The place where ZX Spectrums never die

24th Oct 2010 | 07:00

The place where ZX Spectrums never die

We visit the Vintage Computing Festival

The Vintage Computing Festival visited

Amiga. Spectrum. Atari. BBC Micro. Does a little shiver of excitement run down your spine when you read those hallowed names? Yes? You're not alone.

Vintage computers and consoles are making a comeback, of sorts. No longer gathering dust in attics across the land, they're being re-introduced into the wild to show a new generation of computer fans what they were capable of and, more importantly, what people can do with them today.

There are discussion groups, fan clubs, websites, museums and even festivals dedicated to classic computers. More and more people are embracing old-school computing and they're becoming increasingly vocal about it.

There are people out there whose hobbies and even jobs revolve around preserving these technologies for later generations, keeping them alive and functioning so others can discover their delights. And there are more of them than you may think.

The recent Vintage Computing Festival, which was held at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park, made this very apparent. The biggest celebration of vintage computing held in Britain to date, the VCF attracted over 30 private exhibitors, along with thousands of fans of technology through the ages.

It wasn't just a static display of old computers in glass cases – visitors could touch the old machines, buy them, play classic games on them, program them and even log on to Twitter from them. Old technology in action.

It wasn't just a curiosity – the festival was a celebration of these old computers, especially the rarer ones. The machines weren't just from the many stored at TNMOC either, with many from private collectors keen to show off the rarities they owned, and to share them with an appreciative crowd.

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Whispered gasps of "It's a ZX80 – I always wanted one of those!" and "Is that really 3D Monster Maze?" abounded. For a vast number, the festival was a homecoming; a return to their digital roots.

Vintage classics

Versions of the Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) have been running for over a decade in the USA – it started, naturally, in Silicon Valley – so it was high time it made its way over to our heritage-laden shores.

We spoke to lead organiser Simon Hewitt to ask how the UK version came about. "One of TNMOC's trustees, Kevin Murrell, had heard about the Vintage Computing Festivals that were a regular event over in the US," Hewitt explains.

"He mooted the idea of running a similar event here among the volunteers and I picked up on it. We combined the basics of the US and German events, but put a British slant on it by including more of our homegrown machines. We also wanted to give it a bit more of a broad appeal to families, as well as making it a showpiece event for the museum. I phoned around various friends and contacts who were interested in 'retro' computing and it all started from there."

So why was this the right time to try it out in the UK? "Interest in retro computing and vintage computers has been steadily increasing over the last two or three years," Hewitt explains.

"Various smaller events had been popping up all over the country on a regular basis, and there was always a healthy turnout in terms of visitors. Television programmes such as Micro Men and Electric Dreams, which the BBC originally screened in mid-2009, attracted healthy viewing figures that have warranted regular repeats. This told us that the interest was out there.

"I spoke to a few friends who either ran or attended the events which were already taking place, basically asking them, 'Do you think it is worth us trying to do something on a much bigger scale?' The answer was a resounding 'yes', so we did."

Park life

There's no doubt that the VCF was a huge success. "No one had predicted what the atmosphere would be like," says Hewitt. "It actually felt like a summer festival – lots of smiling faces and people genuinely enjoying themselves."

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The venue for the festival couldn't have been more apt: the TNMOC is located slapbang in the middle of Bletchley Park, the birthplace of digital computing. Even when not playing host to events such as the Vintage Computing Festival, it's TNMOC's mission to collect and restore computer systems, and to allow people to explore that collection for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.

The museum is a charity, relying entirely on donations to continue showing off the development of computing. Its range works back from today's digital commodity masterpieces to the pioneering wartime efforts that resulted in machines such as Colossus, the first programmable electronic computing device, which was used by British codebreakers to read encrypted German messages during World War II.

It's staffed mostly by volunteers who give up their time to help share these computing relics with the general public. Kevin Murrell is one of a group of trustees that set up TNMOC. We talked to him about the VCF event and asked him if he thinks the appreciation of vintage computing is on the rise.

"Over the past few years, appreciation of our computing heritage has really taken off," he answers. "People are suddenly realising how far we have come in just a few decades – in their own lifetimes. One of the most common comments we all heard at the VCF was 'I've used one of those'. People realise that they are living through a time of momentous change and that they have been part of it."

