VCF West 2021

Vintage Computer Fest at Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California
August 7 – 8, 2021

As we cross over Highway 101 while going north on Shoreline Boulevard, we immediately see the sign for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The VCF is typically an annual event, but was postponed in 2020 due to COVID restrictions. The museum was still officially closed to the public, but this event was graciously resumed by the museum for 2021. The museum is scheduled to re-open next month in September.

We stayed down the street from the museum at a Hampton Inn, which for our visit was clean, spacious, and pleasant, and had an adequate morning breakfast (with waffles!).

Since the museum itself was still officially closed during this event, its normal cafeteria was unavailable. Across the street from CHM is a Starbucks and 7-Eleven (there was also a small Italian restaurant, but it was not open during our visit).

The VCF (Vintage Computer Festival) actually had many exhibits and several talks. There were also vintage books and a consignment area for selling vintage equipment. I was only able to stay for about half a day. Here is a preview of some of the highlights…

BELOW: Apple 1 and Apple 2
Hand assembled by the Legendary Woz himself, the first Apple 1 produced was on display. This particular Apple 1 was given to the LO*OP Center for Liza Loop in 1976. The story is that this Apple 1 did end up having some problems, and Woz later (in 1977) replaced it with an Apple ][ (which that particular one is known to be the 10th one built). These are genuine relics from that pivotal year of 1976/1977 that introduced an affordable general-purpose reprogrammable computer to the home/office. There was also a functional Apple 1 replica connected to a 9-inch TV, demonstrating the amazing “killer app” of displaying a computer generated image on the television (as opposed to receiving a broadcast signal).

If you are interested in helping to digitally catalog and preserve books of this era, refer to www.hcle.org (this can even be done remotely).


BELOW: VT100 terminals
These particular terminals were built by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1978, and for demonstration are connected to a Raspberry Pi (as “dumb terminals” connect to information systems and have no local processing). Terminals like this were used in libraries to help catalog and search for books. It is interesting to me how in the modern times (2010-2020), we are returning to this paradigm of low-power inexpensive devices (e.g. tablets as “dumb terminals”) and “remote desktop” connecting to more powerful processing systems (these more powerful systems require things like liquid cooling or fans, which are not suitable for more portable or embedded systems). This is now possible since we now have the infrastructure and protocols to wirelessly transmit a relatively massive amount of digital information over many miles, whereas technology of late 1970s/early 1980s was slow proprietary networks limited to a few hundred feed.

I appreciated how in many presentations, the equipment was presented both “with case on” and “without case” to show the inside arrangement of components.

BELOW: ACORN (from the UK!)
Demonstration of the Econet setup from around 1982-1984, which was an affordable way to network many machines together that was very popular in schools of the UK. This is a very charming ecosystem in terms of both the practical hardware and quality operating system. The first version of the famous game Elite was developed on an Acorn system. Acorn received the Queen’s Award for Technology for the BBC Micro in 1984 (a system that arose essentially in response to a BBC Documentary, The Mighty Micro, and the UK Department of Education computer literacy programs).

The legacy of Acorn is related to ARM processors (see Archimedes), which have a large appeal in embedded systems (but is now being re-considered for desktop computing, via the Macs “M1” CPU).


BELOW: Assortment
There were various IBM PCs and PC clones, several tables of Silicon Graphics (SGI) networked together (and running Doom while multi-tasked with other applications), an exhibit of using an Intel 4004 in a cash register and weighing machine, a networked CP/M device, a collection of PALM Pilot portable computers of the late 1990s, and many others (such as the Apple IIe and C64 rows). Here is just a brief sample…


IBM 1401
A premier exhibit of the CHM, representing years of restoration work: two working IBM 1401 (out of four remaining operational ones known to exist in the world). The “raised floor” provides space for hundreds of feet of support cabling, while the processing machine itself has miles of more intricate detailed wiring. The 1401 does have the concepts of “opcodes” and “RAM”, and could be loaded with a FORTAN compiler. These were available in 1959 at a lease rate of about $2500/month (non-adjusted 1960s prices). Time Magazine and insurance companies, who had millions of international customers, were amongst the early users of these IBM 1401 systems to help maintain account records. The demonstration also included use of the “sorter” machine, which took a stack of cards and sorted on a specified column.

BELOW: Input, Process, Output
For operational demonstration, the 1401 was exercised with a program to reproduce input letters in a large font. While a fairly trivial program for modern day, the point is that it represents just one capability of the machine (and not even its prime purpose). The machine could be loaded with a different program, such as to compute complex tables and print a summary of results, without being re-wired. One use of the 1401 was to assist in the migration of punch card data over onto reel-tapes.

Sequence:

  • The “Big Print” program is loaded into the 1401 (via a stack of pink punch cards)
  • User enters the desired name (via white punch card) using 1950s teletype, several steps are necessary to RELease the data card for processing.
  • The data card is fed into the input buffer, which is then immediately processed and invokes the “Big Print” processing.
  • The printer is activated and the supplied data is printed in enlarged font on the 132 character wide IBM 1403 printer (with the current date, which is prepared when the program is loaded)
  • NOTE: The paper sample below is wrinkled because of airport travel, not because of any issue with the original printing.

PDP-1
Another CHM exhibit is a working DEC PDP-1, which represented a major step towards the idea of a personal computer (in terms of having a keyboard, processor, and output display essentially on the same desk). However, no software yet existed. MIT students “tinkered” with the PDP, pioneering the idea of applications like games (with paddles), word processing/text editing, integrated debugging, and computer generated music. It was still another 15 years before these ideas trickled down to more affordable home/office personal computers (that were under $1000 as opposed to over $100,000), a gradual process as the industry better understood how to produce and use transistors and integrated circuits to further reduce the size of digital processors.

Click >>here<< for an audio and video demonstration of the PDP-1 (two independent programs coded in assembly language and loaded by paper-tape).

Click >>here<< for the pivotal 1968 demonstration (by Douglas Engelbart) that included video teleconferencing, mouse, a video screen, hypertext, use of a “pointing device” and presented the future of general-purpose computing.


BELOW: The first computer game… Tennis for Two
This presentation is interesting because it spawns a discussion on the difference between hardware and software. “Tennis for Two” was “rediscovered” by accident and represents the concept for an electronic game (with paddles) in the late 1950s. But there is no “source code” since the game was implemented directly in hardware components.

While a computer was used, it was a Donner “analog computer” (i.e. patch cords to configure execution). For conveying instructions, for centuries there has been flags, horns, signals fires and other such means. But these instructions can only be interpreted after agreed upon meaning. Therefore, is there a distinction between PROGRAMMING and SOFTWARE ? One “programs” a processor by specifying the precise set of instructions understood by that processor – whether it be by holes in paper, patch cables, or sequences electrically read from a RAM module. Original “assembly language” is just a short-hand notation to those sequences (“MOV” instead of “0100 1100”). SOFTWARE is then some hybrid between “natural language” and “machine language”, to try to express logic sequences in a more portable fashion. As such, it is the “compiler” that is doing the programming (translating the intent-expressed-in-software into instructions understood by the target system). An “XYZ.ASM” files, which might be hardware drivers but can also be very delicately crafted games, are certainly still categorized as SOFTWARE. In any case, all this does suggest there is some distinction between “system-specific programming” (of a machine, which could be conducted as slow as blowing bubbles or as fast micro-switches) and SOFTWARE (an evolution of mathematics-like symbols to express logic, coordinated to achieve some intent). Which then suggest SOFTWARE is an entirely new medium, akin to the development of writing itself – a very momentus occasion for humankind.

On display was an excellent discussion on reproducing Tennis for Two.

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