The New Generation of Classic Computing Hobbyists

In the mid 1970’s the popularity of the MITS Altair 8800, SWTPc 6800, MOS KIM-1, Apple 1, IMSAI 8080 and all of the rest were due to a strong market demand lead by the 20-something hacker engineer. This was the first generation of affordable personal computers.   Today, 20-somethings build Arduinos and embedded computers, neural networks and machine learning in the cloud – for fun and profit. Same thing, different thing. Affordability was a factor then, it’s a factor now.

1975 IMS Associates IMSAI 8080

Because we’re located in a small-town retail block we get a lot of visitors who have never heard of vintage computing and are new to the concept of old computers as something “historic”.  Even if a typical high school student or 20-something has youthful memories of 3.5″ diskettes, they rarely have first hand memories of BASIC let alone know the significance of the Teletype as a computing I/O device.  It’s natural that younger visitors gravitate to the exhibits of post-vintage (my term) machines such as the Silicon Graphics Octane or something running Windows 3.11. There is a bit of a generational divide as some older folks scoff at these as “too new” for a computer museum. We must all broaden our perspective. Consider how the earliest GUI / mouse interface computers might provoke the “wow how old” reaction to a student with a Chromebook or MacBook. The GUI interface is recognizable without an explanation to them.  These newer machines in turn help give context to the earlier 8-bit machines, many of which were manufactured years before millennial and Gen Z were born. Connecting the dots, S-100 machines and the others from the mid-70’s give context to the big iron of the 50s and 60s that preceded them.

The Donner 3500 was the first portable computer sold in the USA. We have one of the oldest-known working Donner 3500’s in use today.

When we give a tours we start with exhibits of 1950’s and 60’s analog computers, card sorting and tube logic modules. We contrast these with a display of hand-held and desktop PDAs (personal digital assistants), which were the ancestors to the modern smart phone. This way we can ask, “how did we get here from there?” and turn the history of computing into a journey, rather than sludge through a computer timeline yawn fest.

The California Technology International MR 2000 PDA was powered by a Z80 CPU

We Gen X and baby boomers hang out with the 8 and 16-bit machines and tell our stories, but we don’t all consider that the “8-bit” era was but a single step in the development of computing and a lot has happened since then that is equally historic and worthy of preservation.

Some say the golden era of “vintage computers” occurred during mid-1970’s S-100 homebrew-era and lasted until about 1987. This is when the home appliance and small business computing markets emerged. Computers became practical to a wider population. It was during this time that “appliance” computing brought a consistent return on investment as the industry produced computers whose processing power improved greatly while their size and cost declined. The new 8 and 16-bit processors manufactured by Zilog, Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and MOS were installed in most of the leading models of the day. Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Commodore, Atari and Tandy emerged and took their turn to produce best-selling products. Meanwhile IBM, DEC and most traditional mainframe manufacturers lost market share to increasingly more powerful and less expensive desktop units.

1987 Apple II GS with 8/16-bit WDC 65816  CPU

For this hobby to evolve we must accept that “Vintage computing” is no longer defined solely by the 8-bit machines gen X and baby boomers had as children and young adults. It’s the 20-somethings that will be the next generation of vintage computing hobbyists and they will want to work with something meaningful to them. They also have to be practical. Most computers built before 1980 have either been destroyed or lost, and of those that exist very few are still operational. Hobbyists today find that acquiring a computer from the dawn of the 8-bit era requires a lot of luck or money. One no longer sees these things at the local flea market.   At this point any 1970’s computer “find” requires a long restoration process in order to bring it back to life, especially if it had been left in a garage for the past 40 years.  To expect the new hobbyist to take on such a project if they’re just getting started is not realistic.  It thus makes perfect sense that new hobbyists are gobbling up post-vintage (my term) machines such as Intel 386/486 computers, Macintosh II’s, SGI’s, NeXT and DEC VAX boxes, etc. They’re obtainable and more familiar.

Today there are also new ways explore computing’s’ past. Fans of the oldest machines no longer have to acquire the original hardware to experience their use. Today one can save money by building an emulator or replica of most any vintage machine. (That’s why we sell emulators and replicas in the shop if you want one)

The Raspberry Pi-driven PiDP/8 emulates the original DEC PDP 8i complete with working front panel switches and terminal interface capability.

So join me and evolve your thinking about what is “vintage” or historic.  The “32-bit room” we’ve set up to showcase early GUI machines and workstations went over a lot better than we originally expected but we should not have been surprised. Here you’ll find the Sun workstations, Pentium I EISA boxes, 386/486 laptops and early touchpad computers. Here is also where the next generation of classic computing hobbyists stop and tell their stories and rattle off what they know about their generation of “old stuff”.  New stories. 

Steve Job’s ~ 1991 NeXT Turbo

The definition of “Vintage computing” is a personal thing.  I believe we should preserve them all.  At Kennett Classic we try to have a good samples from every era. We hope anyone inspired by the history of computing technology will find something meaningful here, too.

NEXT – Preserving documents and software….