Retrocomputing: Remembering technologies past
Sep 17th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Even as technology marches on, there is a slowly growing enthusiasm for looking back on the history of computing, and preserving those still-working specimens of obsolete systems and vintage hardware and software that exist. The movement is known as retrocomputing, and although it’s mostly done as a hobby, I would argue that the people who collect and preserve these older specimens are doing a bit of digital curation in their own right.

It’s one thing to read about older computers in the mid to late 20th century that shaped technology as it stands today. But looking up articles on PDP minicomputersApple IIs, TRS-80s, Commodore 64s and the like from your modern LCD desktop or iPhone just isn’t the same as actually getting to sit in front of one of these Old Greats and using them. And so, every so often, some of these retrocomputing enthusiasts get together and allow the interested public to do just that.

Recently the East Coast Vintage Computer Festival rolled into Wall Tonwship, NJ, and packed the InfoAge Science Center’s exhibit hall wall to wall with computer systems from decades past… most working well, some not so much. Even some of the much older minicomputers on display worked well for a while, until the systems consumed way too much power and blew the science center’s fuses, rendering them inoperable. But of the many old historic systems that did work, visitors could sit down and give them a spin. It was fascinating to be able make an IMSAI 8080 talk just like it did when fictional teenage hacker David Lightman used it to access military computers in the movie Wargames. Playing old cartridge games on a genuine Atari 800 was pretty neat as well. And although my BASIC programming was a little rusty, the old fascination I felt the first time I wrote a program in second grade came back, as I did it all over again.

Operating old computers can be quite a loud affair, as you’ll see in this video. Here, David Gesswein demonstrates a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, connected – as a PDP-8 likely would have been in the mid-1960s – to an electromechanical ASR-33 Teletype machine. If you think CRT monitors are old-school, consider that this type of setup had no graphics at all. You had just the equivalent of an electric typewriter, a bank of switches and indicator lights, and some reel-to-reel tape machines to interact with. My, how we’re spoiled today…

Unfortunately, the clatter of Teletype and and the din of many excited geeks talking loudly drowns out the audio, but if you want to know more about the PDP-8, David Gesswein has his own website explaining its intricacies, and even lets you interact with a working PDP-8 online.

A wide assortment of photos taken at the festival appear after the jump link below. Enjoy!

Image Gallery: Vintage Computing Festival East 6.0

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