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The 10th Vintage Computer Festival passes into history

Glaskowsky reports on the Vintage Computer Festival.

I had a great time over the weekend at the 10th Vintage Computer Festival, which took place in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

A LINC system at home
A LINC system in the home of programmer Mary Allen Wilkes in 1965 Courtesy Mary Allen Wilkes and DigiBarn

In addition to the exhibits of vintage computers--including the largest collection of Radio Shack Pocket Computers I've ever seen--and the marketplace, where I managed to avoid buying any slide rules, Vectrix video games, or Cray supercomputer circuit boards--there were several notable presentations.

On Saturday, Tim McNerney spoke about his work to reimplement the Intel 4004 microprocessor, which led to a 130x-scale working model of the chip composed of individual transistors on a large circuit board exactly duplicating the layout of the original integrated circuit. Pretty cool.

On Sunday, two talks were especially interesting to me.

Phil Lapsley presented a history of phone phreaking--using tone generators called "Blue Boxes" to make long-distance phone calls without paying. Several key players in the computer industry were introduced to engineering and computer science through phreaking, including Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Woz's friend John Draper, who wrote EasyWriter, an early word processor for the Apple II.

Draper was on hand for Lapsley's presentation and offered his personal insights on some of the key events Lapsley described. For example, Lapsley talked about the 1971 article in Esquire magazine that brought phreaking to broad public awareness. After the article was published, criminal prosecutions of phone phreaks (usually for wire fraud) soared, then began to taper off again five years later when AT&T introduced new telephone switching systems that were immune to the techniques described in the Esquire article.

Draper was able to explain the origin of the Esquire article: a fellow allegedly selling Blue Boxes to the Mafia got caught phreaking because he was using relatively insecure methods. Several phreaks called him to chastise him, which annoyed him enough to spill the beans to the Esquire reporter.

Also according to Draper, phreaking remained technically possible until relatively recently, particularly in towns with small, independent phone companies--but calls in and out of these places are routed through modern switching systems that would cut off any attempts to exploit this potential vulnerability.

However, some international phone systems may remain vulnerable today. An audience member mentioned a 2004 article in Wired that described a trio of blind brothers, Palestinians living in Israel, who were convicted of telecommunications fraud after a "six-year spree of hacking into phone systems and hijacking telephone time" in the 1990s that allegedly yielded $2 million.

And the first shall be last--the final big presentation at VCF X was a 45th anniversary celebration of LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer), which some say was the world's first personal computer. No less an industry luminary than Gordon Bell, for example, was on hand to make that claim.

The celebration was organized by Bruce Damer, founder of the DigiBarn Computer Museum, a private computer museum in the Santa Cruz mountains currently open by appointment only (apart from occasional open-house events; see this recent CNET article about the DigiBarn collection), and Severo Ornstein, an engineer of the original LINC and author of Computing in the Middle Ages.

Although LINC systems were generally purchased and used for professional rather than personal reasons, it otherwise qualifies as a personal computer. They came with keyboards and displays that could show text or 256x256-pixel black & white graphics, and could be operated from a single AC power outlet. LINCs could be used for biomedical laboratory scientific research, document processing, simple graphical games, and even, in a limited way, digital photographic imaging (according to an anecdote related at the event).

The photo above shows a LINC in the home of Mary Allen Wilkes, who wrote the LINC's system software. I don't know if this qualifies LINC as the world's first home computer, but it has to be pretty close.

It was a big machine; the cabinet on the right side of the picture was roughly the size of a refrigerator, and the cabinet for the operator console and dual tape drives was also pretty hefty. All that hardware combined to offer a 12-bit computer system with 1,024 or 2,048 words of memory. Not bad for 1962...

A LINC machine-- one of several rescued from destruction and stored for years by Scott Robinson--was recently restored by a group of early LINC users who were honored at the celebration along with LINC designer Wesley A. Clark ("not the general," as he says). That machine was up and running in the VCF exhibit area, looking pretty good for a computer almost as old as me!

[Updated with more information about LINC and the LINC event courtesy of Bruce Damer. Thanks, Bruce!]