Breath in...1..2..3...breath out... 1...2...3... and collapse... ok everyone... the VCF is over

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This was one of the biggest events that TNMOC had ever put on, but thanks to a lot of hard work over the past months by the museum and Bletchley Park volunteers, the 'geekend' went really smoothly and was a roaring success.

The event organiser

This event could not have happened without the dedication of all of the volunteers and supporters of the museum, but one person in particular deserves a special mention. That person is our VCF lead organiser, Simon Hewitt. Simon actually works for Bletchley Park but is also a volunteer for TNMOC. He spent much of his spare time over the past months getting together all the exhibitors, sellers, speakers and OMD (which was a feat in itself), organising the speakers, marquees and even devising a volunteer staff rota for the event. There were times when he thought the whole thing would fall flat but it was his drive and enthusiasm that enabled all of us to produce an event that was a resounding success. On behalf of the trustees and volunteers we would like to thank Simon for all the time and effort he put into organising such a great event.

So... what was this VCF thing anyway and how did it go

I'll let Simon Hewitt answer that one.....

Why would anyone want to turn up to a festival full of old computers? You'll only get a few geeks in anoraks!”. This was just one of many comments I received when I began to organise Britain’s very first Vintage Computer Festival nine months ago. The idea was originally suggested by Kevin Murrell, one of our trustees, who had heard about such festivals in the US and Germany. Geek Nirvana – but would it work for a site like Bletchley Park? Then I got my hands on it...

Nine months later and one week before the event itself, a dedicated team at the National Museum of Computing were working hard preparing for a VCF like no other. We had been granted use of the full park, and that was just what we aimed to do. More to the point, we had some big names to help us do it. Chris Serle, co-presenter of BBC's The Computer Programme, was lined up to officially open the event. Sophie Wilson, co-designer of the BBC Micro and ARM processor was coming along to give a talk. To top it all off, we had a talk and mini concert lined up for the Mansion - by synth legends OMD, no less.

By the Friday before the event, over thirty private exhibitors and groups had descended on the museum. The afternoon was a frenzy of setting up tables, sorting out electrics and networking, as well as introductions and meeting new people. A barbecue that evening for all volunteers and exhibitors helped create a real buzz about the place - at this point we knew we were onto something special.

Finally, the weekend arrived. By 10am most of the exhibitors were stood by their stalls, proudly finishing those last-minute touches to the displays. We then had an announcement over the hand-held radios that people were queueing at the gate already, eagerly waiting for them to open. This was it. Within an hour the park was full of people clutching their brochures with excitement, eyes wide open with the look of “I haven't seen one of those in years!”. After a tour of the museum, Chris Serle gave a wonderful opening speech which was full of warmth and encouragement for what we were trying to achieve.

As the day progressed, one thing became apparent - it really did feel like a festival. There was a real atmosphere across the whole park, and everywhere I looked there were smiling faces. The exhibitors were happily explaining their machines to enthusiastic members of the public. Over in the Enigma cinema, Ken Draper was screening a number of films harking back to the early days of computers which fascinated everyone who saw them. Me, however - I spent much of the day running around giving various press interviews. As I posed for a photographer whilst sitting in a Sinclair C5, I was suddenly having my picture taken by various random people which felt rather surreal. The C5 (which is owned by the Centre for Computing History and featured in BBC's Micro Men), fortunately survived the ordeal.

Later in the evening, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys - aka OMD - gave an informal and entertaining talk in the Mansion. OMD were one of the first British bands to embrace computer technology in music, which was a perfect topic for the event. The talk was followed by a Q&A, then they promised to “make some noise”. They did not disappoint! The audience were treated to a few of their hits and a couple of excellent new songs from their forthcoming album The History of Modern. I have only one word to say about this - awesome! Despite being a small gig on an even smaller budget, this was a cracking performance. I look forward to seeing them on tour later in the year.

Sunday arrived, and by 11am the park was busy once more. Quite a few of our Saturday visitors had returned again; a few of whom had spent the previous evening working out Peter Onion's 803 Computing Challenge (see below). By this time all of our exhibitors had integrated into one big community - Simon Hardy (our Dragon exhibitor) donated his spare Dragon 64 to Retro Computer Museum, Rich Mellor from SellMyRetro was offering Sinclair repairs and advice, and everyone was getting along nicely. TNMoC volunteer Adam Bradley, aged 15, gave a well-received talk on supercomputing which seemed to satisfy even the most hardcore of enthusiasts.

