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Computing MARCHes on...

A few weeks ago, an announcement was posted to the comp.sys.dec newsgroup about a Vintage Computer Festival. It was to be held on Saturday and Sunday, 12-Sep-2009 and 13-Sep-2009, at the InfoAge Science Center, off of Marconi Road in Wall, NJ. This used to be the US Army's Evans Area where I'd frequented many times during the latter 1980s to provide OpenVMS support for some systems that the US Army maintained there. Because this festival was only about a ten to fifteen minute ride from my residence and because I was familiar with the terrain, I decided I'd give it a go.

Saturday morning arrived. I donned my Viagra® purple CAN'T KEEP IT UP? YOU NEED VMS! T-shirt which I thought fitting attire for an outing with vintage computer geeks. I packed up my laptops and my camera gear and strapped it to my roller cart — all that kit is much too heavy to lug around. I loaded it in the car and headed off to Marconi Road just off of Rt. 18 north.

This festival was hosted by MARCH, the Mid-Atlantic Retro Computer Hobbyists, at InfoAge who took over the Evans Area facilities when the US Army abandoned it in the 1990s. They are in the process of setting up a computer museum there. I had never heard of the MARCH until the posting to comp.sys.dec, so I'm very happy that they made the effort to make the announcement posting in that newsgroup.

I arrived approximately 10:30 and graciously paid the $10 admission for the day. I was really only interested in the museum and the exhibits floor; however, I was informed that they wouldn't be open until 13:00. I walked down the hall where an elder white-haired gentleman by the name of Ted Hurewitz was giving the event's keynote to a room of about 50 in attendance. He was discussing his role in the creation of computers at RCA in the 1950s. Yes, computers in the 1950s! Sorry to disappoint you Bill Gates aficionados but Bill Gates did not create the computer. I enjoyed Ted's keynote. As an old-time bits and bytes counting assembly language programmer myself, Ted discussed the ways programs were written for the limited memory of systems, back in the burgeoning early days of computers, which made me wax nostalgic.

Following the keynote was a concert. Yes, a concert. This was performed by some young hackers from a Philadelphia project called The Hacktory. The music was, IMO, a sort of DISCO Rave meets Kraftwerk. Very repetitive loops and too much heavy 4/4 beat for my eclectic, progressive rock tastes. However, what was interesting is that they hacked this all together using some old computer technologies.

The concert gave me some time to speak with a couple of people in attendance that were equally as unenthusiastic about the music product. I spied one fellow who was wearing an Electronic Frontier Foundation T-shirt. This sparked up some conversation because I am presently being harassed in the NJ Court System for exercising my First Amendment Rights to discuss issues of public concern — in this case, what I believed to be a better and safer software solution over another. Outside, I met a gentleman from Penn State, State College, PA. He mentioned, since I was wearing the purple VMS T-shirt, that he had a MicroVAX he wanted to get running but that he was running into some issues due to changes with the OpenVMS Hobbyist Program. He gave me his email address on an old punch card. We'll communicate more in the coming weeks, I'm sure.

13:00 hours arrived. The exhibit hall and the museum were finally to be opened. I latched onto a group first taking a tour of the present state of the computer museum. It's still in its infancy but there were a few items of interest that I saw and that I had to photograph. The second room in this aging old former Army facility housed two old bits of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) kit. The first was an old PDP-8 which was reported to have been owned by a computer club. In fact, it was mounted on a sled that reminded me of a sedan chair.
Portable computing back then just wasn't as convenient as it is today!

Next to the PDP-8 exhibit stood a DEC PDP-11/20. It appeared to be in great shape!
However, without an OS and no media packs for the RK05s, this system will probably be doomed to a future of dust collection while posing for photographs for the geek paparazzi.

On to the next room which housed some of the early micro-computers. The first system that caught my eye was an IMSAI 8080 and a Lear Siegler ADM-3A terminal. I spent countless hours in my college's physics lab working on one of these.
I often wonder what became of the systems in that lab.

In a similar vein, next to the IMSAI 8080 sat the ALTAIR 8800. I never had the opportunity to use one back in the day but I do recall reading through the Popular Electronics Magazine feature article on this machine.
I wish I could have afforded to buy one back then. Money: the pitfall of every computer hobbyist.

