Computing Society), VCF East (May 18-20, 2018), and VCF West (August 4-5, 2018).
Disclaimer: This gallery was created by VCF director Evan Koblentz, who is also a TechRepublic contributing writer.
MITS Altair 680
Larry Pezzolo exhibited a pair of Altair computers from MITS–Micro Instrumentation & Telemetry Labs–which previously made the model 8800. That’s the same model to which Gates and Allen ported the Dartmouth BASIC programming language in 1975, thereby kick-starting a new company initially called Micro-Soft. This image shows a Lear-Siegler terminal (left) and the Altair 680 (right) modified with a transparent cover.
Altair 680 Front Panel
This is a close-up of the MITS Altair 680 front panel. Users can enter data directly into memory through hexadecimal addresses (base 16). While the original 8800 had an Intel 8080 processor, for the 680 MITS switched to the Motorola 6800.
1976 MITS Altair Software Policy
MITS was infamous for Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in which he firmly criticized users who copy software. One can imagine that users also did not take kindly to Allen’s announcement of a $200 charge (almost $900 adjusted for 2018 value) for the 680 BASIC paper tape.
Pertec bought MITS in 1976 and started offering systems with Altair components and new corporate-friendly assembly. The final Altair-based system is the Attache. Its top cover–a “stylish white cameo case,” as advertised–has a rear hinge for easy maintenance access.
Oscar Vermeulen traveled to the show all the way from Switzerland with a variety of modern replicas. This is an Arduino microcontroller inside masquerading as a small Altair 8800. It’s certainly easier to build and maintain than a real Altair, however buyers get a similar software and front-panel experience to bootstrap their favorite operating system, programming language, and applications.
Vermeulen’s most popular replica kit is the PiPD, which uses a Raspberry Pi and a look-alike Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-8/I front panel. This one is beloved by hobbyists who lack the funds, room, and time required to own an authentic DEC minicomputer but who want something more than just a software emulator.
Blinkenbone DEC PDP-11/70
Yet another minicomputer replica, this one by Joerg Hoppe who attended from Germany. His computer uses the Beaglebone microcontroller to pretend it’s a DEC PDP-11/70. Electricity is from an ordinary PC power supply, unlike the hulking 3-phase needed to run the real thing!
No replicas here–this is a real DEC PDP-8/E minicomputer connected to a modern laptop serving as its administration terminal. Owners would typically install an 8/E inside a series of racks dominated by disk and tape storage. This exhibit was from Vincent Slyngstad.
This computer, a DEC LINC-8, is part of Allen’s personal collection housed at Living Computers: Museum+Labs. It is unique because it combines the LINC processor and PDP-8 processor in a single system, enabling customers to run a wider variety of programs. LINC designer Wesley Clark thought of his original version as a personal computer.
Another exotic system in the Allen collection is this DEC PDP-12 from 1969. While the LINC series was popular for laboratory usage, the 12 was more of an engineering system. Its trim is a snazzy shade of green 30 years before the Apple iMac G3 debuted with a “lime” scheme.
Alan Perry brought his collection of Sun Microsystems SPARCstations, affectionately known by customers as the lunch box computers. Sun also made so-called pizza box versions, not displayed here. These computers of the 1980s and 1990s were commonly found on the desks of engineers. Sun is now owned by Oracle.
Ian Finder led an informal group of LISP programming language enthusiasts–comically dubbed the “UNIX Haters Club”–who demonstrated Symbolics workstation computers of the 1980s and 1990s. Participants in this exhibit traveled as far as Finland to obtain the exotic hardware. Symbolics hardware was most commonly used for artificial intelligence software–hardly a new fad of the 2010s.
Bill Kendrick and Kevin Savetz demonstrated Atari 8-bit home computers. Everyone associates Atari with video game consoles, but the company was equally active on the computer front against competitors such as Apple, Commodore, and Tandy. Pictured is Atari’s 130XE running a party quiz program–and graced by Dr. Who toys.
Commodore SID Symphony
Kent Sullivan, who goes by Dr. Evil Labs in the vintage computing community, brought along his hardware synthesizer accessories for the ubiquitous Commodore 64. Any standard 64 can run the SID Stereo Player program (shown), but with Sullivan’s hardware the sound output is shockingly modern.
David Cooper displayed a variety of Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 hardware and software. Shown here is the original TRS-80 Model 1, circa 1977 (left) and a TRS-80 Model III, circa 1980 (right). The Model 1 is running its famous dancing demon animation and music program.
SEE: Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 Teardown (TechRepublic)
Eric Schlaepher’s MOnSter 6502 in conjunction with Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories is becoming famous in the vintage computer world. It’s won awards at multiple editions of the Maker Faire series and at Vintage Computer Festival West. Its unique spelling emphasized MOS–the company that made the original 6502 processor in 1976 as a much cheaper clone of Motorola’s 6800 offering.
Foone Turing–yes, that’s his real name, legally changed–is a passionate collector of unusual floppy disks. Few people know about 8-inch disks–some of us grew up with 5.25-inch disks, and many younger readers know the 3.5-inch variety. For this exhibitor those are only the beginning! He showed more than a dozen unique types of disks, most of which were commercial failures.
Another system in Allen’s collection is a fully restored Bendix G-15. This is a vacuum computer sold from 1956-1964, thus making it one of the last and smallest of its generation–tube computers are better known for filling entire rooms, but this one is only as big as a double-wide refrigerator. Both sides swing open like doors to reveal an amazing amount of wiring. The wires on the left, inside the door, connect to dual-tube cards and diode cards. Bendix became part of Control Data Corp. in 1963.
Cray supercomputer documents
Cray is the most famous supercomputer manufacturer of the 1970s and 1980s. Allen’s collection includes an original Cray-1, on display in the museum’s first floor, and also recently added a Cray-2, which is currently in storage. Shown here is an entire wall of impeccably organized documentation.
AT&T Unix documentation
Anyone who used AT&T Unix from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s will immediately recognize this shelving unit full of dark red technical manuals. Allen is fortunate to have a complete set. Unix went hand-in-hand with the C programming language, as noted by famed Bell Labs engineer Brian Kernighan at VCF East X in 2010.
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