Silicon Dreams, Snibston Discovery Museum, 5-7 July 2013

by WordChazer

No, not a dodgy website or a teenage fantasy but a vibrant new festival celebrating all that's great about 80s computing and the silicon chip (or should that be silicon wafer?)

Silicon Dreams and the Vintage Computer Festival GB will take place at Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire on the weekend of 5-7 July 2013. This already amazing venue will be further enhanced by the presence of a slew of 80s computers, consoles and gaming gear, supported by a full programme of talks, presentations and music. The team organising the event were responsible for the original Vintage Computer Festival GB, held at Bletchley Park in 2010 in association with the National Museum of Computing. The same team also pulled off the star-studded Beeb@30 event a year ago in Cambridge, and managed to persuade many of the original faces involved with the design and build of the BBC Micro to attend.

So what is it about retro computing?

The attractions behind the scene

Retro computing takes many of today's IT professionals back to the days when they could program in their bedroom. Vintage computers like the Atari ST, the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro, various flavours of Amiga and early Nintendo consoles make many people misty eyed and nostalgic. It is often cited as the reason for the runaway success of the Raspberry Pi computer, a return to the days when computers were programmable by the user instead of sealed boxes running proprietary software, as now.

Ask almost anyone in their 40s today and you'll find out that they were probably spending hours playing Pac-Man or Manic Miner when they should have been doing their homework. And then there's Fishdom, Tetris, Pong and the early Game & Watch Nintendo double screen handhelds.

Several organisations have been founded in the last few years to repair old machines, restore them to their former glory and then allow the public to play around on them. For the older attendees of such events, it's a chance to relive their youth, for the younger generation, an opportunity to see why their dad insisted on buying the family that Xbox 360 for Christmas.

A Yellow Tang, familiar to all players of Fishdom.

The original Binatone video tennis









Many of these organisations will be present at Silicon Dreams, including the Retro Computer Museum and the Centre for Computing History. The idea is to have something for everyone, and if the programme at the original VCF was anything to go by, there will be a variety of talks, presentations, demonstrations and films, probably at least one concert too.

Snibston Discovery Museum

Bring the whole family - there's something for everyone

Snibston Discovery Museum is located on the site of a former colliery. The area surrounding the museum has been turned into a nature reserve and country park, while the museum complex itself is home to a large number of fascinating exhibits including an interactive gallery and a display of fashion through the ages. Out at the back is a large play area for children of all ages and at the side, a theatre company has its premises.

It's already a vibrant location with plenty to do and see, worthy of a visit on any weekend of the year. To have the extra attraction of a computer festival is just amazing. The Vintage Computer Festival at Bletchley Park in 2010 was a weekend of serious sensory overload, from a Spectrum running a Twitter client to several rooms full of vintage kit bleeping and flashing merrily and the whole of the National Museum of Computing History to explore as well. For anyone requiring an atmosphere conducive to curing creative block, this was the place to be. Snibston has a similar effect and I am often to be found feverishly writing after a visit, having come out feeling refreshed and invigorated. Your biggest headache is likely to be deciding which talks to see and which to regretfully miss out on.

Silicon Dreams can only intensify that feeling of amazing creativity which Snibston already provides, and it's an ideal place to hold an event dedicated to the silicon chip, as it provides an opportunity to see the progress of technology from the days of mining coal to the days of mining data.

Anyone for Pac-Man?

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What to expect at Silicon Dreams?

Previous events organised by this team have attracted retro gamers, geeks and games designers from all over the world.

As well as the playable vintage computers, there is always a full programme of talks, presentations and demonstrations at these weekends, both from those whose names are known from the time and those working to keep the spirit of 80s coding alive.

At the original VCF, the main venue held talks and concerts while around the site many of those involved with restoring the old machinery on show at the National Museum of Computing History were on hand to explain their fixation.

At Beeb@30, the main atrium in the impressive ARM Building in Cambridge was used extensively, with a panel question-and-answer session, and a series of talks. In the lecture theatre, Alan O'Donohoe, founder of Hack to the Future, led an enthusiastic Scratch coding session, which was the first chance many attendees had to try this simple coding language. Eben Upton and his team from Raspberry Pi were also in attendance (and much demand).

The events have led to coverage on the BBC's Click technology programme, appearances by musicians of the era, and at Beeb@30 the chance to see retro and modern technology working together in Mike Dobson and David Gilday's CubeStormer.


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Attendees so far and beneficiaries

Who to watch out for when you attend Silicon Dreams

A ZX Spectrum running a Twitter client (P Thomas, 2010. Colin Bell also asserts copyright for a visually similar image)

To the best of my knowledge, the list of exhibitors so far booked includes the Centre for Computing History, the Retro Computer Museum and RISC OS User Group London.

Beneficiaries are to be the Centre for Computing History, the Retro Computer Museum and the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Working kit will be provided, overseen and maintained across the weekend by these organisations, and I hear tell that the (in)famous Spectrum running a Twitter client will also be in full effect.

(That's just another excuse to share my photo and to mention that Colin Bell has a very similar one, which is often mistaken for mine.)

If this is the kind of thing you enjoy, you might want to get involved. If so, contact Chimera Events. If not, I guess I'll see you there, seeing as you've lasted this long through the article and read all the links. More links to follow, keep checking back!



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Updated: 12/25/2013, WordChazer
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DerdriuMarriner on 07/06/2017

WordChazer, What is the wear-and-tear on restored machines being used by the public?

WordChazer on 03/04/2013

Ah but there are several such hands-on gaming museums here in England, Mira. One's even on my doorstep and my husband and I both volunteer there. When I've gotten over this shocking cold and have a brain again instead of screaming sinuses and cotton wool, I'll write about it.

Mira on 03/04/2013

Wow, hands-on! That's wonderful. I was dreaming about a tech museum like this, but didn't even dare to dream about people being able to actually experience computing as it was. Too bad it's not a museum after all. But it's still better than nothing. In fact, I'm sure it will be wonderful for so many people, young or older.

WordChazer on 02/24/2013

Oh yes! Original 1980s machinery, sometimes aided and abetted by latterday tweaks, should allow for full unrestricted hands-on enjoyment of at least some of the items loaned by the Centre for Computing History and the Retro Computer Museum.

JoHarrington on 02/24/2013

Wow! So we get to play them again too? That seriously boosts my will to be there!

WordChazer on 02/24/2013

It's more than an exhibition, Jo. It's a hands-on all-in experience. I've worked with the organisers before and they put on a seriously good show. I'm fighting the plagiarisers for the right to publish my article on Beeb@30 here but when they lose you'll see what a great show that was too.

JoHarrington on 02/24/2013

Pong! Pac-Man! Game & Watch! I lost many childhood hours playing those!

The exhibition sounds interesting. I may see if I'm free that weekend to go to it.

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