Murrell clearly gleans a lot of pride from his position in the TNMOC. And the most exciting part of his role? "Bringing a machine that was thought to be lost to history back to life," he says, "and then seeing the reactions of the original designers and users when the computer is running again." In many ways it's like a modern-day Dr Frankenstein position, only with fewer torches and pitchforks…

Education not nostalgia

Some may think that this interest in older machines is just about clinging on to a bygone time, but Murrell thinks there's more to it. "It's not just nostalgia," he says.

"TNMOC's primary aim is education – we hope to inspire the next generation of computer scientists, and all the evidence is that we are doing just that. By working with vintage machines, it's much easier to get a better appreciation of how they work. A visit to TNMOC takes people beyond applications and helps them understand much more clearly how computers actually work."

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One of the exhibitors, Andy Spencer of the Retro Computer Museum, agrees. "Older machines are simply better systems," he says with a smile. "If you want to write a game on a PC or Mac, you usually need an expensive bit of software to start programming. On older machines, nine tenths of the operating system – including a programming language – was built in. You turn the machine on and there it is, so within minutes, and at no extra cost, you can write some basic games."

The fact that these classic micros still have something to offer to people today was backed up by the number of families in attendance at the VCF. As a delighted Simon Hewitt says, "There were five-year-old children engrossed in 25-year-old computer games. I doubt anyone predicted that."

Micro-maintenance isn't just the preserve of big institutions such as TNMOC, as the lengthy list of exhibitors at the VCF made abundantly clear. There are still clubs up and down the country dedicated to particular machines, where fans meet to discuss and swap tips on maintaining and programming their vintage models.

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What's even more impressive is that these fans are constantly re-inventing the ways in which these machines can be used. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum on display running a Twitter client was testament to that, as was a playable port of Guitar Hero for the Commodore 64.

Or how about creating internationally acclaimed music with classic computers? That's what PixelH8, AKA Matthew Applegate, who performed at the VCF, uses his old machines for. Every sound in his songs is programmed from scratch and performed on software written for machines such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Acorn Electron and MSX. Who would have thought that tinkering with 'defunct' machines could lead to you collaborating with Damon Albarn and Imogen Heap?

Amiga power

The power of vintage computing fans shouldn't be ignored either. It's unlikely that the latest iteration of the Amiga, which made its debut at the VCF, would exist if it wasn't for the strongly devoted and almost rabidly loyal Amiga fan base.

Called the AmigaOne X1000 (it's named after the original Amiga 1000, released by Commodore back in 1985), it runs the operating system AmigaOS4. As one of the organisers of the Amiga area at VCF, Michael Carrillo of Amiga North Thames, explains,

"There are a lot of ex-Amiga users out there who would dearly love to see the Amiga make some sort of niche market comeback. The Amiga computer was marketed in Europe as a games console, only with a keyboard.

"It was the Xbox/PlayStation/Wii of its day, so obviously it holds a lot of nostalgia for the folks who played the games. Sadly, what most people in Europe who owned the old 'Classic' Amiga don't know was that buried and probably forgotten at the back of the cupboard was a very powerful, compact operating system. Now they're all using Windows or Mac OS X or Linux and are unaware of what they had within easy reach."

Other people at the festival were drumming up support for new clubs, including Sean Billings of www.vintagecomputerclub.org.uk. As he explains, "I originally wanted to set up a museum to showcase the private collection that I've built up over the years, but I decided that a museum was a bit hands-off as, after all, the fun is in using them, playing games, learning to program them and so on."

Sean used to be an engineer working on these machines, and he's keen to keep them in the public eye. He says, "Luckily, there are still a lot of the original people around who have a working knowledge of these systems, but this could so easily be lost if younger generations aren't interested in what preceded their iPhone or Netbook."

The message from the VCF's collected masses, united by their love of vintage computing, was crystal clear: get involved. Get active. Who knows, the next person your collection inspires may be the computer scientist of tomorrow.

We'll leave the last word to Simon Hewitt of TNMOC. We asked him what the most exciting thing about working with vintage computing was. He answers,

"The bated breath as you wait to see if something works! Some of these machines may be temperamental, quirky, even plain awkward at times. That's what gives them their character and charm.

"Their capabilities encapsulate a period in time, from the rudimentary interface of the Elliott 803B to the 16-bit graphics of the Amiga 500."

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First published in PC Plus Issue 299

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