Power stuff and other stuff at Vintage Computer Festival West 2019

(A polite request: please ask first if you want to use these photos. Also, I do not intend this to be a complete chronicle of the show; I know many things aren't here or otherwise completely escaped my notice at the time. This is just what I have and what I particularly enjoyed.)

This blog is intended primarily for a Power ISA bigot audience like myself, but that's not to say that we don't find other things interesting. For those of you unfamiliar with VCF after I've been pimping it for the last couple weeks, the Vintage Computer Festival is a multi-location celebration of computing history all the way from vacuum tubes and wire wrap through early systems to "recent but old" or otherwise obsolete. The original West show is a mostly annual summer fixture at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. (There are others in New Jersey [East] and Seattle [Pacific Northwest], with affiliated festivals in Georgia [Southeast] and Rome [Italia].) Here we are at this august establishment of computing preservation, formerly the headquarters of Silicon Graphics, across from Google Dzerzhinsky Square and that wacky UFO they're building to fly Larry and Sergei back to Proxima Centauri:

(No, the irony of writing this on a Google-hosted platform is not lost on me, so don't write in about it.)

Besides a number of special speakers and demos and lots of interesting items on consignment, which I successfully avoided buying this year and even sold one of my old Power Mac projects I never got around to, the central portion of the show is the various exhibitions from individual owners, users' groups and even other computing museums. I myself have intermittently put together various exhibits such as my first computer (the TMS 9995-based Tomy Tutor, which I still have), the Apple Network Server and even some weird Commodore artifacts for a number of VCFs over the years.

This year my entry was "RISCy Business," a portion of my classic RISC-based portables and laptops. The machines I had running for festival attendees were a Tadpole-RDI UltraBook IIi (UltraSPARC IIi) running Solaris 10, an IBM ThinkPad 860 (PowerPC 603e) running AIX 4.1, an SAIC Galaxy 1100 (HP PA-7100LC) running NeXTSTEP 3.3, and an RDI PrecisionBook C160L (HP PA-7300LC) running HP/UX 11.00. I also brought my Sun Ultra-3 (Tadpole Viper with a 1.2GHz UltraSPARC IIIi), though because of its prodigious heat issues I didn't run it at the show. Odds are many of you are familiar with these machines either directly or by reputation, so my weird laptops, let me show you them:

The UltraBook played a Solaris port of Quake II (software-rendered) and Firefox 2, the ThinkPad ran AIX's Ultimedia Video Monitor application (using the machine's built-in video capture hardware and an off-the-shelf composite NTSC camera) and Netscape Navigator 4.7, the Galaxy ran the standard NeXTSTEP suite along with some essential apps like OmniWeb 2.7b5 and Doom, and the PrecisionBook ran the HP/UX ports of the Frodo Commodore 64 emulator and Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 SP1.

The website that the machines are displaying was custom-written for the exhibit, because period-correct computers demand a period-correct website. I've posted that site, which I'm told works fine on an SGI O2 as well. :)

Overall I think the response was very positive. The hulking SAIC Galaxy generally attracted the most attention (first for its size, second for its very crisp display), but all of the machines were hits with the crowd.

Besides my PowerPC 603e system, there were some other examples of Power ISA at the show. Over on the TenFourFox blog I earlier posted pictures of a Daystar Millenium (a 4-processor 604e Genesis MP+) and a couple Pippin consoles; check out that article for hot pics. The Quake multiplayer exhibit showed how you can easily shoot polygonous monsters on multiple operating systems, including an SGI O2 (appropriate), the Daystar, a Sun Ultra workstation, and two classic IBM RS/6000s. This one is a 43P-150 (Type 7043), a 375MHz PowerPC 604e running AIX 5L. Like AIX 4.1 running on my ThinkPad 860, this was still during the days when IBM was trying to make multimedia workstations out of its high-end machines; the port of Quake it ran at the show was actually done by IBM. A GXT4500p (one of IBM's in-house-designed 3D cards) runs the graphics.

Below it was a Server F50 (Type 7025) with four, count 'em, four PowerPC 604e CPUs at 332MHz. This machine was also running AIX and had the big beefy GXT6500p card for graphics (essentially a dual-GPU 4500; unfortunately neither the GXT4500p nor GXT6500p are supported by Linux). This makes me jelly because the Floodgap POWER6 just has the wussy GXT145, though this is nothing more than a rebadged Matrox G550 and does have open-source support.

As you can see, they acquitted themselves very well destroying things. My ThinkPad 860 had AIX Quake installed on it too, but having no GPU and a less powerful CPU wasn't nearly as much fun.

There were some other notable Un*xy workstationy things there. Here's a venerable SPARCstation IPX running Solaris 7 (the last one to support sun4c) and a modified Mosaic browser:

A pair of SPARCstation 2 systems running SunOS 4.1.4 and NetBSD 8.1, plus a DEC AlphaStation and an unusual InfoServer 150VXT, derived from the VAXstation 3100:

Anyway, that's it for the on-topic stuff. But there was a lot of computing history on display as well. Let's go in order, starting with this exhibit on Charles Babbage's proposed and to this day yet unbuilt Analytical Engine (1833-40). Here we see part of a half-scale model in aluminium and steel, which will eventually be roughly the size of an executive desk and run programs off punched cards as the original was meant to.

