Bletchley Park is a site steeped in history. In World War II it was the centre of operations to crack the Enigma code used by the German military to send messages to their troops. The code was eventually successfully hacked with the aid of the Colossus machine, which was designed as a mainframe valve-driven computer to perform thousands of calculations every minute in order to automatically test all the possible permutations of code.
The Vintage Computer Festival, Bletchley Park, 19-20 June 2010
Early and retro computing fans converged on the former wartime coding centre for an interactive, 'hands on' weekend.
Bletchley Park Today
Today, Bletchley Park, once home to the secretive codebreakers, is a site dedicated to the memories of those days, with a fully restored Colossus machine at the centre of the display, together with many other standing exhibitions (spies and double agents, toys of the era, railway memorabilia and more). The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) has its base in the grounds and its members are responsible for the upkeep of the vast range of computers, mainframes and other vintage electronic machinery on show there. These range from business mainframes to early Commodores, a Cray, a Wang, a room displaying punch-card machines and many more, joined for the weekend by a motley collection of lovingly restored retro personal computing equipment and a few other surprises.
An Annual Pass to Bletchley Park
Extremely good value for the price
Entry to the festival was offered for the price of an annual pass to this fascinating location (at the time £8.50 online or £10 on the door for as many visits as pass holders care to make in a year). The place would be worth several visits for the standing exhibitions alone, never mind the specialist marquees and rooms full of vintage computers brought in especially for the weekend.
A Spectrum running a Twitter client
What? Run that past me again...?
The first collection of note was in the main marquee where the weekend stall holders were exhibiting their wares, from a 1940s digital clock to a number of ZX Spectrums, one running a Twitter client, examples of the SpectraNet project, the Dragon archive, Decs and IBMs as well as games, keyboards and parts. All were for sale to raise funds for TNMOC along with the more traditional souvenirs of retro gamer themed T-shirts and mugs. Even the steampunks made an appearance, with a display of the kind of retro-modern equipment that the Victorians would have had if they had been able to call upon the advanced technology we can today.
Amiga X1000 Launch
A blast from the past and a name for the future
Not all names from the early 80s have been consigned to history, however. Amiga chose the event to launch their new X1000 machine, and invited a number of enthusiasts from the Lincolnshire Amiga Group to show off their collections as well.
The Amiga enthusiasts had a marquee to themselves by the lake and much fun appeared to be had there by people reliving their youth and rediscovering games they thought they would never play again.
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Acorn, the Centre for Computing History and Retro Computer Museum’s displays
More stands to browse and games to play
In the Mansion some of the rooms were temporarily transformed into bleeping, flashing, hands-on exhibition (read wall-to-wall retro gaming) space for a number of organisations including Acorn, the Centre for Computing History and two rooms dedicated to some of the Retro Computer Museum’s (RCM) collection of gear.
Amongst the collection on show from the combined might of the Centre for Computing History and RCM were a Sinclair ZX80 with a screen inside a bubble, several souped up and modified machines including a Commodore 64 playing Guitar Hero (yes, really!), an old Oric, a ZX81 capable of running a high resolution demo and a Thomson machine with a 6809 processor, the same processor used by the Dragon kit being exhibited in the main marquee.
What else to distract visitors from wall-to-wall gaming but talks about computers and computing history?
Throughout the weekend there were opportunities to hear a variety of talks. Some were given by the project managers behind the restorations of some of TNMOC’s computers and offered a chance to ask questions as desired. Each talk lasted between 30 and 45 minutes and although visitors were not allowed to touch the exhibits they did have a chance to see them in action (or in the case of the Harwell Witch, in inaction, as it decided to cease working during one of the Sunday afternoon talks.)
Guest speakers in the Mansion included Sophie Wilson of Acorn Computers' fame and chip tune musician Pixelh8. Recording of all kinds was banned, as the guests had given their time for free, but the talks were popular and often sold out or close to capacity for the room in which they were held.
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The National Museum of Computing
The whole weekend was possible through the organisers' association with TNMOC
Together with TNMOC’s displays, the range of speakers and concerts which were organised plus the existing exhibitions at Bletchley Park, a busy weekend was had by the 2500 visitors who flowed steadily through the gates.
It is hoped to hold another Vintage Computer Festival soon, in the meantime TNMOC is open at various times during the week and Bletchley Park is open daily for guided tours and walks. For details on RCM’s and Centre for Computing History’s next events, please refer to their websites.
This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on 25 June 2010. It was removed at the writer's request in February 2013, and appears here with slight revision and additional photographs.