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November 6, 2007

Vintage Computer Festival 2007

Filed under: Hardware,Misc,Security — Nate Lawson @ 9:46 am

This past weekend I attended the Vintage Computer Festival at the Computer History Museum (article). There were numerous highlights at the exhibits. I saw a demo of the Minskytron and Spacewar! on an original PDP-1 by Steve Russell. The Magic-1 was a complete homebrew computer made of discrete 74xx logic chips running Minix. The differential analyzer showed how analog computers worked. I also met Wesley Clark and watched team members type demo code into the LINC, similar to ed on a very small terminal.

One question I asked other attendees was what recent or modern laptop I could get for outdoor use. I am looking for a low-power device with a high-contrast screen for typing notes or coding while camping. Older LCD devices like the eMate met these criteria but a more modern version is preferable. Most recommended the OLPC XO-1, and in monochrome mode, it sounds like what I want. But I think I’ll wait for the second version to be sure the bugs are worked out.

After looking around at attendees, I was concerned for our future. Other than a few dads with their kids, most people were 40+ years old. While I missed out on the golden era of computer diversity (I got my first C64 in 1987), I was always fascinated with how computers were invented. I checked out books from the library and read old copies of Byte magazine found in a dumpster. Once I got on the Internet, I browsed the Lyons Unix source code commentary and studied the Rainbow Books to understand supervisor design.

So where was the under-30 crowd? Shouldn’t computer history be of interest to most computer science/electrical engineering students, and especially to security folks? Many auto mechanics enjoy viewing and maintaining old hotrods. Architectural history is important to civil engineers. I appreciate the work bunnie is doing to educate people on semiconductor design, including old chips. Is this having an effect?

If you’re under 30, I’m interested in hearing your response.

17 Comments

  1. Speaking as a recent CS college graduate, I would agree, it’s sad that the younger crowd doesn’t seem to be interested in knowing about the vintage hardware. I actually think it would be beneficial to teach a required class on the history of computer hardware in order to provide perspective and respect for older hardware. Sadly, none of the CS professors (at least at *my* college) were really interested in teaching outside of their areas of research, thus, there was almost no mention of vintage machines. It’s too bad, I would definitely be interested in computer history :)

    Besides, knowing history would help us not to repeat the mistakes of the past, wouldn’t it? :)

    Comment by Lee Hinman — November 6, 2007 @ 9:59 am

  2. I am definitely interested in older tech gear. More specifically crypto gear. Its always neat to see the thought that went into certain designs despite the limited resources, memory, computing power etc…

    Comment by ChrisR — November 6, 2007 @ 10:04 am

  3. Well I’m 35 and my first computer was a Mac 128k (I was 13.) Those that are going into IT these days take very traditional paths. They grew up playing games not tearing things apart. They graduate high school, they hit college, get a degree in CS, enter the job market and start moving up the ladder. Most of my peers my age and older did not take this path. We went into IT because it was more interesting than what we were doing before (I don’t have a degree at all.) The end result is that you are seeing people in IT that are more interested in it as a job than a hobby and thus not that interested in its history.

    Comment by tim — November 6, 2007 @ 10:51 am

  4. I’m 21 and I do really love to study history of computers. When I read e.g. Neumann’s EDVAC draft, my friends just laugh at me. Maybe they can’t think in a bigger context, they live in a mind-set of current technology and don’t care about history or even anything else, they just care what’s currently “in”.

    Comment by vestea — November 6, 2007 @ 11:35 am

  5. I couldn’t show up. I was out picking up the Bleeding Edge Technology Device that keeps the market rolling for the next six months.

    In all honesty, I do think that is where most of my peers (I’m 22, mind you) would place their opinion though. The most interesting part about technology isn’t what was out yesterday, it’s about what’s out tomorrow.

    Comment by Dave — November 6, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  6. Another thought, I believe it’s important to study older hardware from the perspective of the early software developer, who might have actually had to optimize his or her code, rather than just throwing more powerful hardware at it (which it what is done a lot of the time today)

    Comment by Lee Hinman — November 6, 2007 @ 2:17 pm

  7. 27, grew up with a C64, Tandy 1000, etc. First learned how to program typing programs in from 3-2-1 Contact magazines.

    I’ve never been as drawn to the history of computing. On the one hand, sure, I find it more fascinating than the history of automobiles, but on the other hand, as Dave pointed out, there are so many new fascinating things to keep up with that there’s only so much time in the day to play with old toys too.

    That said, I’d have like to have gone to the Festival, were I not 2750 miles away….

    Comment by Jordan — November 6, 2007 @ 2:19 pm

  8. Lee: yes, I think it’s important to learn from the past. Also, *every* architecture requires optimization at some point, it’s just a question of when and what kind. Your modern processor doesn’t do so well when you are trashing the cache, no matter which high-level language you’re using to do it.

    tim: except when your IT job is to implement, say, a password hash and you end up with this utter fiasco (2 months and discussion *still* going, how’s that for a waste of time?)

    Dave: I never thought every EE/CS person would be into computer history, but it just seems to be many less than I expected and definitely generational. You’d think people who grew up in the 80’s would be interested in the computers of the 70’s, just like I was interested in computers of the 60’s (and before). Instead, it appears that there’s a drop-off where people who grew up with PCs aren’t interested in anything before themselves.

    Comment by Nate Lawson — November 6, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  9. Suggestion on the XO: Try one first – or at least make sure you’re getting your recommendations from people who own one.

    I was given one of the B2 test machines (February ’07 vintage) and I can say that it would be fantastic for what you want — if you’re 4′ tall. My hands (presently attached to a 6′ body) are simply too big to comfortably/accurately type. An external USB keyboard is mandatory and is the unfortunate reason my XO sits on the shelf these days as I’m not working on development anymore.