By Sunday lunchtime I met up with Sophie Wilson. I took her to the Acorn World room, where she was met with the enthusiasm and adulation normally reserved for pop stars. A little later on, she gave a brilliant talk about her career, photography and evolution of computers to a packed audience in the Ballroom. After a much needed cool drink, she chatted to a few of our volunteers before signing a couple of computers for us.

By the end of the day, the exhibitors packed up their things and everyone left the park with a smile on their face. The TNMoC volunteers were all exhausted but happy - we'd done it!

Since Sunday, we have heard nothing but praise and enthusiasm. Oh, and the question “When is the next one?”. I can’t answer that one yet – I, like the rest of the TNMoC team, need to catch up on some sleep first!


OK, so what really happened....

Well... actually there really isn't much more to add to what Simon has said above. The event was very well organised and pretty much everything happened as expected. Well...OK, so there were a couple of issues...

...Power trips

The Amiga groups were in Marquee II, next to the lake and by mid afternoon on Friday about half of the exhibitors had arrived and were setting up. Because of the number of systems that needed power, Bletchley Park brought in a diesel generator to increase the power available to the marquee with one side on the generator and one side on the Parks local power feed. Things were going well and electrical safety checks on exhibitors equipment progressing when the Park power feed tripped out. After a 200 meter trek it was reset and power restored. Fifteen minutes later it tripped again, it was reset and an hour past before it tripped again. It was rest again and remained up for the rest of the evening.

Saturday morning arrived, the systems were switched on again and within 10 minutes the power had tripped again. Clearly something was causing this but with almost 100 systems in the marquee it would take a while to find. First to try and isolate a group of systems, most of the systems on the Park power feed were moved over to the generator. The remaining few systems were then powered on in sequence with 10 or 15 minutes gap to see if any caused it to trip. After an hour things were fine but then it tripped again just after powering up an Amiga 1200. So this system was isolated and the remaining systems powered up. On powering up the last system the power tripped again (this was the newest system they had brought) so this one was also isolated. There were no further power issues during the day.

Before the public opening we spent a while trying to discover what was tripping the power. The Amiga 1200 was back in its box, but the new system had several powered devices. To mitigate any issues with other exhibitors we put the system through a 30mA RCD which should trip before the main RCD which was 63mA. The system was powered on and remained on for the next hour.

Another hour went by without incident.... then the box suddenly switched off and it was not the local RCD and all other systems had power. It was powered on again but after a few minutes it switched off again. The box was using a cheap Chinese PSU and it looks like it was failing and may have been spiking the power feed yesterday. The box remained off for the rest of the day and no further power issues occurred.

...the OMD concert was minutes away from being cancelled!

After all the talks had occurred in the Mansion, the Ballroom was re-organised for the OMD concert. One of the key pieces of equipment that was needed was a mixing desk for the amps, speakers and mikes and this was being supplied by TNMOC. Everything was set-up and a check of the system was performed but there was a loud hum coming from the speakers and no amount of knob-turning or switch-flicking could get rid of it. Cables were quickly replaced and checked but there was clearly a problem somewhere and the concert was due to start in 15 minutes.

It had to be the mixing desk but we don't have another one, and the concert can't continue without one... there was silence... then someone said... I have one.. It was Ben T, who was helping to set-up the stage. I brought mine up in the car yesterday and it's in H-Block; its a bit old but still works. So after a mad dash to pick it up, it was connected up, tested and it worked! The concert was back on... and WOW! what a concert it was.

Elliott 803 programming challenges

As part of the display of the Elliott 803 for the VCF, PeterO set a couple of programming challenges for visitors to attempt. The first challenge involved writing a short segment of 803 machine code to produce the exclusive-or of two 803 words. This is not as simple as it may seem as the only "logic" function in the 803's instruction set is a bit wise AND. For the second challenge entrants used their xor implementation to decrypt a message stored in a block of memory.

Only one entry was received during Saturday, but Sunday was more successful as visitors who had taken information sheets on Saturday returned to the museum after working on their entries over night.

Prizes were awarded for: - The first working solution to the first challenge (won by Michael Stamper) - The first working solution to the second challenge (won by Greg Cook) - The shortest solution to the first challenge (won by Al Grant)

PeterO has also received some "postal entries" during the week after the VCF.

Normal service will now be resumed and thanks

It is going to take us a few weks to get over this weekend, with a few of us taking a well earned holiday away from the Museum. The Museum will be open as usual on Thursdays and Saturdays, with tours at other times, but don't be surprised to find a few weary old and young folk about for the next few weeks.

Finally we would like to thank all the exhibitors and visitors (which were over 2000) that attended the VCF last weekend. Seeing so many happy faces and getting great coverage in the press made all our efforts worthwhile.

Watch this space for news of forthcoming events.

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