Another computer, sold back then in kit form, was the SwTPC (Southwest Technical Products Corporation) 6800. SwTPC sold electronic experimenters kits for all sorts of items from power amplifiers to computers. I still have an SwTPC amplifier that I built from kit. Many of these kits were featured in the electronics hobbyist magazines of the era. The SwTPC Tigersaurus power amplifier was featured in the Radio-Electronic Magazine; The SwTPC 6800 was advertised in Byte Magazine advertisements as well as other magazines. I vaguely recall one of the electronic hobbyist magazines carrying a feature on this system as well but my Google research didn't turn up any references for me to cite herein.
This was a fine specimen of the SwTPC 6800. There was also the SwTPC CT-64 terminal and the associated SwTPC AC-30 cassette tape interface with the SwTPC 6800. I only wish that the museum tourists could play on systems like this. What a great collection of vintage computer kit.

The last system I photographed in this collection was the first Apple Macintosh. Nothing very spectacular here; especially, since this system is almost a decade later than the other exhibits in this collection.
However, I can't help but to think of the Orwellian TV advertisement that Apple produced whenever I see one of these systems. They were so correct. The hapless masses of IBM drones following their visionless leader into oblivion.

In case you were wondering, there was an original IBM PC in this collection. I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. I probably should have, however, as what they (IBM) created has been the bane of personal computing to this very day. What a kludged up bit of crap kit it was. As I looked about the room, I couldn't help but wonder how the only system "architecture" that survived from that era was the IBM PC. All of the other systems of that era sported a linear addressing space but the IBM PC. Unbelievable! How the hell could the masses have been so hapless to follow and promulgate this crap for so long?

That concluded the museum tour. It was now off to the exhibitor floor.

There weren't as many exhibits as I would have expected. Several were repeats of the old micro-computer systems I just saw in the museum. Too many were simply exhibiting early computer video games. I hate computer video games with a fervent passion.

However, there was one exhibit worth, in my not so humble opinion, the whole admission price. A working DEC PDP-8/e replete with an ASR33 Teletype for its console. When I approached it, its owner was having a bit of a problem with electrical power. The circuit closest to his exhibit was already overloaded and he was tripping the breakers when powering up. I lent a hand to help him stretch an extension cord down the exhibit hall wall to an outlet on another circuit.

He powered it up and, after rethreading his DECtape, he was able to boot the PDP-8/e. Its ASR33 Teletype printhead came to life and started to tap out directory contents. It was like a scene right out of Three Days of the Condor.

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What a great exhibit of d|i|g|i|t|a|l computer nostalgia.

I left the festival about 14:00
to head home in order to deal with a modern computer crisis. However, before I left, I caught what I consider my prize photo of the day. This photograph was taken of the printout of the Teletype ASR33 console of the DEC PDP-8/e.
This brought back some fond memories for me of a college pastime.

Maybe next year I will get involved and setup some MicroVAXen at this festival to demonstrate some of the amazing features of OpenVMS from its 30+ year legacy that other OSs still haven't managed to even come close to implementing.

Reader Comment

I’m glad you came to the show and please can you put together a MicroVAX display. I think it would be great to have you come and add to the DEC displays we had at the show.

by: Chris Liendo (Email ) on 14-Sep-2009 12:00

Reader Comment

I tried to e-mail you, but I get:
: does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 550 5.7.1 Message rejected due to administrative policy.
Giving up on

Hi.. I know who you are because of the T-Shirt, I am the guy with the COSMAC VIP by the door. White Shirt, spaced out look.. Lack of sleep does that to you.

Your opinion means a lot because although we cannot please everyone, we want to at least try. Vintage computers are a lot like Vintage Cars, you have your groups but everyone agrees that they like the cars and get together to have shows and meet like minded people. For us your T-Shirt was great because we knew what you were talking about.

We would be happy to have you display. No we don’t have 3 phase power for your larger machines, but if you want to bring a micro-vax and show clustering that would be cool. This year all the exhibitor’s paid a $20 fee, this included a guest pass (for one more person) and T-Shirt. 2010 may be different that would be up to the MARCH guys.. I happen to be in March too but I don’t get involved in that.

If you don’t want to bring a machine, we have PDPs and I think Evan is looking for anyone that can make them live again. In fact we have a number of Big Iron computers that are looking for someone with the knowledge and time. Mostly the time.

Do you want to join our yahoo group? That’s how we all communicate.

by: Christian Liendo (Email ) on 15-Sep-2009 08:57


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