    However, I do know that later test machines (and presumably the production model) sport a different keyboard which I haven’t tried. I’ve read it’s quite an improvement and that might make all the difference. I can envision touch-typing on an XO with some practice — and an optimized keyboard. But it’s a knotty industrial design problem: small, waterproof, durable, inexpensive, yet usable by adult hands.

    Regardless: the Give-One-Get-One program starting next week is well worth it. You may well change the arc of some kid’s life. http://xogiving.org/

    Comment by jp — November 6, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

  10. It’s funny, these youngsters talking about how they’re only interested in the new stuff coming out. Funny, because I haven’t seen anything “new” in the computer industry since the World Wide Web, and even that is just a GUI on top of the Internet, which has been around since the 1960s, and GUIs were invented in the early 1970s.

    The Vintage Computer Festival is not just old guys standing around drooling over old stuff (half the VCF attendance is under 40, BTW). Technology history shows you what people already tried. It might even give you inspiration in your own work. Can you imagine a computer with the equivalent of only 32K of main memory (that’s K, as in 32,768 8-bit bytes total) running a bank? Or a hospital? Or a Fortune 500 company? They used to.

    Can any of you young punks program ANYTHING in only 32K?

    Until you can, don’t underestimate the importance of knowing on whose shoulders you are standing.

    And don’t make excuses for not coming to the next Vintage Computer Festival. Get yourself signed on to the mailing list so you’ll be notified of future events.

    http://www.vintage.org

    Comment by Sellam Ismail — November 6, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  11. jp: Yeah, that’s why I’m concerned about getting an XO. I was able to touch-type on a Toshiba Libretto, but that was a standard keyboard design, just smaller. Hopefully someone will produce an XO that is 50% larger (including keyboard) but with the same outdoor usability and battery life.

    Sellam: Rant much? :) You make some good points overall. I’d add that if you do any modern embedded work, those old processors appear again. Also, people have a habit of putting an 8051 or other small processors on ASICs to handle configuration or management.

    Comment by Nate Lawson — November 7, 2007 @ 10:18 am

  12. 26 – unfortunately, had never even heard of this. I’d have been there for sure…getting the word out more effectively might have helped with attendance (thanks Sellam, for the link)

    Comment by toasty — November 11, 2007 @ 8:57 am

  13. I think it’s easy to forget how (relatively) young the computer industry is. When I go for “computer history”, I’m looking at machines from the 60’s and 70’s, the practical birth of the industry. I started on a Commodore PET in 1980. I suspect there is also a minimum age before nostalgia kicks in. Both of those together may mean that this is the first generation that has critical mass on this topic.

    Comment by Ryan Russell — November 12, 2007 @ 3:02 pm

  14. Ryan, you’re right about the relative age of computers as well as nostalgia. But I’m trying to draw a line between nostalgia (interest in the computers you used at a younger age) and history (computers older than you that you never used). There are different motivations for interest in each. I think both are valuable, but my original question remains — where’s the interest in history?

    I’m starting to wonder if learning from the past is a motivation that also waxes and wanes, along with wider generational changes (see Renaissance Fair growth in the 1960’s). Maybe some day your kids will argue that Knuth can only be read with a deep understanding of MIX. ;-)

    Comment by Nate Lawson — November 12, 2007 @ 4:47 pm

  15. Well, I recently turned 30 so I’ll give this a shot. I guess it’s the mindset that is different, some people are born engineers, some are not. If you’re in this industry for a love of engineering and learning how things work, you’d most likely be interested in computer history, but if you’re in this industry to become rich and famous, it’s probably more attractive to skip history and bet your money on superficial things like Web 2.0.

    Besides, in general, most people today seem to believe that we, the currently living people, are much smarter than the people who lived before us, thus history can teach us nothing, because nothing that has happened before can be applied to this modern age we currently live in. All is brand new and shiny, everything under the sun is new! So I guess it’s just to be in lieu with the spirit of the modern day that so few people are interested in computer history. Time will prove that harboring this mentality is wrong and time has proven it before, but we’re too blinded by our own, completely own(!), progress and ingenuity to see it.

    Comment by Andreas — November 14, 2007 @ 1:04 am

  16. @Nate: I’m under 30, and I do study computer history as part of the grad courses here at Berkeley. To pass the preliminary exam in operating systems, in fact, you have to study a selection of papers that reaches back to Multics.

    That being said, your question was about why under-30 people weren’t at the event. In my case, it’s a question of while the event is somewhat interesting, it’s not interesting enough for me to deal with the costs: I don’t have a car, so Mountain View is incovenient for me coming from Berkeley, I’m too lazy to get up early enough to make a full day of it, and I would usually prefer to see friends in SF or in the East Bay instead. (or work on my research, which always seems to need more time).

    @Sellam – I went to sign up for the mailing list, but got this:

    First name is required.
    Last name is required.
    Address is required.
    City is required.
    State is required.
    Postal code is required.

    is there a way to just give one’s e-mail?

    Comment by David Molnar — November 16, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  17. Wow, I’m jealous. Retro-computing is very cool and I’m very interested. I would highly recommend anyone interested in computer history to download source code of old systems and install and run old systems on emulators. The SIMH project has great emulators for some historically relevant systems. The TUHS project has a large archive of unix source codes. Mailing lists for both projects often discuss other systems, such as the recently open-sourced multics source code. There’s lots of great stuff out there to play with even if you don’t have access to hardware. And if you’re into hardware, FPGAs are powerful enough now to build some of these old systems on a single FPGA chip. There are lots of online projects that have built various PDP systems on an FPGA, for example.
    I would have loved to get to see some of those systems in person.. very cool, nate.

    Comment by newsham — November 22, 2007 @ 11:56 am


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