The Retrocomputing Landscape - a gallery (and an essay)

#1

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.

Retro computing enthusiasts, then, occupy themselves with old computers. A considerable fraction are reliving their youth, and often that means playing games on microcomputers, or in emulation. There are emulators for almost any computer you can think of, some portable and others less so, and there are even some hundred emulators which run entirely in the browser, thanks to the high performance of modern JavaScript engines. In most cases, the emulated machine can be programmed, usually in Basic, but also sometimes in assembly language, machine code, or by means of emulated toggle switches. There’s a lot more going on here than games.

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.

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#2

I want so badly to see the NMoC at Bletchley Park. One of my students is going to be in London for a week this summer, and I have recommended jaunting over to see the museum.

I’ll be going to VCF East in NJ in a week or so, so I guess there’s that…

#3

I’d be happy to join in and make a mini-meetup of it. Meantime, don’t let geography be a barrier, you can become a Member even from afar:
http://www.tnmoc.org/support/become-member

#4

I think there’s a category missing from your fascinating essay, Ed, and that’s historians, i.e. former users/nostalgics of old systems who are basically independent and non-academic researchers interested in the history of computing.

I don’t really know how many of them there are around the world and whether they are “pure” historians or also enthusiasts, collectors and maybe tinkerers. They may fall (like yours truly) under two or more categories and also be playing/using, amassing a bit and occasionally tending/repairing old hardware (and software), while aiming for their main goal, which is trying to tell stories and preserve the memory of a very rich and diverse history of computing which goes beyond a few well-known names and technologies.

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#5

If getting to TNMoC is tricky, then Cambridge might be a good 2nd choice (An easy train ride from Kings Cross from London)- the Centre for Computing history is worth a visit: http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/ They have more 70’s and 80’s micros as well as a few older bits and pieces.

-Gordon

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#6

I don’t know what their transportation situation is, I’ll pass that along, thanks!

#7

I’d be happy to join in and make a mini-meetup of it.

Is that with respect to VCF East, or my student in London, or both? :wink:

#8

It would for TNMoC - VCF East would be a very long journey for me!

#9

Oh sorry, I’ve misunderstood - I thought you were going to visit the UK on pretence of visiting your student. Even so, if they want to visit TNMoC, they might be my kind of person. And maybe we could rustle up a UK meetup.

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#10

A good point! I’ve started to describe myself this way too, as an amateur unaffiliated historian. It’s a little more convincing, when speaking to the uninitiated, to say I’m a computer historian rather than to say I like old computers.

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#11

When I had a chance to give advice to students who wanted to help the local university’s computer museum, my three suggestions were:

  1. Don’t replace facts with logic

I had a student tell me that his professor explained that when the IBM PC came out, IBM sent its engineers to various companies to help them build clones. His proof was that IBM published the full schematics and the sources for their BIOS. The fact that Apple also published these things for the Apple II and yet sued people who did clones didn’t impress this student, nor the fact that I was involved in the computer industry when the PC came out but his professor wasn’t.

The problem is that these leaps of logic make sense and the make good stories. And as soon as someone writes them down other people start citing them and they can no longer be separated from the facts.

  1. Don’t limit yourself to first impressions

The Ugly Duckling computer that I mentioned in another thread is currently being shown in its June 1972 configuration. Over the years student projects added many interesting features to it, so this demonstration is a bit misleading. You also see that in all those Altair 8800 shown in museums in their early 1975 versions, which is also what replicas emulate. By late 1976 an Altair would likely have one or two 8 inch floppy disks, 32KB or more of RAM, a video board and other stuff.

“First” is such a big deal and the focus of many arguments among historians so it is easy to forget that many products changed over time. That even includes those that couldn’t even expanded in theory, like the 128KB Mac.

  1. Take magazines with a grain of salt as "original source material"

People try to figure out what things were like back then by looking at magazines that were published at the time. But magazines focus on the best and the latest, not on the typical. I pointed out to the students that if they did their research using car magazines instead they would come to the conclusion that in 1986 everyone was driving Ferraris and Porshes. In the same way, a magazine might make you think that in 1990 everyone was moving to a 33MHz 486 PC but in fact 8MHz 8088 “turbo” PCs were still selling well.If you take into account the installed base instead of sales, the reality was even less amazing.

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