A German Enigma encoding device, made (in)famous in World War II and eventually cracked by the Allies. If the serial number (A3995) is correct, then it's this machine, a three-rotor 1935 Enigma I likely used by the Wehrmacht. The plugboard used for additional cryptographic strength is at the bottom with extra plugs stored in the top lid. The second picture shows the actual rotors with the inner cover raised. This machine was in the possession of an auctioneer for presumed future sale, so if you have enough money to buy an Apple I or about fifty Talos II systems, then you should get it and then we can come over and play with it.

An Apollo guidance and navigation system (better known as the Apollo Guidance System, or AGC), also at the auctioneers', also presumably for future sale. Shown here are the various interface and logic modules as well as the famous DSKY, the Display and Keyboard module. The first integrated-circuit computer, it was a 16-bit machine running at 1.024MHz (from a 2.048MHz crystal, divided down) with up to 36kW of core rope ROM and 2kW of core memory RAM. If the serial number "RAY XX" is correct, then it's this unit, which is a thermal mockup with incomplete circuitry.

More on the AGC in a little bit ...

Nearing the microcomputer age were these single-board CPU trainers of various eras. In the left picture, on the left are an HP 5036A trainer with an Intel 8085 CPU, in the middle another suitcase-sized Intel trainer made by Integrated Computer Systems, and on the right a trainer and design tester for the Intel 8080.

In the right picture are two MOS 6502-based trainers; the left one is the famous Commodore KIM-1, with a Revision G unit shown here if the board markings are correct. (This makes it one of the final generation; the original MOS KIM-1 doesn't have a Commodore logo.) First introduced in 1975, the KIM-1 had a 6502 running at 1MHz with 1K of RAM and 2K of ROM, plus the LEDs and keypad shown. Commodore wisely continued to sell them after they acquired MOS Technology until around 1979. I have several KIM-1s myself and they are the oldest computers in my personal collection. On the right is a Synertek SYM-1 (actually the slightly different VIM-1, thanks Dwight Elvey), broadly similar to the KIM-1 but offering additional expansion options. Many people will also remember the Rockwell AIM-1, which was also at the show, and one of which I also have in my collection. I'll have a picture of that a little later.

One of the most famous, and certainly one of the most expensive, 6502 systems out there is the original Apple I. Also a 1MHz 6502 machine, it was unique in that all you needed was a keyboard and television set to use it, plus $666.66 (later $475). About 200 were made, of which about 175 were sold, 63 are confirmed to still exist and only six still work. Incredibly, a number of these working units actually appeared at the show, quietly protected by a security guard to prevent someone from grabbing a couple hundred thousand dollars and running for the exit. These units were shown by the Apple I Club which exists to remind you that you don't have an Apple I.

On the left one of the working systems was showing character graphic images of notable Apple scenes and products. A particularly original idea -- which you could play with -- was an interface card with a Commodore SID 6581 sound chip (the one used in the C64). This was live and running at the show and actually playing music of a sort. In the middle picture you can also see the original "box," the only Apple I system known to still have its complete shipping kit (the return address is 11161 Crist Drive, Los Altos).

A 1981 Xerox Star ("8010 Information System") was also present, the ancestor of things like a GUI and Ethernet, and arguably what gave Steve Jobs the idea for the Apple Lisa. This machine was in working condition. An emulator accompanied it.

There were many microcomputers there, too many to enumerate really. I'll point out the 6502 and 65816 based systems first, though, including an Apple II, IIgs, Atari 130XE, Rockwell AIM-1, Commodore 64 and Commodore 128. (The San Leandro Computer Club had a particularly nice 1980s-style kiosk for their Atari systems.) There was also a strong Tandy Color Computer exhibit with an infrequently-seen Dragon Tano and a whole bunch of Acorn systems along with a really nice Archimedes A3010. However, I will now take this opportunity to dump on the Zilog Z80 systems at the bottom because I'm trying to bait Martin Kukač into a Commodore-Spectrum flame war like those that once raged in the good old days. (I did like the CPC, though, and I own a Timex/Sinclair 2068 to my secret shame.)

Also note the line of Japanese computers, including a Sega Dreamcast development unit and a Fujitsu FM-Towns II playing Genocide 2 ("if you loved Ethnic Cleansing, you'll love Genocide!").

Finally, the replicas. While not historical artifacts themselves, they definitely improve our ability to appreciate those artifacts in a way that doesn't break those artifacts. A case in point is the recreation of the Apollo Guidance Computer including this reproduction DSKY showing plausible sequences as a demonstration, and the supporting hardware they used to simulate the various space modules and subsystems; the AGC they restored is back in Houston. This was truly a monumental contribution to computing history and definitely deserved the Judges' award.

Not a computer, but cool, was this collection of various types of media all the way from huge MO cartridges down to little floppies.

I strongly advise you to show up for the next West-ival (generally first weekend in August), especially as the Vintage Computer Federation is hoping to take up the entire top floor of the CHM for 2020. That means we'll need lots of attendees, lots of help and most importantly lots of exhibits. Have you got something interesting to show? Homebrew, replicas or classic hardware are all welcome. Come on by!

See you next year!

(For a few more pictures, see the entry at TenFourFox Development.)