Here’s a photo gallery (and below, an essay) - my attempt to show and explain the landscape of retrocomputing enthusiasts. Although I now notice the gallery is rather Acorn-centric and 8-bit heavy:
The National Museum of Computing, on the Bletchley Park campus, has a Members’ group to support their preservation and outreach efforts, and with that group comes a newsletter. Below is my draft of a short piece I wrote for the newsletter.
The Retrocomputing Landscape - a personal view
Members might be interested to hear about retrocomputing, as a hobby today, as it surely has overlap with the interests of the Museum and the Members. I have inevitably taken a personal view here: my interests are wide enough to be a Member of the Museum but my greatest fascination is with microcomputers, especially Acorn’s, and anything with a 6502 inside. I won’t aim here to draw a clear distinction between Retro and Vintage, although both terms are commonly used. Broadly, Retro is used mainly in a context of microcomputing (anything built around a microprocessor) and Vintage is used more in a minicomputer or mainframe context.
Beyond the playing of games, there are deeper levels of engagement. There are the collectors, who by accident or by determination fill their attics, workshops, or sheds with the
machines that interest them: sometimes microcomputers from the 80s, and sometimes minicomputers from the 70s. There’s as much variety as you might wish for. Jim Austin is perhaps an extreme case, with three very spacious sheds, now open to the public on alternate Saturdays and styled as the Jim Austin Computer Collection - well worth a visit if you are physically fit.
Online, you’ll find many forums with platform-specific interests, at least for all the 1980s microcomputers (Denial, AtariAge, cpcWiki, MSX, MTXworld), and also forums for broader categories: 6502.org stands out as a forum specific to one microprocessor, vcfed stands out as a forum for multiple machines. Again, online you’ll find a lot of emphasis on historical games, also on more technically engaged subjects, including the writing of modern homebrew games. There’s a healthy Q&A site specifically for retrocomputing too, covering both history and technology.
Let’s not forget the mailing lists: classic computers, cbmhackers, bbc-micro, and surely many others. Some newsgroups survive too!
On, then, to the makers. On the one hand we have the kits, the first standout example being the RC2014 backplane machine by Spencer Owen, originally a modular Z80 system but now accepting various CPU modules, and also available in a single-board configuration. This kit has been so successful it’s become a full-time job. The second example, or two, is the PiDP-8 kit and the successor PiDP-11 kit, by Oscar Vermeulen, both of which are painstakingly detailed scale models of the front panels of these iconic machines, with the toggle switches and LEDs, powered behind the scenes by the SIMH emulator running on a Raspberry Pi. I call this kind of arrangement embedded emulation, and it gives a very realistic user experience without needing to buy, restore, or power the original equipment. Oscar has sold some hundreds of kits to date.
Another kit, in a category of its own, is the Gigatron: it’s a single-board computer with no microprocessor, harking back to the likes of the KenBak-1, but very much more capable thanks to much larger memories and faster TTL components. It’s built from the ground up and is in the class of homebrew CPUs - about which, there’s more to say. In this case it’s a microcoded CPU running a small program which emulates a more user-friendly virtual machine, such that writing a video game is well within scope. Like many, but not all, modern projects, it is open source and so people are free to make their own and to develop modified versions. There’s a recapitulation of early computer history here, in the form of these homebrew CPUs and also in the spirit of sharing experience.
There are also makers working on their own computer designs, without the benefit of a kit. You’ll find some of them at the RetroBrewComputers forum, a few on AnyCpu, and more on the forums mentioned above. Not only will you find microcomputers, but also more embedded emulation, and machines built around CPUs constructed from TTL, from transistors, or even with relays. All of this is retro computing, even if it is not creating historical machines - it’s using historical ideas for architecture and implementation, and sometimes rediscovering historical ideas.
Another category of makers is those who extend historical machines with modern peripherals or extensions. You’ll find RAM extensions, solid state storage upgrades, CPU upgrades, graphics capability upgrades. And close by you’ll find people writing software for retro computers - often games and demos, which show off unexpected capabilities in old machines - but also tools, such as compilers or filing systems. In fact, the easy and affordable solid state storage peripherals have been a revolution of their own: the retrocomputing hobbyist need no longer struggle with floppies, cassettes, or hard drives which are showing their age, and are difficult to repair.
In the real world, these various kinds of retro computer enthusiasts hold meetings, sometimes for commerce, sometimes for play, and sometimes to get some retrocomputing development done. For example, the Acorn-centric Stardot forum lists events for ABUG and for RISC OS, mostly in the UK, and the Vintage Computer Faire franchise has several events annually around Europe and in the US, where you’ll find everything from PDP to homebrew machines. There are smaller meetups in Canada and the Netherlands. Not so long ago, in 2010, there was a VCF within Bletchley Park, with an ABUG contingent. Perhaps there will be another UK VCF before too long.
Finally, I must mention those who reverse-engineer the retro hardware and software, reconstructing source code from binaries, finding and fixing decades-old bugs, exploring CPUs down to the transistor level.
I hope Members have enjoyed this quick personal tour of the landscape, and can see how varied and active the field is.